Image by permission of Parliament
“Anything can happen in the next 12, 11, 10 days”
This is the pretty safe prediction of the Institute for Government, the think tank of former civil servants and bright young para-politicians who hug the inside track closer than most. One of the institute’s chiefs Jill Rutter would be earning a fortune if she’d been paid a decent fee for all her media appearances in recent days and weeks. Back on the IfG website Jill lays out Theresa May’s options for the coming fateful days.
Before the emergency council takes place, the PM has a number of options. There are so many moving parts that predicting what happens next is even more complicated than usual. The PM could:
Attempt to get the Meaningful Vote through again (if she can get round the Speaker) – with or without a changed Political Declaration to reflect any possible outcome from the Letwin process. If the PM can do this before 10 April then she should be able to get a short extension to ensure she can get the legislation through. But the most likely option – tacking on a permanent customs’ union, is toxic in the Conservative Party.
Announce soon that she is seeking a longer extension from the EU – and reveal the cunning plan B that she has been hiding away. That could be a new process to come up with cross-party agreement on the future relationship, or it could be a commitment to offer another referendum – the option its proponents think only goes live if every other route has failed to produce a result
Trigger a General Election. If she manages to get the two-thirds majority needed next week, and seeks a longer extension, the European parliament elections can be drowned out by holding a General Election on the same day. The only problem is that two days ago she said she would stand down as leader and many Conservatives will be reluctant to see her lead them into an election campaign. So the Conservatives might have to unify around an election leader to avoid a prolonged contest. Many egos would have to be submerged for that to happen. The time needed for an election campaign would mean that the PM would still need to ask for an extension
Batten down the hatches for No Deal – and challenge Parliament to stop her. Exit on 12 April is the new default in UK law. Many in her own party will see this, followed by a leadership contest, as their preferred option.
And, to complete the set (though it’s hard to see the PM even contemplating this), until we leave the EU the UK always has the option to revoke Article 50 without asking permission from the EU – to stay on as an EU member, and not just to buy some breathing space.
Civil servants will be scrambled for no deal. Businesses will be in (even more) despair. Something has to happen. It’s just as unclear as ever what that might be.
Jill Rutter’s authoritative analysis focuses on the prime minister, understandably from a former senior civil servant in No10. But the papers play a different game. The Sunday Telegraph, still just about the Tory house journal and firmly Brexit leaning, covers the seething ferment inside the party: dire warnings if Mrs May tries to cut and run for a general election; leadership factions forming on – would you believe it? – the basis of class identifications, Leave for working class allegiance, Remain avowedly classless but finding it difficulty to shake off the ” elite” smear. We are all Momentum now.
The Sunday Times goes much further than Rutter and turbocharges every thread of gossip and speculation in its lead report to project collapse. It may actually be worse than this but it may not. It’s worth considering the scenarios to try to find out how much worse – or not. Warning: this list may not be exhaustive.
- MPs pass an alternative such as Common market 2.0 or a customs union version alongside the withdrawal agreement on Monday or Tuesday. The government accept the result and the EU agrees Brexit departure on 22 May. This is not impossible if the two front benches and Oliver Letwin and co representing the No Deal majority eventually coordinate. Labour, Brexiteers in the cabinet and an alleged 175 Conservative backbenchers may not oblige.
- Instead later in the week, May pits the full withdrawal agreement in a meaningful vote against the agreed alternative. If she wins, we leave on 22 May. If she loses it’s hard to see how she can remain in office; but she might try, in order to try to influence the decision required by 10 April. Her immediate resignation as PM would bring the entire government to an end. However such an abrupt act would breach the convention that a PM must remain office until a clear successor has emerged, either from a cross party majority in parliament or from a Conservative party leadership election which even at its briefest would take more time than is available. In extremis a caretaker PM would have to be acceptable to the Queen. As the convention of decades holds that the Queen should not be involved, some form of endorsement by Tory MPs might be necessary.
- If there is no overall majority for anything, the Speaker entertains a motion to prevent No Deal which if it passes, May respects and asks the EU for a longer extension of the Article 50 deadline. Again Brexiteer cabinet ministers might seek to prevent her but they are not a majority.
- If several Brexiteer cabinet ministers resign in consequence, this may be the moment when Labour moves a vote of no confidence in the government. The combined opposition is 313. They could find enough disgruntled Tories, at least 7, to reach a simple majority of 320 and buy a fortnight to try to find another solution or form another (cross party?) government. The 383 or 60% needed to trigger an immediate general election in a vote would be a stretch. There is just a chance that the government might agree to an immediate election without a vote but there are powerful forces inside the Conservative party opposed, at least while May is still leader.
- By itself a general election would be a big enough development to stop the clock on the Brexit process. A long delay would be almost unavoidable. Alternatively if the prorogation of parliament to start all over again in a new session was the choice, it might not win a delay beyond 12 April from the EU, on the grounds that there would be no reason to believe that by itself would break the deadlock.
At their 10 April summit, in the absence of MPs ratifying the withdrawal agreement with whatever accompaniments, the EU would be most likely to insist that May accepts a much longer deadline, rather than resigning themselves to the No Deal they’ve been loudly bracing themselves for. But If MPs refused to accept any of the EU’s terms like a UK promise to hold an election or a referendum which May would not be able or wish to deliver, the EU would either have to take a risk and delay a decision further to see what sort of new government emerges, or allow us to crash out within a few weeks. The scenario is stark, but there are still compelling reasons why most people on both sides would dearly love to avoid it.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London