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March 27, 2019

What can possibly go wrong today?

It is indicative vote day in the House of Commons. If these votes go well, a soft-Brexit majority might emerge. But the accident potential is huge. MPs might vote in favour of something that cannot be negotiated with the EU. Or something May will simply not accept, as none of what happens today has any legal force. 

The best outcome would be a softer version of Brexit. It really does not matter whether the proposal is called single market, customs union or both. There are no clubs for a departing member to join. Every deal will be bespoke. 

The only way we think this can be accommodated would be through a new political declaration - obviously to be agreed with the EU - and a final vote on the new package before April 12. Or even a final vote on the withdrawal treaty only. 

But things could go wrong today. There are still a lot of unicorns around, like the infamous Malthouse amendment. And no, you cannot be in Efta/EEA and in a customs union with the EU at the same time. The most ridiculous proposal we saw yesterday was to change the Brexit default from no-deal to no-Brexit. Margaret Beckett, a former Labour cabinet minister, brought up this nonsense. She is obviously not aware that the default position is based in European, not UK, law. 

The second development to watch out for is tonight's appearance by Theresa May in front of the Tory party’s 1922 committee of backbenchers, where she might give a departure date. This is the single biggest concession she could make to her party, and she is not going to give this away easily. She needs to be assured that her deal can pass, but there is no such certainty right now that this would be so even if the majority of eurosceptics were to back her. She still lacks the crucial support of the DUP. 

As we keep pointing out, the only thing that stands in the way of a no-deal Brexit would be for May’s deal to fail, for the Commons to rule out unilateral revocation, for Theresa May to reject the outcome of the meaningful vote, and for the European Council to stick to the resolutions it agreed on last week. This sequences of events does not sound any more improbable than any of the happy ending scenarios.

Finally, there is still room for some imaginative solutions. For example, we think it is possible to separate the withdrawal agreement from the political declaration, and even to hold a public vote on the future relationship only. This could come in the form of a referendum or a general election. This would give Labour MPs a chance to press for a softer Brexit, and for the new Tory leader to set out an alternative hard version, or even support May’s version. One of the problems now is that too many issues are entangled. 

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