British Prime Minister Theresa May finally secured a key parliamentary victory on March 14 that strengthened the prospect she will eventually be able to get parliamentary approval for her deal to take Britain out of the European Union.
But the price she has had to pay is that Britain will seek a three-month extension to its planned exit date on March 29. And in that time, not least as a result of an impassioned intervention by Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn, pressure to hold a new referendum on whether Britain should end its forty-six-year membership of the world’s biggest trading block is expected to grow.
Moreover, while the government will now formally seek an extension to Article 50, the mechanism that sets the withdrawal date, it is for the twenty-seven remaining EU member states to decide whether to agree such an extension, and even one rejection would be enough to veto it.
There was real passion during—and after—the debate in the House of Commons on March 14. One of the most effective interventions came from Scottish Nationalist parliamentary leader Ian Blackford. Naturally he tied Scottish support for staying in the EU with his party’s line that, at some stage, “an independence referendum should, must, and will take place.” But more immediately he drew attention to the legal tangle resulting from the House of Lords voting to amend a trade bill so that it would prevent a no-deal Brexit. This will now require government action to reconcile it with legislation in the House of Commons.
And trade, of course, is a crucial issue for Britain and its commercial partners as it seeks to resolve the Brexit conundrum.
In Washington, US President Donald J. Trump tweeted before the debate: “My Administration looks forward to negotiating a large scale Trade Deal with the United Kingdom. The potential is unlimited!”
For May, however, the problem was that the US president followed this by telling her that he could have negotiated a better deal.
After talks with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar at the White House on March 14, Trump declared: “I’m surprised at how badly it has all gone from a standpoint of negotiations but I gave the prime minister my ideas of how to negotiate it. I think they would have been successful. She didn’t listen to that and that’s fine but it could have been negotiated in a different manner.”
Scarcely a ringing prelude to a great new trade deal.
The Trump intervention was fascinating from another perspective. He commented that he did not believe a second Brexit referendum was possible, and that it would be “unfair to people who have won.”
This view is currently shared by an absolute majority in Britain’s House of Commons, since it voted by 334 to 85 to reject another amendment on March 14 calling for a second Brexit referendum.
But this may not be the end of the story. Once the voting was over, Corbyn got up and quite unexpectedly said that the massive defeats the government had previously sustained on the Brexit agreement meant that there was a need for consensus and compromise.
“Her deal and no deal are simply no longer viable options,” Corbyn said. “I reiterate our support for a public vote, not as political point scoring but as a realistic option to break the deadlock.”
Almost certainly, Corbyn’s remarks will be derided and will appear in reports on the debate alongside pictures showing some two hundred Labour MPs sitting in their seats to abstain whilst the rest of the Commons voted to defeat a referendum amendment sponsored by the newly formed Independent Group of MPs.
But now that May has had to accept that in all probability she will not be able to deliver on her constantly repeated two-year-old promise that Britain would leave the EU on March 29, it is quite possible that popular pressure for a second referendum will grow. After all, a March 8 YouGov poll shows that only 40 percent of those surveyed believe Britain made the right choice in the 2016 vote, while 48 percent thought it was wrong to opt to leave the EU.
Yet May remains obdurate. She simply will not give up. Even though she is still having to cope with the fallout from massive 230- and 149-vote defeats in previous votes on the agreement she negotiated with the European Commission in November, she may yet manage to bludgeon its passage through a highly fractious Parliament. In the March 14 voting, the most important result was that the government defeated by just two votes—314 to 312—an amendment seeking a lengthy extension to the exit deadline in order to give Parliament time to consider cross-party moves for alternative ways forward.
There is a serious view that May will keep putting her deal, with or without minor amendments, to Parliament until she secures a majority, either because the House of Commons cannot find a way to force the government to debate alternatives such as a customs union or a second referendum or because there is no parliamentary majority for any alternative.
The government has said the next vote on the prime minister’s deal will be held next week, although it has promised that if it suffers a defeat in that vote, then it will make time in Parliament to allow other options to be considered. And May herself conceded that if she does not win next week’s vote, then Britain would have to seek to delay Brexit beyond June 30, raising the highly contentious issue that Britain would, therefore, have to take part in elections for the European Parliament on May 23, whose members take their seats on July 2.
The only certain thing is uncertainty. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour are united.
No less than eight Cabinet ministers and 188 Conservative MPs—in effect, almost all the MPs who do not hold government offices or positions—voted against the government’s own motion to seek an Article 50 extension. And amongst them was Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, who only a few minutes earlier had been summing up for the government.
And as for Labour, well forty-three of its MPs defied leadership orders to abstain in the referendum vote, with twenty-five voting for a second referendum and eighteen voting against. Party discipline is breaking down and so, with another three months of Brexit disputation in sight, who knows just what will happen?
John M. Roberts is a UK-based senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and Global Energy Center.