If the withdrawal agreement is defeated in parliament (due to too many Brexiters and Tory Remainers voting against and not enough Labour rebels voting with May) what happens next? Answering that question has some impact on whether the agreement with the EU will be voted down, of course. As I noted in an earlier post, what May says will happen before the vote will have virtually no implications for what actually happens because May has no interest in keeping her word.
I want to pursue one possibility, but I’m making no predictions this will actually happen. It is, in a way, a precautionary tale, because it tells us what might happen if parliament is not very active. Losing the vote will be a huge personal blow for May. In those circumstances, the last thing a Prime Minister wants is to appear to be powerless. She will therefore try to regain the initiative quickly.
One option is to go back to the EU and ask for more time. If the vote is very close this will be very tempting. She will be thinking about twisting arms of certain rebel MPs to try and get them to switch. But I suspect the EU will not play this game, partly because agreeing any serious extension of Article 50 would have to involve all member states, and partly because they would fear subsequent requests after each further failure. An instant rebuff from the EU will not be the look the already weak PM will want, so this road is not as attractive as it might first appear.
Announcing a General Election is another possibility, but this too is problematic, essentially because she has already tried this trick in 2017 and failed dismally. She will need a two thirds majority of MPs, and it is possible that her party from Brexiters to Remainers would not follow her. She could also decide to call the whole thing off, but I suspect even imagining she might do that is wishful thinking.
Which leaves a referendum. She has ruled out “under any circumstances” a second referendum, but she also ruled out a general election before she called one in 2017. I would be surprised if the EU did not agree to extend Article 50 if a second referendum was called. But if she did go down that route, I would be incredibly surprised if the two choices she would propose were not No Deal or her deal. This is where parliament would need to act. But it would require the Conservative rebels on the Remain side to step up and be counted - something that they have often failed to do.
In addition, would the Labour ("We can't stop it") leadership vote to put Remain on the ballot, and even if they did how many rebels would defy any instruction to do so? It seems to me that any attempt to get Remain on the ballot by parliament would be a very close call. Added to that would be the further problem of how Remain appears on the ballot. Does it replace No Deal, which some might feel (not me) is anti-democratic? If not, someone needs to come up with a more complex referendum choice (e.g this suggested by Chris Giles) that a majority of the House will support.
The more I think about the option of going for a deal or No Deal referendum, the more attractive an option it looks for May. She will be fighting on just one flank, rather than multiple flanks. If parliament fails to get Remain on the ballot, it seems almost certain that she will get the popular vote for her deal she wants. Remainers and Labour might talk defiantly of boycotting the ballot, but that would only increase the chances of No Deal winning, and I doubt they would carry many voters with them, as it would be a futile and dangerous gesture. Parts of the press would push No Deal, but May would hope enough ‘sensible leavers’ would unite with ‘fearful Remainers’ to defeat them. MPs would not dare to vote against a deal backed by a referendum victory.
That way, May turns a disaster (losing the vote in parliament) into a triumph. Which is why I really hope that behind the scenes certain key MPs are planning for exactly this scenario. The executive have a huge first mover advantage over parliament, and leaving this planning until after May’s deal with the EU is voted down would probably be too late. Advanced planning in some detail is needed, something that the other Mr Johnson can fill his newly found spare time doing perhaps.