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May 27, 2019

The rising chances of a no-deal Brexit

Last night's election will shape the future of Brexit in profound ways. It strengthens Boris Johnson's position as a candidate for the Tory leadership. Johnson has pledged to take Britain out of the EU in October, deal or no deal. It is very clear that another failure to deliver Brexit could threaten the Conservative Party to the core. Nigel Farage's Brexit Party last night won in 9 out of the 10 regions declared so far, with an average vote share of 32% as of this morning.

We also expect that Labour's very poor result could lead to renewed discussions about the party's Brexit strategy. Jeremy Corbyn indicated that he is now ready to support a second referendum, after having come third in the elections to the pro-Remain LibDems. As the Tories move further towards a no-deal Brexit, we expect Labour to shift, but the party will remain split. Our main take-away from these elections is that the Leave vote is galvanised and the Remain vote remains split. 

But, despite Labour's pending shift, the risk of a no-deal Brexit is very large and still rising. Over the weekend there have been discussions on whether Johnson's strategy to deliver a no-deal Brexit, if needed, could be frustrated. MPs are beginning to realise that they don't have many options. The only effective one would be the nuclear option - a no-confidence vote triggering new elections - but it is far from clear that such a strategy can succeed. The eleven MPs from Change UK, a party that failed to attract much support in the European elections, are unlikely to support a no-confidence vote as the ensuing elections would result in all of them losing their seats. We are also sceptical of the threats from Tory MPs to leave the party and vote against their own government in a no-confidence vote. That may be true for at most a handful MPs, who would be ready to end their political careers. 

The strategy of a no-confidence vote is potentially self-defeating. If Johnson or another hard-Brexiter like Dominic Raab were elected Tory leader, say in July, parliament would have to place a vote of no-confidence in September in order to have an election before the October deadline. If parliament misses that deadline a prime minister hell-bent on Brexit would have the power to deliver it without a deal. 

The best-informed comment we have read on this subject is from Maddy Thimont Jack of the Institute of Government, who has argued that MPs have no powers to stop a prime minister intent on no-deal. The new PM could simply delay the next Queens' Speech until after October, which would deprive MPs of any opportunity to attach amendments. A backbench motion is possible but has no legal force. An emergency debate under standing order 24 is also possible, but has no legal force either. The only effective means is a vote of no-confidence, which faces the problems we discussed. Without the new PM's active co-operation, the UK crashes out on October 31. 

Many UK journalists and Brexit commentators are still confused about the procedures set out by Article 50. The only reason Brexit got extended was that Theresa May wanted it to happen. It was her fateful decision to frame the Brexit debate as one between deal vs no-Brexit that lead to her tearful resignation speech on Friday. We have argued all along that a sure-fire way to deliver on the deal would have been to reduce the choice to one between deal and no-deal - after having compromised on some of Labour's demands. 

Yesterday's vote confirms that the country continues to be split between Leavers and Remainers, with no clear trend. We notice John Curtice, the pollster, making the point that the pro-Remain and pro-Leave parties ended up with exactly the same voting share. A Labour Party switch from its current position to Remain would be a significant event, but the party will not be united as Northern MPs would stand to lose their seats. We see no chance of the House of Commons legislating for a second referendum in time for the October deadline. 

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