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Where are we this week?

Ballot Box

A blog by Dr Janice Morphet, Visiting Professor at the Bartlett School of Planning


This week has provided more changes in the Brexit position. Some of these are direct and relate to decisions of the Prime Minister and the European Council and others are implications for the way forward - all of which include some form of voting.

Where are we this week on the UK's official position? While the Prime Minister requested a short extension until 30th June and Donald Tusk and Angela Merkel favoured a year long period, Macron's six month extension was agreed and this runs until 31 October. However, there will be an EU Council review at the June meeting and if the UK does not ot hold European Elections on 23rd May, the UK will automatically leave on 1st June.

Given this position,  where are we on the three main options that have been with us from the outset - no deal, an agreement with the EU or remain? While stating for many months that 'no deal would be better than a bad deal', the Prime Minister has now reversed her position and has accepted, following Parliamentary votes, that no deal is no longer an option in practice.  The PM has now stood down the civil service teams preparing for 'no deal' and presumably similar advice will be offered to the country.

The second option of a Withdrawal Agreement is more open. While the EU has stated that it will not reopen the PM's Agreement, it is open to other options including single market and customs union membership. At the meet and greet press session for heads of state joining this week's Europan Council, Leo Varadker, the Irish Taoiseach, stated that there could be a sui generis agreement although giving no more detail. The extent to which this may be proposed could depend on the talks between the PM and the Labour Party. Although it appears that they were instigated at the behest of the EU as a sign of good faith in coming to a Parliamentary agreement, some in the Conservative Party are now firmly of the the view that these will definitely yield an agreement. Political commentators are more sanguine in their views and do not share this expectation of a likely outcome. Much of the cross party talks appear to be focusing on changes to the Political Declaration,  but as these will not be legally binding on either side, they are open to change by a subsequent PM or government. For this reason they may be rejected by both parties and Parliament.

The third option is to retain the status quo by remaining in the EU with our current opt outs and rebates. This is open until 31st October 2019 assuming that the UK holds the EU elections on 23rd May. If this route is taken there has to be good faith - that is the UK cannot revoke and then instigate withdrawal under Artilce 50 again in a short period of time.  Revokation can be undertaken by the PM by letter or by Parliament. The remain position has recently attracted some former high profile brexiteers to its ranks and is also a position increasingly suggested as a way out if the Parliamentary impasse. It has also been supported by a petition of over 6m people.

All of these options are set in the context of a range of potential votes. The first is the European Parliamentary elections in May if we go ahead with them. Current polling shows that Labour and remain parties are in the lead by a margin although this could change. It could be that leave voters are less likely to participate. 

However the results of these elections could influence the Parliamentary appetite for a General Election. Under the fixed term Parliament Act, two thirds of MPs have to vote for a Genetral Election outside the five year set period. A General Election could also be triggered another way - that is through a vote of no confidence in the Government. As the Government's majority is small and recent Parliamentary exchanges between the PM and DUP MPs suggests that their agreement may be under considerable stress, a no confidence vote may be successful. 

There is also the issue of a vote of no confidence in the PM by her own party. When she won this vote at the end of last year, it was stated that according to Conservative Party rules, this cannot be run again within a year. However  there now seems to be some doubt on this rule which may be only of the 1922 Committee of  backbenchers rather than the party. Might they change this rule and run this leadership election again and who might win? 

Last but not least, there is the People's vote or confirmatory referendum. There are increasing calls for such a vote but there is not yet thought to be a Parliamentary majority for this yet.

Parliament has now broken for its recess and we will have to wait until after Easter for the next formal instalment of this story.