And now, Parliament’s biggest vote in 100 years
It has been 935 days since the EU referendum — and tonight Parliament will finally vote on the withdrawal deal negotiated by Theresa May. It will probably be rejected. But what then?
The question in Parliament today is deceptively simple: do MPs accept Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement with the EU?
But the consequences will be huge, potentially defining the UK’s future for decades to come. And no one can be sure what is about to happen. Here are five possibilities…
1/ MPs vote in favour of the deal. This is the simplest outcome, and the one that Theresa May has been hoping and campaigning for since negotiations with the EU finally ended last year. It would mean that the UK officially leaves the EU on March 29 and a “transition period” begins.
However, this option is the least likely; a majority of MPs oppose the deal. If it is rejected, MPs are forcing May to come back to Parliament to outline her “Plan B” in three working days. That could mean:
2/ A “no deal” Brexit. This is the default position if the vote fails; UK law says March 29 is the leaving date, deal or no deal. But the majority of MPs want to avoid this scenario, with one Tory calling it “national suicide”. Yesterday, a group of MPs said they hoped to pass a bill forcing the government to delay Brexit if a deal is not agreed in time.
3/ More concessions from Brussels — or a renegotiation. That would probably mean that May tries to soften Brexit in order to win support from Labour MPs. However, it could mean handing control of the talks to a group of MPs from across all parties.
Depending on the size of the changes (and whether the EU agreed to re-open talks), Article 50 might have to be delayed, pushing back the leaving date. Once a new deal was ready, the process would begin again.
4/ A second referendum. While May has repeatedly ruled this out, more and more MPs are coming around to the idea. Asking the people to decide would break the deadlock in Parliament, and it is the best hope for anyone who wants to reverse Brexit all together. However, it would take around 22 weeks to prepare, meaning Brexit would need to be delayed first.
5/ A general election is called. That could be by Theresa May herself, in an attempt to increase her majority in Parliament and get the deal through. Or it could be forced by a no confidence vote in the government, brought forward by the Labour Party.
Of course, once it was over, the new government would still be faced with the same problem we started with: what to do about Brexit?
May invoked the history books when she defended her deal in Parliament yesterday. “People will look at the decision of this House tomorrow and ask: did we deliver on the country’s vote to leave the EU? […] Or did we let the British people down?”
But which of these outcomes will be remembered fondly by historians? And will today really be remembered at all?
- Which of these options are you hoping for?
- Is Brexit the most significant issue to face the UK in 100 years?
- Split the class into five groups. Each will come up with a list of pros and cons for one of the five possible outcomes listed in this article. Share the lists with the rest of the class, and then vote on which would be the best overall.
- Research another time that the UK government has clashed with MPs in Parliament. Write a short report explaining what happened, why, and how it affected the country’s future.
Some People Say...
“In case of doubt, vote against. By this rule you will rarely go wrong.”Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Today is the fifth and final day of debate over the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons. MPs will vote on whether to accept or reject it this evening, at around 7pm. Most politicians and news outlets are predicting that it will be rejected. Last week, the government was defeated by MPs twice in two days. One of those defeats forces Theresa May to come up with a “Plan B” in three days if she loses tonight.
- What do we not know?
- How many MPs will vote against the deal — media reports suggest that around 100 Conservative MPs are planning to rebel, but some changed their minds in recent days. Similarly, Labour is planning to vote against the deal, but individual MPs may decide that it is worth their support. The size of the defeat may help determine what happens next.
- Withdrawal agreement
- The deal was negotiated with the European Union over many months and is almost 600 pages long. It includes details about the transition period (see below); protections for EU citizens living in the UK and vice versa; a “divorce bill” of at least £39 billion; and a Northern Irish “backstop”. This means that Northern Ireland will remain in a customs arrangement with the EU if no other system was agreed before the end of the transition, preventing a hard border in Ireland.
- Transition period
- This will last until December 31, 2020, and allows the UK and EU time to negotiate their future trade agreements. The UK must continue abiding by EU rules during this time. It can be extended if the UK and EU both agree to do so.
- For example, by keeping the UK in a customs union with the EU.
- Article 50
- The “trigger” in the EU treaty which allows countries to leave. It gives them two years to negotiate the terms. The UK triggered Article 50 on March 29, 2017.
- No confidence vote
- This would give the government 14 days to win a confidence vote, or trigger a general election.