Throughout the ‘90s Mystic Meg had a 45-second slot on the UK’s National Lottery Live show where she predicted facts about the future winner. But no amount of crystal ball gazing could forecast what comes next in the Brexit saga and there are certainly no current winners. We are now looking into an abyss, where a general election; a toppling or resignation of the UK prime minister; ministerial departures; a second Brexit referendum; a no-deal; no Brexit or an Article 50 extension are all possibilities. Or perhaps we could see a a pix n’ mix combination of those options.
Theresa May’s defeat of 149 votes, while not as bruising as January’s meaningful ballot, has triggered a cascade of uncertainty and chaos that will play out in the coming days. But as May said immediately after the vote last night, “unenviable choices” must now be faced. Those choices begin today when MPs again shuffle through the lobbies for another vote, this time on ruling out a no-deal Brexit.
Hopes were high yesterday morning after May’s last-minute agreement, which secured three main changes that would have sat alongside the main withdrawal agreement. It was a simple but devastating closing paragraph contained in the advice of UK attorney general Geoffrey Cox which made it clear that the backstop was still firmly in place and Mrs May would not get the support she desperately needed.
“The legal risk remains unchanged that if through no such demonstrable failure of either party, but simply because of intractable differences, that situation does arise, the United Kingdom would have, at least while the fundamental circumstances remained the same, no internationally lawful means of exiting the protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement.”
The advice undoubtedly led to the DUP declaration that they would be voting against the prime minister and gave Brexiteers including Jacob Rees-Mogg a further mandate to vote down the agreement. All of a sudden it was clear that May’s trip to Strasbourg on Monday night had been pointless. And so after the chink of hope on Monday night, we are back to unknowing. Immediately after the vote May put forward a few stark realities and questioned what House of Commons actually wants: “Does it wish to revoke Article 50? Does it want to hold a second referendum?
Or does it want to leave with a deal but not this deal?” The second of these questions sparking both cheers and boos in equal measure in the crowded Commons. Today it is likely that MPs will vote in favour of taking a no-deal off the table. However, in another show of her waning power, Mrs May conceded that she would be giving Conservative members a free vote, a decision that she had “personally struggled” with. The uncertainty will then tumble into Thursday where another ballot will be called, this time asking MPs whether they would favour an extension to Article 50.
The outcome of this vote is far from obvious with politicians split on the topic. Even among those who favour more time there is dissent on how much breathing space should be given. Brexiteers fear a long extension could increase the likelihood of Britain indefinitely remaining in the EU, while a shorter extension of perhaps a few months may not provide enough time to hammer out a resolution.