Now that Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement has been voted down for the third time, most commentators are peddling the line that MPs have voted against all the possible alternatives. That is not strictly true. It seems to have passed most people by, but one of the indicative votes from last Monday indicated a clear route through the Brexit process, backed by a large majority.
MPs have indeed voted against many things: the Withdrawal Agreement, leaving without a deal, a managed No Deal, a customs union, a confirmatory referendum and various versions of EFTA/EEA including so-called Common Market 2.0. Let’s focus, however, on the indicative vote on Motion L, tabled by Joanna Cherry of the SNP: “Revoke Article 50 to avoid No Deal”.
This motion stated that if we were two days before the scheduled date of departure from the EU and with no Withdrawal Agreement in place, the Government should put a motion to the House asking it to approve No Deal and if that was not approved, then the Government would be forced to revoke Article 50. The motion was defeated overwhelmingly by 293 votes to 184.
To understand the significance of this vote, recall that if the Withdrawal Agreement was not approved before Friday 29th March, the extension to Article 50 granted by the EU would last only until Friday 12th April. Now it has not been approved, the default remains that we leave the European Union without a deal. Given that MPs have indicated they are opposed to every other option, we are in precisely the situation envisaged by Motion L.
The motion asked MPs to vote for the option of revoking Article 50 if the only alternative was leaving without a deal. MPs voted by a substantial margin against the option of revoking. Put another way, MPs have now indicated to the Government that they are willing to accept No Deal in preference to revoking Article 50.
MPs also opposed Motion B calling for the UK to leave without a deal by an even bigger margin. But this was about the principle of No Deal which is very few people’s first choice of strategy. Motion L was about something much more specific: would MPs oppose No Deal if the alternative was abandoning Brexit altogether? The clear answer was no.
It could be argued that even if the Withdrawal Agreement is not passed, there is another alternative to No Deal: a further delay to Article 50. But the EU is under no obligation to agree to this and if it did not (or if the UK Government chose not to request a further extension), then the only possible options would indeed be leaving without a deal or the UK unilaterally revoking Article 50.
Even if a further delay to Article 50 were requested and agreed, given that MPs have voted against all the other options and also that the EU has ruled out any renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement, the ultimate decision is still between revoking A50 and leaving without a deal, just some months down the line.
We know that some Cabinet ministers are adamantly opposed to leaving without a deal. However, they were elected on a manifesto which explicitly supported it as a possibility. No-deal preparations are now very far advanced in both the UK and the EU, and No Deal is a more popular option amongst the public than either the Withdrawal Agreement or another referendum. Perhaps most importantly, any further extension to Article 50 would not solve anything but it would prolong uncertainty for everyone – something likely to have a worse effect on the economy than the short-run disruption caused by leaving without a deal.
Now that the Withdrawal Agreement has been voted down three times, the only defensible strategy the Prime Minister has is to ensure the UK leaves the EU on 12th April. Thanks to Monday’s votes, Theresa May has the indication she needed from MPs that they will not oppose leaving without a deal if the alternative is cancelling Brexit. If she now goes back to the EU to ask for a long extension to Article 50, she can no longer blame it on MPs – it will be her choice and hers alone.
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