The Politics of Halting Brexit

Kirsty Hughes | 4 January 2019

© 2018 European Union

The Brexit crisis continues. Theresa May looks unlikely to get her Brexit deal through Westminster, assuming the vote goes ahead on schedule on 15th or 16th January. But she is hoping to survive losing that vote, to get more tweaks from the EU and have at least one more vote. Whether that is where the political dynamics go if she loses the vote is an open and crucial question.

There is a majority for remain in the opinion polls and growing support for a ‘people’s vote’. But how and whether the politics of Westminster could move towards halting Brexit and giving a real political lead on doing so, shifting opinion more strongly towards staying in the EU, is a tough question too. It would need to happen soon – and probably would need some form of temporary cross-party government.

The Clocks Ticks Down

Time is running out. The 29th March for now remains the deadline when Brexit will happen. But Westminster will need to either pass May’s deal or come up with an alternative well before that deadline to avoid a deeply damaging, chaotic ‘no deal’ outcome. For any extension of Article 50 past the 29th March, the EU needs to agree unanimously. That may be forthcoming but it’s not guaranteed, is unlikely to happen overnight and may come with conditions or bargaining from the EU side. Nor is it expected to be granted if the UK simply wants more time for its political chaos and indeterminacy to continue.

With her decision to postpone the vote on the deal from 11th December, May has deliberately run the clock down. And, in the face of Corbyn’s passive ‘waiting’ strategy, she has kept herself more in control of events than the opposition – for now. From the perspective of those MPs who hope to halt Brexit via a ‘people’s vote’, many are looking to a sequence of events running from a rejection of May’s deal to a rejection of a Corbyn ‘no confidence’ motion to possible support for another referendum – on the deal versus remain (or some other question but with remain on the ballot paper). But they are waiting for May to put her deal to parliament for this sequence to unfold.

No Majority at Westminster Means ‘No Deal’

Yet, for now, there appears to be no majority in Westminster for anything – for May’s deal, for a no confidence motion leading to an election, for another referendum, for a ‘Norway Plus’ reworking of the political declaration, for withdrawing Article 50 unilaterally (and unequivocally and unconditionally) nor for no deal. Yet no deal will happen unless Westminster can find a majority for something – rather than just a majority who strongly oppose a no deal outcome.

In this intensifying and enveloping political and constitutional crisis, with time running out, those MPs who are looking to get to an outcome of halting Brexit and staying in the EU cannot afford to simply wait for events to play out at Westminster.

Routes to Halting Brexit

There has been a presumption, given that Labour’s votes are crucial in any move to one of the two routes for halting Brexit (another referendum with remain winning or a unilateral revocation of Article 50), that the no confidence motion must first happen and that it will be defeated. But how could another referendum get a majority in Westminster? It’s not at all clear – given Labour’s fudged position – that Corbyn would shift his position and back another referendum rather than demand, as he currently is, more negotiations. And while the EU is clear it won’t change the Withdrawal Agreement, talks to re-focus the political declaration could happen swiftly enough (but is there any Westminster majority for the ways to re-focus it?).

And if we take at face value May’s opposition to a referendum, and briefings that she would resign rather than be Prime Minister during a further vote, then the question is who would be the executive that would run another EU vote?

Some have suggested a temporary government of national unity could be needed. This would, at least, need to be renamed – perhaps as a temporary cross-party government – if the Scottish National party (SNP) were to participate (as the third party at Westminster their votes would be vital too). But if there isn’t a majority in Westminster for a people’s vote, where would the majority come from for a temporary cross-party government? And how would that government come into being?

A cross-party government would surely need to be formed in response to a no confidence motion – within the 14 days set down in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. But this would first require some ‘remainer’ Tories to vote against the May government in sufficient numbers for the vote to pass. Corbyn would then get first shot at forming a government but if opposition parties and remainer parties refused to back him, this could be the moment for a cross-party government to form, rather than the UK heading into an election. So rather than rejecting the no confidence motion as a route towards halting Brexit, should pro-remain MPs not be looking to take control at this point?

What are the chances that Westminster would support such a temporary executive? That would surely depend on what it aimed to do. If it were purely a remain temporary government, it might not get the numbers though, depending on the intensity of the crisis in the coming weeks, this cannot be ruled out. If the temporary executive instead aimed to explore both a clearer ‘Norway Plus’ version of the political declaration and another referendum, perhaps through indicative votes in parliament first, it might get support.

This would need most Labour MPs to back such an approach as well as a chunk of Tory MPs. Corbyn has said he wants a permanent customs union which a Norway Plus model would provide. And, while the EU will not give the UK a vote on its trade policy from outside the EU, it would quite possibly add a commitment to consultation mechanisms in the political declaration. What the EU would not do is back down on the four freedoms, including free movement of people. This is not to forget that Norway Plus is a bizarre giving up of sovereignty compared to staying in the EU. But if the path to a temporary executive dedicated to finding a way out of the crisis required both a people’s vote and Norway Plus to be on the agenda in the very short term, this could provide a political route forward.

The indicative votes followed by a majority vote for one of the options would need to happen rapidly. If the majority supporting the temporary executive fell apart in the face of still no majority support for either a people’s vote or Norway Plus, say in mid-February, then the UK could face an election. This would need the EU to agree an extension of Article 50 for that (since otherwise an election as the UK tumbled into a no deal Brexit on 29th March would be the deepest of crises). Another route to a consensus could be found through the form of the question on another referendum – rather than remain versus May’s deal, it might include the Norway Plus variant of May’s deal instead or as well (in a 3 part question). The temporary executive could search for a majority in parliament through the form of the referendum question.

Seize the Day

A temporary cross-party government, if it happened, would represent potentially the start of a split within the two main parties, Conservative and Labour. It would be an extraordinary moment. But it is hard to see a route to halting Brexit – whether through parliament re-invoking its sovereignty and revoking Article 50 or through another referendum – without such a government. The alternative is that Brexit happens – whether May’s deal or no deal (or a Norway Plus version of May’s deal); and the UK’s political crisis will continue.

For such a temporary executive to have a chance, MPs would need to seize the moment soon. If May retains control of the timetable despite losing the vote on her deal, and parliament rejects a no confidence motion, May will remain in charge of next steps. Section 13 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act gives her 21 days to return to parliament with a statement on how her government intends to proceed.

By early February, time pressures will be at their maximum – which may be what May is counting on. If Parliament is to take control, and avoid not only no deal Brexit but May’s uncertain and damaging Brexit deal, it has to do so very soon.

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Scottish Centre on European Relations

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.