In Brief

What happens if MPs reject Theresa May’s Brexit deal?

The Week explores the options on the table if the PM fails to win the support of Parliament

Theresa May is trying to win support for her Brexit deal in Europe, but back home she faces a seemingly impossible task of getting her plan through the House of Commons.

There is near-unanimous consensus in Westminster that the prime minister’s withdrawal agreement will be defeated when it comes before MPs next month.

Downing Street has warned that it is “the PM’s deal, or no deal, or no Brexit at all”. New Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd yesterday suggested that no Brexit was more likely than no deal, an argument that might encourage Brexiteers who want a no-deal exit to back May, but that would discourage Remainers.

The Week looks at the potential scenarios should the bill fail:

A general election

Labour says its preferred option would be a general election. However, under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act brought in under the Coalition the only way an election can be triggered would be through a two-thirds majority of MPs, meaning May would have to order her party to vote for one.

“It is not inconceivable that she might choose this route as a means of trying to resolve a Brexit impasse, but it does seem most improbable,” says The Guardian.

A second referendum

Calls for a second People’s Vote referendum on Brexit have been gathering pace all year. The Liberal Democrats, SNP and Greens have all backed the idea, and even some senior Tories have said they are open to it.

Labour has not ruled it out, but leader Jeremy Cobryn has so far remained tight-lipped about the possibility, and without the full support of the opposition it stands little chance of being forced upon the prime minister.

There is also disagreement among second-vote supporters about what question or questions would be on the ballot and whether there is enough time to hold it before the UK formally leaves the EU on 29 March 2019.

A Labour government

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell claimed on Wednesday that Labour must be offered the chance to govern if May is no longer able to command a majority in the Commons.

It comes as the prime minister faces ongoing questions over the status of her governing majority, with the DUP, whose votes she relies on, refusing to support her in parliament unless she changes her Brexit plan.

The Independent says that “until now, Labour’s policy has been that a general election should be triggered if the government’s proposed withdrawal agreement is rejected by Parliament”, but McDonnell has admitted this would be “difficult” to bring about.

Instead, he told City leaders, at an event organised by Reuters, Corbyn should be given the chance to put Labour’s plans before MPs. These, he believes, would be backed by the Commons.

Theresa May’s deal eventually passes

While the current parliamentary arithmetic makes grim reading for Number 10 whips, there is still the hope that, when push comes to shove and MPs are presented with the option of a flawed but workable plan that delivers on the promise of Brexit and avoids a no-deal scenario, a majority will back it.

May will be hoping the threat of a Corbyn government, coupled with Brexit being reversed altogether, will be enough to bring rebel Tories in line. With the backing of some Leave-supporting Labour MPs this could be just enough to swing the vote in her favour.

The chances of the withdrawal bill securing a majority will become clearer nearer the time, if only because governments do not normally put a bill before MPs unless they believe it has a fair chance of passing.

No deal by accident

Rudd and McDonnell have suggested there is not a majority to explicitly back a no-deal Brexit.

“But there doesn't need to be,” says Stephen Bush in the New Statesman. “All that needs to happen for a no deal exit to take place is for the EU and the UK to fail to reach terms.

“Parliament has to do something proactive to prevent a no-deal exit (and crucially it has to do something acceptable to the other side of the Brexit negotiations) and it is far from clear if there is a parliamentary majority to do anything proactive.”

Postponing Brexit

The three main options laid out by the prime minister - leaving with a deal, leaving without a deal, and not leaving at all - “are all, I understand, roughly equal in probability”, says Tom Chivers for Unherd, citing research by the Good Judgement Project. 

The problem, says the Guardian, is that “MPs can pass or block laws and motions, but they can’t dictate to the executive”. That means that the only option open to MPs would be to oust May and replace her with a PM willing to ask the EU to suspend Article 50 until a Brexit deal has been agreed.

“The Good Judgment Project is, verifiably, the best forecasting outfit in the world,” says Chivers, “but even for them it is, pretty much, a complete toss-up.”

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