The Brexit story is set to reach its climax this week when MPs hold their ‘meaningful vote’ on the deal Theresa May struck with EU leaders.
The Prime Minister and her career face a day of reckoning on Tuesday, December 11 as the deal is laid out before a parliament in deadlock.
Below are the likely scenarios for the vote and what each result will mean for you and the country.
- What is the vote?
This is the vote to approve the Withdrawal Agreement that the UK Government has negotiated with the European Union.
The PM argues that if this agreement is not approved the country could crash out of the EU on March 29 without a deal.
The Bank of England and the Government’s own experts have warned of serious consequences for the economy if this happens.
If the Withdrawal Agreement is approved the UK would enter a transition period on March 29 and our relationship with the EU would continue very much as today until the end of 2020.
During that time the UK and the EU would seek to negotiate a long-term relationship.
This is highly ambitious as the EU’s trade deal with Canada took seven years to negotiate, which is one reason why the Withdrawal Agreement allows for the transition period to be extended.
- When is the meaningful vote happening?
The vote is due to take place on Tuesday, December 11.
If it looks as if Mrs May is heading for an overwhelming defeat there is the possibility the Government will decide not to put it to a vote.
It is claimed that several cabinet ministers, including Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns, have urged her to call off the vote if she is facing defeat by more than 70.
If it does go ahead, voting is expected to take place around 7pm.
- What happens if the Government loses the vote?
If the vote is lost Mrs May, her party, Parliament, the economy and the country will be plunged into profound uncertainty – various scenarios are explored below – and the Government will be required to make a statement by January 1 on how it plans to proceed with withdrawal negotiations.
MPs will debate that statement within seven days of it being made, and this is the moment when they will try to issue their own instructions to the Government. We can expect MPs to put down amendments to trigger a new referendum and radically different approaches to Brexit.
- Will Theresa May have to resign if it is lost?
Not necessarily. In normal times, if a PM suffered an uber-rebellion in her own ranks and lost by 100-plus votes on the biggest issue of her premiership this would be the moment when cameras would be called to Downing St to record her resignation statement.
But even Mrs May’s critics are impressed by her legendary resilience. She may argue this is no time for a leadership contest, that nobody else could sort out the mess, and the last thing the country needs is for the captain to abandon ship when the threat of a no-deal Brexit looms.
Unhappy Tory MPs could try to trigger a leadership contest by submitting 48 letters calling for a confidence vote to the chairman of the backbench 1922 committee.
Alternatively, her own cabinet could – in a scene reminiscent of the fall of Margaret Thatcher – one by one tell her it is time to go. If moderate Tories united around an agreed successor, Mrs May could conclude she had done her best to fulfil her duty as Prime Minister request the removal van to come to No 10.
This is what Jeremy Corbyn’s team would love to happen. Senior Labour figures argue they would have won the 2017 election if the campaign had gone on just a little longer and see now as an opportunity to oust the Conservatives from power.
However, another election is not due until 2022 and there cannot be an early contest unless (a) two-thirds of MPs vote for one or (b) the Commons passes a no confidence motion and there is still no viable Government after 14 days.
The PM’s decision to go for a snap election in 2017 was a disaster for her party so there would be great resistance in Tory ranks to any election that could lead to a Labour victory, especially while Mrs May is at the helm.
There has been speculation Mrs May could take the colossal gamble of going for an election in which she would ask the country to back the deal. However, this could lead to a schism in Tory ranks with arch-Brexiteers refusing to stand on a manifesto that backed her deal, thus splitting the Conservative vote.
- Will there be a second referendum if the Government loses the vote?
There are loud supporters of a “people’s vote” but it is by no means certain that this would be a consequence of Mrs May’s deal being voted down.
The PM has repeatedly stamped on the idea of a second referendum, although Downing St also ruled out a snap election before sending the country to the polls in 2017.
A public endorsement of Mrs May’s deal could overcome deadlock in Parliament, but there would be an almighty row over what options should be on the ballot paper.
Hardcore Brexiteers would want a no-deal exit to be an option; other MPs would want to give voters the chance to back a Norwegian-style scenario in which the country technically leaves the EU but remains in the single market; Mrs May would obviously want her deal to be included; and Remainers would be outraged if they cannot vote to stay in the EU on present terms.
There would be intense opposition in Parliament to a second referendum, and not just in Tory ranks. Many MPs are wary of being seen to overturn the will of the people, and Len McCluskey, the general secretary of the powerful Labour-supporting Unite union, has argued against a referendum.
MPs could attempt to legislate for a public vote when the Government, as required, makes its statement on future plans after losing the meaningful vote but it is unclear whether such a bid would command majority support.
A key question is whether a referendum could be held before March 29, the day the UK will exit the EU. If legal and practical reasons make this impossible, the UK would have to ask the EU to suspend the Brexit process, and this would trigger accusations by Brexiteers that a europhile political class is betraying the 51.9% of the population who voted to leave.
- If the deal is defeated on Tuesday, can Theresa May put it to MPs again?
Traditionally, asking MPs to vote a second time on something they have just rejected is frowned upon but – if the Commons is content to be asked its opinion again – the PM could have another go.
In fact, it is suggested this could be part of Downing St’s strategy.
If the value of the pound crashes in the wake of a rejection of the deal and there is turmoil on the markets, this could change the political climate. Government Whips will tell MPs that they have a duty to restore stability and stop job losses by eliminating the threat of a no-deal exit and voting for the deal.
- Could Theresa May renegotiate the deal if is rejected on Tuesday?
Helpfully, an EU summit will take place on Thursday and Friday.
Mrs May could turn up in Brussels and plead for a concession she can take back to Parliament. She can tell her EU counterparts this is their last chance to prevent a no-deal Brexit which would damage their own economies.
It would be hard to secure a significant change to the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement (particularly on the fiercely controversial “backstop” proposals to avoid a hard border in Ireland), but EU leaders might offer to insert some words in the political statement – the non-binding document which will be the starting-point for negotiations on the long-term treaty – to try and mollify Brexiteers.
Labour hopes to conduct a full-scale renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement if the Government falls and it takes power.
If it is unlikely that a tweaked deal stands any chance of getting the backing of MPs, pro and anti-EU cabinet ministers may press Mrs May to abandon the Withdrawal Agreement and take a radically different approach.
If the EU is unwilling to rework the backstop – which would see the UK remain in a customs union with the EU but Northern Irish trade with Great Britain subject to special checks – Brexiteer ministers may say it is time to prepare in earnest for a managed exit without a deal.
This would involve beefing up port capacity to prevent shortages of medicine, food and industrial components, and working with EU states to mitigate mutual damage.
Meanwhile, pro-EU ministers may say it’s time to reach for the “Norway-plus” option, which would see the UK officially leave the union but remain part of its single market and a customs union.
This would mean free movement would not end (though the UK could potentially apply restrictions in certain situations). Ardent Brexiteers would be dismayed but supporters could argue this is vastly preferable to being stuck in the backstop, and this would allow the UK to leave the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy.
- What happens if the Government wins the meaningful vote?
Theresa May will open a very large bottle of champagne and she will be acclaimed as one of the master tacticians of British political history.
This would clear the way for the UK to leave the EU under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement she has negotiated.
But it would not mean the end of Brexit struggles.
Parliament would have to put the agreement into UK law. MPs on different sides of the Brexit divide would make last ditch attempts to amend the legislation – such as trying to insert a requirement for a referendum.
The European Parliament would also have to vote on the deal, and is not expected to do so until March.
This would not mean the end of negotiations with Brussels, either. Diplomats and civil servants would fling themselves into the epic challenge of trying to get all 27 member states to agree a new long-term treaty between the UK and the EU.
The Brexit story is far from finished.
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