What is clear from recent political developments is that the UK is at a crossroads. According to Kirsty Hughes, whether a deal passes or not in the House of Commons in December depends now not least on whether enough Tory Brexiter MPs will vote against Theresa May’s Brexit deal, an irony considering this could lead to Brexit not happening at all. As time is running out, this second post discusses whether the deal can pass while the first one explained the deal itself and its dilemmas.
While many are predicting it cannot pass the Commons – and that certainly looks tough for now – the political dynamics of the coming weeks are not easily predicted. Theresa May could yet face a leadership challenge. But she is aiming still to head to Brussels for the EU summit on 25th November, sign off the deal and see if she can get it through parliament perhaps by the second week of December. And the EU will be clear that it’s this deal or nothing (although Tusk has helpfully said that the EU is best prepared for no Brexit at all). It’s also been suggested that, even if the deal is rejected, May might then ask the EU27 at the 13-14 December summit for some amendments to the deal and ask the Commons to vote again in January.
But this starts to look unlikely – a clear rejection of the deal by the Commons would open up a major, destabilising political crisis. Where the Brexit saga would go next is unclear – an election, a people’s vote including a ‘remain’ option (with an extension of Article 50), a renegotiation for a ‘soft’ Brexit, a national unity government?
Some argue that the EU would not extend Article 50, which needs unanimity. But if the UK did look like it was coming to its senses – which a Commons vote for another referendum could suggest – then it would be in the EU’s interests to encourage the UK to stop being part of the populist problem and become part of the solution.
If the EU did refuse to extend Article 50 for a people’s vote – after a Commons vote in favour – then the only other option to halt Brexit would be to revoke Article 50. The current cross-party Scottish case at the European Court of Justice on whether it can be done unilaterally will be heard on 27th November (unless rear-guard actions by the UK government appealing against this reference succeed). Whether or not the authors of Article 50 really envisaged this choice between unanimity for extension or a unilateral withdrawal, it is a stark choice.
If Westminster rejects all options, then in a deepening crisis, it is hard to see a general election not having to be held. But whether an election would resolve or move things on depends on whether Labour could beat the Tories – and that may depend both on the depths of the crisis and on Corbyn shifting his position on Brexit.
In Scotland, public opinion is strongly remain – across pro-independence and unionist parties (i.e. the SNP, Labour, LibDems and Greens – only Tory voters backing leave). But for now, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is focusing her Brexit ire on the special deal for Northern Ireland within the backstop (even though it doesn’t include free movement nor the services sector) rather than on speaking out on SNP policies to halt Brexit and have a people’s vote. Sturgeon has said she will make clear her desired timetable for an independence referendum once the position on Brexit clarifies – but when and whether that will happen is for now an open question. Independence could move rapidly up the agenda as Brexit chaos continues and if the Brexit deal is voted through. But for now, the SNP is playing a remarkably cautious game.
UK politics is in turmoil and in a chronic crisis. What route the Brexit saga takes next is uncertain. But the crossroads is approaching – either the UK leaves next March (deal or no deal) or it finds a route to stay in the EU. Even in the latter case, the UK’s chaotic political divisions will not soon disappear.
- Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. She is a researcher, writer and commentator on European politics and policy, and she previously worked for a number of leading European think tanks.
This post was originally published by the Scottish Centre for European Relations.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.