January 10, 2019
Another quiet day in the Commons
Even for close Brexit observers these are extremely confusing times. As ever, it is best to stick with what we know rather than to extrapolate from what we hear. Looked at in the cold light of the morning, not all that much changed yesterday. We knew before that Theresa May had lost her Brexit majority in the House of Commons. We know that her deal is very likely to be rejected next Tuesday. What has changed is the post-defeat procedure: she will now have to say by the end of next week what her alternative plan will be. We suppose that she would choose between two alternative paths: the first is a promise to go back to Brussels and to open up the political declaration to allow alternative constructions for the future relationship. The second is that she could propose that parliament hold a series of indicative votes on alternative outcomes, coupled with a promise that she would implement whatever emerges as the majority view of the parliament, or else proceed with a no-deal Brexit. The latter seems to be a risky option for her, as it hands control to parliament, but it might be the smartest choice under the current circumstances.
What has not changed is the brutal logic of Art. 50 and the accompanying UK legislation: the UK leaves the EU, by law, on March 29. There are only three alternative outcomes - deal, no-deal, or revocation. To complicate things further, the EU is also an important party to this (see our story on this below).
But the legal fact remains that no-deal is the default position, and to overturn it would require a positive parliamentary majority in favour of a single alternative strategy: outright revocation, a second referendum, or one from a menu of alternative future relationships like Norway. On the second referendum, there would also have to be a majority in favour of a specific set of questions.
Another possible procedural path is a new election. The Daily Mail has a story of cabinet ministers urging the nuclear option - a general election on April 4 - that would leave the UK without a parliament during March and into Brexit. We see this as unlikely - not least because that, too, would require a parliamentary majority of two thirds. The reason we see an elevated probability of no-deal is our belief that parliament may struggle to come up with the necessary majority for any alternative.
There are already behind-the-scenes efforts under way in the parliament to seek out an alternative Brexit deal. But there is little room for manoeuvre. The EU will not reopen the withdrawal agreement. Only the political declaration is up for grabs. But even though a change to the political declaration seems at first to be the path of least resistance, it is far from clear that it will produce a Commons majority.
Anand Menon and colleagues have carried out research among MPs and found out that the math for Norway or a customs union does not stack up. If May went for the customs union, she would lose more Tory votes than gain Labour votes.
May's former adviser, Nick Timothy, writes in the Telegraph that May will not knowingly endorse a no-deal Brexit, and that she will take instructions from parliament - whatever they may be. But Timothy, too, insists that parliament will first have to find a consensus. Where he takes a different view from us is in his assertion that this might be more probable than it appears at first. As the UK approaches the deadline, the Commons may just find the necessary votes, he writes. The reason we are sceptical is the numbers. The amendments of the last couple of days passed with narrow majorities. Almost every one of those MPs in favour of the amendments would need to line up behind one of several alternative options.