The UK Parliament will vote Friday on Theresa May’s Brexit deal for a third and possibly final time, the British government confirmed. But the arrangements are, unsurprisingly, mired in confusion and controversy.
Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons, told lawmakers that the government had decided to split the Withdrawal Agreement – which sets the divorce terms – from its associated Political Declaration, which deals with the future relationship between the UK and the European Union.
That split has enraged opposition Labour lawmakers – and some Conservatives – who think it contravenes the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which demands that the whole thing be ratified together.
Legal or not – frankly, that debate is a sideshow – the vote will take place tomorrow. A more pertinent question is whether it will pass. To turn over a parliamentary loss of 149 in two weeks that not much has changed is a huge ask for any leader.
Sure, the Prime Minister’s game-changing announcement on Wednesday that she will stand down if her deal is approved by parliament this week earned her some immediate wins. The decision by former Foreign Secretary and arch-Brexiteer Boris Johnson to back her deal is no small thing. But it might not be enough.
The all-important Democratic Unionist Party is still resolutely opposed. And without the DUP’s support, other hardliners have political cover to give May another thumbs down.
If, by some parliamentary miracle, May’s deal passes, then it’s all done and dusted. On May 22, the UK will leave the EU, May will set out a timetable for her departure and the focus will shift to the two sides’ future relationship. That debate will probably make the tussle over the withdrawal terms look positively effortless.
If May’s deal fails again, then according to the conclusions of the EU Council Summit last week in Brussels, the UK will find itself at a crossroads.
Any delay to Brexit is complicated by the looming European parliamentary elections, which begin on May 23. If the UK is to take part in them – as it must, if it remains an EU member – it needs to legislate for them by April 11.
The UK must therefore make a choice. It can either decide to leave the EU before April 12, with or without a deal, or it can ask for a much longer extension.
In the not-unlikely event that May fails to get her deal passed, this becomes the single focus of Brexit. Crashing out means crashing out. All the hypothetical risks of a no-deal exit will become very real for British citizens.
If the UK decides to request a longer extension, things get more complicated. Sending lawmakers to Brussels will, in all likelihood, mean remaining an EU member state for years to come. And with May’s deal dead, this leaves the UK as a reluctant member of the EU, with sitting Members of the European Parliament, no credible date for departure, and no majority in Westminster for any path out of the mess.
Brexit really would be back at square one. At this point, the option of scrapping Brexit altogether would have to be taken seriously.
It’s not impossible that the UK might end up in this unedifying situation. Though May has previously said that she could not countenance the UK taking part in European elections, the idea that she would willingly force the UK into a no-deal exit is absurd.
On Wednesday, the PM formally lost control of the Brexit process, as MPs (the legislative branch) grabbed from the government (the executive branch) control of Commons business for the day.
They spent that time voting on a series of alternative outcomes to Brexit. While there was no majority for any of the options, the most popular alternatives were far softer forms of Brexit than May’s deal. No deal was comprehensively rejected.
The idea that a Prime Minister could force her country off a cliff, knowing that most of parliament opposes such an action and knowing that her authority is shot by her decision to resign, is fanciful, to say the very least.
So keep your eyes on April 11. It could be the date that confirms that the last three years – with all their bitterness, rancor and division – have been for nothing.