Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday 10 November 2018

If May loses her Brexit vote, what happens next?

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.


  1. If May loses the commons vote on the withdrawal agreement her already weak mandate will be damaged further. She will not have the mandate to decide what goes on a 2nd referendum ballot. In fact the Conservative party will not have the mandate to do this with any leader.

    Surely, it would be at this point that Corbyn should table a vote of no confidence in the government and force a general election.

  2. What if this second referendum is held with her deal or no deal, and the turnout is terrible?

    If her plan is defeated by Parliament, will she not just resign?

    1. Who has the mandate to call for a 2nd referendum?? For that to happen there would first need to be a general election where permission was asked from the public to do this. This is highly unlikely to happen so surely we are heading for no deal....

  3. "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."

    Following in Cameron's footsteps then. In the first vote Remain was being conflated with support for his attempts at re-negotiation, and the referendum being used to demand greater concessions from the EU.

    The options were presented as "Leave" or "Support Cameron's EU reforms" and the one I wanted, "Neither", was off the table. I'm in my thirties, the referendum was the first time I felt offered a genuine choice, and that choice was taken away.

    For all the talk of the will of the people it's remarkable the limitations politicians insist on imposing in order to prevent them expressing it freely. Leave was meant to be the option that was so bad Cameron could get what he wanted from the EU. Now No Deal might take the same place for May. It's a bad joke that we could end up somewhere faithfully enacting a will of the people so few want simply because a proper choice was never offered.

  4. "I would be surprised if the EU did not agree to extend Article 50 if a second referendum was called."

    I agree that if the UK has a change of heart and wants to confirm that in a referendum, EU Member States would give an article 50 extension. However, if that referendum would only be about the way in which the UK would leave the EU, then I do not see it happening.

    Extending article 50 would mean that the UK would still have formal powers in the EU, and full Single Market priviliges. A nation that is determined to leave is never going to get to keep that power for longer than absolutely necessary. Besides, Member States will argue - with a lot of justification - that the withdrawal process has been going on for 2 years. There was more than enough time to decide on the way to leave.

  5. Dont the electoral commission have a role in determining the question? It seems unreasonable to think that any option which gathers a substantial share of public support could be excluded. Indeed, given the strength of feeling amongst all sides it would be more than a poll tax moment

  6. Have you seen Tom Kibasi's piece on the same subject? He argues that logically, since Labour is against no deal and the May deal, they would have to support Remain as the question if a second referendum comes about.

    And on your point about democracy, polling shows that May's putative deal is a very poor third, behind remain and no deal. So if it has to be a single binary referendum, democratically, the choices should be no deal or remain. A very dangerous game in my opinion.

  7. Another referendum would take months to arrange. It is hard to see unanimity among the EU Council for postponing Brexit day for a Deal v No Deal contest because Farage et al are likely to win ("Stand up to the EU", "Respect the 2016 vote", "Vote No to get a better deal" etc).

    Deal v Remain, otoh, not only removes the risk of No Deal (bad for EU27; worse for UK) but also puts the Brexiteers on the spot: e.g. Boris Johnson's recent observation that the proposed deal is "substantially worse than staying in the EU”.

  8. Given a choice between No Deal and Mays Deal with Remain not on the ballot,many, possibly a majority of voters might well boycott the Referendum.

  9. Remember that Labour could call on voters to not vote in a referendum, painting the non-voters as "remain" voters. A referendum between May's proposal or Brexit without deal could end up with 15...30% voter participation.
    Parliament could then be called on by press, Labour and others to vote to remain.

  10. This whole saga has been one of posturing, what in fact is May's or come to that the Tories real agenda and why have they spent so much effort in playing mind games with the British public?

    I believe the stage has been set for a package of ideas that the EU will find unacceptable,which means that the way will be clear to crash out of Europe and straight into the arms of Trump who is just sitting on the sidelines waiting for the green light.

    The problem for May is that the right wing in her party think she is weak and wobbly and will back down at the last moment. creating the very scenario you refer to. Which is not what most Tory supporters want. The idea that Labour areas in the north are the ones solely responsible for voting out, is a misconception as the hard exit vote comes from the Tory south.

    May has turned tables upside down and has actually over played her hand, far from keeping her cards close to her chest she has left herself little room to manoeuvre, in short she has boxed herself in, and her final stake relies on the strength of the right wing, if they have the numbers then she will be ousted on the guise of a so called strong leader required to extract us out of Europe.

    Ultimately like with Cameron's fiasco, Europe has thrown light on the splits in the Tory party and that there is no one else to blame, so they will now have to bite the bullet themselves, get rid of May to carry the can and go for broke, which means crash out of Europe, or succumb to negotiating a no win scenario which satisfies no one and least of all those Tory supporters who will feel hung out to dry.

    What overall has of course been missing from this debate has been the ultimate objective of the Tories dismantling the state, and the EU being a side issue that deflects attention away from what they are actually doing right under our noses, so the final analysis is, how much more of the nation is left to sell off and is job already done, which them means, that lose out on Europe and possibly the next election, but safe in the knowledge that the private sector can always hold a gun to any incoming Labour government, and life they think will be business as usual.

    The problem is that in the intervening period, as has been predicted by the outgoing chair of the Federal Bank, that unsustainable debt levels held by American corporations is set once again to crash. All set to happen on the Tories watch.

  11. Whata bout a vote of no-confidence?


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