The reality of sealing the deal

Brexit has taken one step closer to being concluded, but there remain significant hurdles ahead.

Brexit has taken one step closer to being concluded, but there remain significant hurdles ahead.  On the weekend of 24 November 2018, the European Council officially concluded Article 50 negotiations with an endorsement of the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration at an extraordinary Council meeting in Brussels. As expected, the meeting was largely a procedural affair, despite some last-minute posturing over lingering issues like fishing rights and Gibraltar.

The political battle now begins at home for the Prime Minister

Having concluded a mammoth 18-month negotiating period, Theresa May is set to undertake a ‘PR blitz’ over the next fortnight to sell her deal to both the country and the MPs who will be asked to vote on it before Christmas (11 December 2018).

Theresa May must win over the support of Conservative and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs who are either wavering or who have already made public their opposition to the deal. In addition, the parliamentary arithmetic requires some support from Labour MPs as well, given over 25 Conservatives are effectively guaranteed to vote against it, have publicly submitted letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister in protest to the deal. Meanwhile, the other parties in parliament – SNP, Lib Dem, Plaid Cymru and Green – have all committed to voting the deal down.

On current reading, Mrs May faces an uphill struggle. The number of Conservative MPs who might vote against the deal is not known, although the number floated fluctuates between 35 and 80. In addition, the DUP have made their opposition to the deal unequivocal, calling into question the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement they agreed to with the Conservative Party following the 2017 general election.

Furthermore, the Government had been hoping to win over the support of Labour MPs who represent constituencies that voted Leave in the EU referendum. But since the deal was agreed in Brussels, moderate Labour MPs like Lisa Nandy have voiced their opposition to it. In a potential worst-case scenario for the Government, a group of Tory MPs, alongside the DUP, Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrats, and the smaller parties in parliament would vote against the deal, defeating it in the Commons.

The Cabinet, with Theresa May at the very forefront, have admitted the vote on the deal would be “challenging” but it now must make it clear to colleagues and to the country that “the choice is between this deal or the uncertainty that would flow if this deal does not go through”. That is expected to take the shape of a tour that encompasses all of the nations of the United Kingdom, appealing to voters and businesses directly whilst going over the heads of parliamentarians. Downing Street has agreed to a televised debate with Theresa May facing off against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has voiced his opposition to the deal arguing it fails to pass Labour’s ‘Six Brexit Tests.’

If May loses this vote what happens next?

Whilst there is likely a majority against the deal, there doesn’t appear to be a majority for an alternative in the Commons, contributing to the possibility of a ‘no deal’ outcome. Unless of course MPs can quickly coalesce around an alternative.

With a growing number of Conservatives voicing their opposition to this deal, Theresa May faces the political fight of her life to win them back over and pass the meaningful vote in the Commons. If she fails to do so and Parliament votes down the deal, a disruptive ‘no deal’ outcome seems most likely given the EU has made clear it will not re-open the Brexit negotiations. Campaigners for a ‘People’s vote’ – a second referendum on the terms negotiated by Theresa May and the EU – are seizing on the uncertainty arguing that going back to the country is the only way to settle the Brexit question.

Mrs May faces the possibility of re-tabling the deal in the House of Commons, but if the defeat on the initial vote is extensive this could be out of the question and politically impossible.

Brussels dismisses any notion of re-opening negotiations

Theresa May has initiated her PR blitz, built on a strategy that negotiations cannot be reopened and the deal tweaked and so failing to back her deal will mean going “back to square one”. Her caution has been echoed by Brussels, as EU leaders have repeatedly stressed that they would not be willing to reopen negotiations, were Parliament to vote down the deal. European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker this weekend said that the Withdrawal Agreement is the best deal for the UK, the best deal for Europe, and that there will be no other deal. It was a statement designed to push back against the notion that a better alternative deal could be negotiated in the short term – by either another Conservative leader or another governing party.

At the sidelines of the Summit, European President Antonio Tajani stressed that in the European Parliament there is a large majority in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement and that the last major hurdle is the UK Parliament. He explained that there will be a non-binding resolution welcoming the Withdrawal Agreement in December. The European Parliament is then likely to conduct its consent vote in January, or latest in February, dependent on it passing the UK Parliament.

Related item: Brexit focus area

Look ahead

  • 28 November 2018

    Following an amendment to the Finance Bill last week, the Government will publish its comparative economic analysis on the following outcomes: the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement and Future Framework, a ‘No Deal’ scenario and the current terms of the UK’s membership of the EU.

  • 29 November 2018

    The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Bank of England will publish their impact assessments on the Withdraw Agreement and Future Framework Text.

    The Prime Minister is due to appear in front of the Commons Liaison Committee, on the subject of Brexit, at 09.00.

  • 3 December 2018

    The Treasury Select Committee will hold its first session, as part of its inquiry into the Withdrawal Agreement and Future Framework. Bank of England Governor Mark Carney will appear as a witness.

  • 4 December 2018

    The Treasury Select Committee will hold its second session, as part of its inquiry into the Withdrawal Agreement and Future Framework. FCA Chief Executive Andrew Bailey will appear as a witness.

  • 9 December 2018

    The Prime Minister is due to debate Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn on the subject of the negotiated Brexit deal.

  • 11 December 2018

    The Government will table a vote on a motion on the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration on Tuesday 11 December. This will take place after 5 days of debate.

  • 13-14 December 2018

    European Council Summit