December 14, 2018


The UK’s exit from the European Union draws near and British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit Withdrawal Agreement has yet to be ratified by Parliament. It’s likely that May, who narrowly survived a no-confidence vote triggered by her own party this week, faces a no-deal Brexit. Kishwer Falkner, Baroness Falkner of Margravine, Chairman of the EU Financial Affairs Sub-Committee in the House of Lords and a Distinguished Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, outlines potential outcomes for May’s agreement and the implications of each scenario.

When is a win a win? In the Brexit referendum of 2016, a vote of 52 to 48 percent was deemed decisive enough by the Leave side to declare that there was no option but to proceed with a red-blooded Brexit. This week, the Leave and Remain sides suggested that the Prime Minister’s survival on a confidence vote of MPs by 63 to 37 percent wasn’t decisive enough – and that she should tender her resignation in any event. As George Orwell would have paraphrased it ‘all votes are equal, but some votes are more equal than others’.

Mrs. May is undoubtedly free from a leadership challenge for another year. But undamaged she is not. The Brexit Withdrawal Agreement (WA) remains unratified by Parliament, and the clock is ticking to January 21st, the deadline for its passage. Mrs. May is in Brussels trying to get ‘further assurances’ that the Irish backstop won’t bind us into the customs union indefinitely due to the EU veto on leaving it. The most sensible way to do this is to attach a legally binding ‘sunset clause’ stating when the backstop will expire, but it’s possible that the EU will deem this a concession too far.

If a slightly amended WA is insufficient for the innocently-sounding, hard-Brexit supporting ‘European Research Group’ then there are two scenarios which might play out. When the WA returns to the Commons in the New Year they may join Labour to vote against it, thus causing it to fail (only 7 Tories plus the DUP need to join Labour). Labour – Her Majesty’s Opposition, have only just realised that ‘opposing’ involves alternative solutions and have finally said they will table a ‘no-confidence’ vote after the defeat, whenever it comes.

This scenario, where Tory rebels vote with Labour to bring down their own Government is a ‘nuclear’ option. Their rationale is that the intervening two weeks providing for the formation of a new government will allow for one of their own number, say Boris Johnson or David Davis, to step up. Mrs. May could thus be removed through backdoor manoeuvres. They underestimate the risk that a new leader may not deliver a much better deal from the EU, as well as the danger that Labour might cobble together a minority government in the meantime. Labour, it should be said, don’t know if they want Brexit, the single market and/or the customs union, nearly three years after a referendum bill was passed.

Another plausible scenario is, that when Mrs. May finally brings her WA to the Commons again and is defeated, she may herself decide to put the question back to the people. Parliament will have to pass a referendum bill again (for which there will probably be a majority in a deadlocked Commons), but the question(s) will be hotly contested. The Remain side will want ‘remaining in the EU’ to be on the ballot paper while the Leavers will say that leaving has been settled in the previous ballot, so all the questions should be about are ‘deal’ v ‘no deal’. As around 300 MPs voted ‘remain’ last time it is probable that they will want remain to be on the ballot paper. One further option being considered is that there should be a binary first question to ask whether to leave or remain, and if leave is a the preference then there would be a follow-up question: ‘deal v no deal’. All are unsatisfactory and time-consuming. It’s likely the withdrawal date would have to be extended to June 2019. Polls show that ‘remain’ is slightly ahead of ‘leave’ but this is within the margin of error. There may be a continuing impasse.

The current stage of the UK’s political turmoil is only the end of the beginning. In either case, whether we stay or leave, one thing is clear:  that disruption will be ongoing. Neither the UK nor the EU will be able to revert to a Business as Usual model. If we remain, the UK will continue to block further EU integration, having travelled to hell and back on the issue. This matters as the EU is embarked on further economic and political deepening to stabilise the Eurozone which will have democratic implications for the UK and those outside the eurozone itself. The UK veto, used sparingly to date, will be sharply felt and more frequently used. There’ll be greater scrutiny of EU matters than ever before now that we know where it is on the map, we’re likely to be more awake to it.

If we leave – with all the economic downsides of erecting barriers with our closest neighbours, the fruits of being more nimble and responsive as a more sovereign country won’t be visible for some time to come. The immediate period after departure will comprise negotiations for some years more. And irrespective of whether the next recession is global or not, any downturn will be blamed by one half of the population on the other for years to come.

In implementing the will of the people, the political classes of the UK – all the main parties – will have rightly earned the disdain of the electorate, for good reason. It is something to reflect on as we go into the festive season.

Read more from Kishwer Falkner

12/07/2018 – The Implications of a No-Deal Brexit
05/24/2018 – The Brexit Standoff in Parliament