Prime Minister Theresa May has suffered a historic parliamentary defeat. MPs have rejected her proposed EU deal with a thumping majority of 230 votes, dealing her a personal humiliation and calling into question her government’s entire Brexit strategy.
Any government would struggle to deliver Brexit given the complexities involved and the bitter divisions the 2016 referendum exposed. However, much of the current chaos is surely of the Prime Minister’s own making. First, she triggered Article 50 before she had agreement in cabinet about the sort of deal she wanted, running down the clock until very little time was left. Second, she called an early general election and managed to lose her majority, relying on the support of the DUP to prop up her government and making a difficult situation worse. Third, she failed to prepare the country politically for the kind of deal she eventually achieved, using bellicose rhetoric from the beginning and doing too little too late to achieve consensus or to manage expectations.
What happens now? Pretty much everyone expected May would lose the vote, but nobody really knows what comes next. It’s unlikely she’ll lose the planned no confidence vote, and she has not indicated her intention to resign. She may go back to the EU to try to negotiate further concessions to sweeten the deal, but that approach seems unlikely to work.
At some point, if it really looks like “no deal” is the most likely prospect, then Tory MPs who want to avoid no deal at any cost will probably decide enough is enough. May is safe from a no confidence motion within her own party for another year, but they could lend their support to Labour in order to topple the government.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wants to see another general election. Britain’s political system is paralysed, and something needs to beat the gridlock. If the parliamentary arithmetic changes, then it might finally be possible to get agreement over what Brexit should look like. However, there is always the possibility that another election delivers yet another hung parliament. In that case, a second referendum might be unavoidable. Another referendum would be toxic and divisive. However, the current situation is also toxic and divisive, so at least a referendum has the benefit of properly defining what Brexit actually means: Theresa May’s deal, no deal, or remain.
There isn’t time for all this, though. Organising an election or referendum will require either an extension of the Article 50 negotiating period (which requires unanimous agreement from EU Member States) or the unilateral withdrawal of the Article 50 notification (and it’s not clear this is possible from a legal standpoint, despite the recent opinion of the European Court of Justice’s advocate general). If there is no agreement on even delaying Brexit, then it’s “no deal” by default.
What next for Brexit? How scared should Europe be of “no deal”? And could Britain be heading for a second referendum? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!