The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

14 Dec 2018

Politics and Society

UK-EU Relations

For political analysts, Brexit is the gift that keeps on giving.

And, I’m afraid, it will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Yes, that means we won’t be able to forget all about this after Brexit Day on March 29, despite Theresa May winning the vote of confidence in her leadership .

The speed with which the vote was called helped the Prime Minister. It meant her opponents had little time to forge momentum against her and offered Conservative MPs a stark choice between May and an unknown alternative. Better the devil you know ultimately prevailed.

But this may not be the last we hear of May’s being on the brink. Here’s my take on what could happen if or when she leaves office.

All signs – from the betting markets to polls of the Conservative membership – suggest a successor to May would be more pro-Brexit. That could mean born-again Leaver Sajid Javid, former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab or indeed Boris Johnson.

In all likelihood, May’s deal would be dead. Raab, Johnson and their respective followers, in particular, have drawn too many lines in the sand to roll back on their absolute rejection of any deal that contains the Northern Irish border backstop. Brussels stands firm that without the backstop, there is no deal to be had.

Based on the Brexiteer’s rhetoric, the most obvious outcome might be a “managed no deal”. In reality, however, there will be little managed about it.

Rolling back on all of the commitments made since last December would irreparably damage relations with the EU in the short term. That would mean no financial commitments, protections for EU citizens or a guarantee of no hard border in Ireland – all the things the EU tried to achieve over the past 21 months.

The prospect of any mitigating deals would therefore be slim. Many EU leaders have been insistent on the UK facing the consequences of its decisions – and this would apply even more so in the event of no deal.

More importantly, could a new PM even get such an approach past Parliament?

Presumably, there would no longer be agreement on a deal in principle. That would mean the 21 January parliamentary deadline for no deal would kick back in.

The new leader would have to get a motion passed in parliament for their preferred approach.

MPs could, and most likely would, reject any pursuit of no deal and rally behind one of the alternatives: Norway plus, a second referendum or even a general election.

That wouldn’t stop the new Prime Minister from ignoring such an instruction of course. But not heeding it might well precipitate a no confidence vote in the government by a coalition of the opposition and Tory Remain MPs. The new Prime Minister could find themselves facing a general election just a couple of months after taking over.

At least at that point, there would be a reasonably clear choice: a no-deal option with the Conservatives or a permanent customs union and, yes, most likely the Irish backstop with Labour.

In reality, whatever a new Prime Minister wanted to do short of no deal would require going back to the EU to ask for more time.

That requires all 27 EU leaders to agree. There would be strict conditions for any extension, and it would have to have a clear purpose that would resolve the current impasse.

May is still far from secure and things aren’t going to get any less dramatic.

By Matt Bevington, policy researcher at The UK in a Changing Europe.


All change in digital election campaigning?

Does the Israel-Gaza war create problems for Labour with Muslim voters?

Out of the hut into the fire?

How politicians learn about public opinion

Labour conference – the party’s biggest challenges are yet to come

Recent Articles