What Now? MPs Prepare for Third EU Deal Vote on the Brexit Day That Wasn’t

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On the day when the United Kingdom was supposed to be leaving the European Union, deal or no deal, at 11 p.m., MPs are instead preparing for a third and final vote on Theresa May’s deal with the bloc. What happens next?

Before now, the prime minister had assured Leave voters that “no deal is better than a bad deal” and promised no less than 108 times that the UK would be leaving the EU, come what may, on March 29th 2019.

However, after the Withdrawal Agreement she negotiated with the bloc — allegedly behind the backs of ministers at the Brexiteer-led Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) — was rejected by Parliament twice, she reversed course, asking the European Council for an extension of the two-year Article 50 exit negotiations commenced in 2017, over the objections of Tory activists and most of her own MPs.

The EU granted the Tory leader a shorter stay of execution than she was asking for, and MPs must vote today for her agreement so Britain can leave the EU under its terms on May 22nd.

If they do not, the country defaults to a No Deal exit on April 12th — although it is widely expected that the Remain-dominated House of Commons would move swiftly to prevent this, instead forcing the Government to request a much longer extension, with or without Mrs May, with the EU reportedly ready to push exit deadline all the way to April Fools’ Day in 2020.

What are the deal’s chances of success?

Mrs May’s deal was rejected by a historic margin when it was first put to MPs in a so-called “meaningful vote”, and by an only slightly less crushing 149 votes on her second attempt.

The Remain-supporting Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, had indicated that it would not be appropriate to put it to MPs for a third time, but it seems ministers have found a way around this by putting the Withdrawal Agreement forward without its accompanying Political Declaration, which technically means it is not a third meaningful vote, or MV3.

The Tories lost their overall majority in the House of Commons in 2017, however, requiring them to look to Northern Ireland’s Brexit-supporting Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to pass legislation, and affording party hardlines — both Leavers and Remainers — the power to defeat unwanted bills with relative ease if they side with opposition parties.

Up to now, the largely anti-Brexit opposition parties, hardline Tory Brexiteers, hardline Tory Remainers, and the DUP have all opposed the deal — each for their own reasons.

In a Parliament were the vast majority of MPs are Remainers, the prime minister’s hope had been that, faced with the choice between her deal and no Brexit at all, the Tory Brexiteers and DUP would come over and take her over the line.

She has also sweetened the bargain by offering to resign once her deal has passed — and the strategy appears to have borne some fruit, with Brexiteer heavyweights including Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg having indicated they will accept “half a loaf” rather than nothing at all.

The DUP, however, remain opposed, as do a hard core of Tory Brexiteers known as “The Spartans” — with little sign that Tory Remainers hope that blocking the deal will be a stepping stone to blocking Brexit entirely have been won over, either.

In short, the parliamentary arithmetic does not look good for the Prime Minister.

What happens if the deal does pass?

If the deal does make it through the House of Commons somehow, it is likely that the United Kingdom will leave the EU under its terms on May 22nd — at least in name.

Britain would not participate in the European Parliament elections in May, and would lose its MEPs and European Council representation, but would remain an EU member in all other respects until the end of a so-called “transition period” in which negotiations between the British government — under new leadership, assuming Mrs May keeps her promise to stand down — and Brussels.

If no future partnership is agreed during this transition, which could last all the way to the end of December 2022, the deal makes provisions for the so-called “backstop” to come into force, with Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales) being incorporated into an EU-controlled “single customs territory”, while Northern Ireland would be effectively annexed into the EU Customs Union and Single Market proper.

This is considered an unacceptable outcome by virtually all sides of the Brexit debate, and the deal does not allow for Britain to break the arrangement without the EU’s permission — leading to fears that Remainers will simply reopen the question of whether the UK should simply revert seamlessly to full EU membership once the transition is over.

Do we know what will happen next if the deal does not pass?

Legally, the United Kingdom should simply leave the EU cleanly on April 12th on World Trade Organization (WTO) terms if the deal does not pass — otherwise known as a “No Deal” or “Hard” Brexit.

However, this was also supposed to be the cast for March 29th, and the British government, Parliament, and European Union instead contrived for Brexit to be delayed.

It is expected that the same thing will happen if the deal fails today, with the overwhelming majority of MPs voting to reject a No Deal Brexit in a series of “indicative votes”.

However, MPs also voted against every other alternative, including pushing for an even weaker form of Brexit, holding another referendum, and revoking Article 50 — which would essentially cancel the Brexit process.

This leaves the country in an invidious position, where a Leave-supporting populace is served by a Remain-supporting Parliament which has voted against every available Brexit, and where no party commands an overall majority.

A long extension, as the EU has been pushing for with increasing confidence, seems to be the inevitable outcome, assuming the bloc itself does not force a No Deal — as some Brexiteers have been  hoping.

This would likely mean Britain would have to participate in the European Parliament elections in May — an event which could serve as something of a proxy second referendum, with parties opposed to Brexit facing off against Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and Gerard Batten’s UKIP — and a British general election, in which the Tories would likely be under new management.

What strategy for Brexit the Leaver-backed but Remainer-led party would be putting to the people at such an election, however, is unclear.

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