Theresa May’s Brexit deal has been comprehensively defeated by UK Parliament for the second time. Though Tuesday’s loss was not as bad as her historic January humiliation, the specific numbers and scale of the rejection become less important as the Brexit deadline nears.
Next Thursday (March 21), the European Council meets in Brussels for the final time before Brexit day (March 29). Between now and then, May is going to have to play her last cards – though it’s far from clear to what end.
Last month, she promised the House of Commons that should her deal fail a second time, MPs would be invited to instruct the Prime Minister on two immediate alternatives to her Brexit plan: leaving the EU without a deal or requesting that Brexit be delayed. Those votes will take place on Wednesday and Thursday.
While both votes have the potential to open numerous cans of worms, a majority behind either would at least give people in Brussels and London something tangible to work with. They also present a chance for the warring Brexit tribes to seize control of the Brexit narrative.
While a Commons majority in support of no-deal Brexit is unlikely, if parliament does surprise everyone, things become simpler, in some respects. If you ignore the expected medical shortages, queues at the border and economic turmoil, the UK will at least know that it is an independent nation, trading on World Trade Organization rules as of March 29.
Should, as expected, no deal be rejected, we move on to the Commons vote to delay Brexit. If this wins, May will ask her fellow EU leaders for an extension to the Article 50 process. This will most likely happen at the EU Council Summit on March 21. It’s worth pointing out here that EU rules require all 27 members states agree to this extension.
Back to the next 48 hours: what exactly are these cans of worms?
Let’s start with the no deal vote. Yes, it is expected to fail. But the scale of that loss will send a clear message.
While the number of MPs actively agitating for no deal is relatively small, the effects of Tuesday’s second meaningful vote defeat could lead to something interesting happening among May loyalists.
Last month, Matt Warman, member of Parliament for one of the UK’s most pro-Brexit seats, wrote on Twitter that if May’s deal fails, he will support no deal.
This idea of stopping or delaying Brexit being a betrayal of democracy could capture the imagination of a few more. It’s still unlikely to pass, but if more than the 24 hardline Brexiteers vote for no deal, it will send a message to the government and, more importantly, Brussels.
This message will be in the minds of EU officials as they consider what approach to take with the UK as the next stages of Brexit are hammered out. The UK might find it has even fewer friends in Europe than it does now.
But arguably more contentious than no deal is delaying Brexit. Why so? Because it puts every option, including scrapping Brexit, back on the table.
Pro-EU MPs have made no secret of the fact that delaying Brexit is their preferred option.
For some, this is because they want to ditch May’s deal and get some breathing space to find a new arrangement with the EU. For others, it would provide the chance to take Brexit back to the public and hold a second referendum. And for a small but hardcore group, it is the first step toward stopping Brexit totally.
But delaying Brexit really could mean going back fully to square one, which doesn’t only suit Europhiles: when it’s said that everything is back on the table, this means harder options, too. Including a more carefully-orchestrated no deal. Many words have been dedicated to the divisions that Brexit has created in British society. It’s hard to see how all options coming back on the table would remedy this.
Absent in much of this discussion is how all of this is being seen in Brussels. Many in the UK still believe that the EU might finally budge on March 21 and offer MPs something they can swallow.
Even as European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker sat next to May in Strasbourg on Monday, saying that there were no more concession to be made, a large number of influential people listening in London simply didn’t believe him. They maintain that this is all part of some larger drama and that some kind of last-minute deal can be clinched at the eleventh hour.
May herself may even privately not have believed Juncker, as she committed, after seeing her vote tank a second time, to rescuing it.
This all looks very different in Europe. The UK’s position on Brexit has, it’s fair to say, not been predictable or stable over the past three years.
The EU now sees the UK as an unreliable negotiating partner and, short of a thumping Commons victory for one option or another, is reluctant to spend more political capital trying to bail out a UK that it can no longer predict nor depend upon.
On Friday, Brexit will be 14 days away. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that two weeks from deadline day, the state of Brexit will have remained virtually static for the best part of three years.
At some point, that has to change. And when it does, the fallout and consequences of this political failure will be savage. And it’s very hard to envisage a scenario in which the first victim isn’t May herself.