High Noon in Westminster

What is happening over Brexit has more suspense than any whodunnit – first the tough, long-drawn-out negotiations in Brussels and now the showdown in the British parliament. Now as before, Brexit is turning out to be a first-class political drama, whose provisional climax is due on 11th December. That is when the House of Commons will be voting on the EU withdrawal agreement. The situation does not look all that rosy. Various members of parliament are fighting tooth and nail against the proposed deal, albeit for very different motives. The faction of Brexit hardliners is fearful that the Irish backstop mechanism is a trap, committing Great Britain to a customs union with the EU in all eternity. Those who advocate a soft Brexit, by contrast, are hoping for a second referendum  – maybe to even be able to stave off an EU exit scenario. Meanwhile, Theresa May is attempting to win the electorate over to her deal so as to have a lever with which to exert pressure on parliament. So how is the final act of the drama going to unfold?

The debate about the withdrawal agreement motion is scheduled to begin in the coming week. Every UK parliamentarian has a right to propose amendments. If there is a majority for one or more of these amendments, the motion will be adjusted accordingly ahead of the final vote on 11th December. Should the House of Commons reject the motion or else push through amendments which render a ratification of the agreement impossible, ministers would have 21 days, until 7th January at the latest, to make a statement to the Commons on how the government proposes to proceed. In that context, the government would have two options: either to conduct a further parliamentary vote, or else to immediately put the Brexit train on the rails leading to “no deal.” In our view, the first of these options is the more likely one, with Premier May probably having a better chance of getting the withdrawal deal through at the second attempt. Our reasoning here is as follows: Where British members of parliament could still regard the first vote as an opportunity to vent their disenchantment, a second vote would be an all-or-nothing occasion.  If the deal were to fail to secure a majority at the second attempt, there would be a far higher probability of a „no-deal Brexit,” and neither the EU nor the British parliament will want to risk that.

In the meantime, PM May’s political future will be hanging in the balance. Should she indeed lose the vote scheduled for 11th December, speculation about a rebellion within the Conservative Party – or indeed about new elections – would undoubtedly run rampant.  However, it would be in nobody’s interests if May were to be toppled in an internal coup: the Conservatives would inevitably settle on a moderate Brexit supporter (Theresa May 2.0), Brussels would hardly see this changeover at the top as a reason to make any fresh concessions, and the parliamentary arithmetic would remain unchanged, to boot. As regards the option of new elections, this would presuppose a 2/3 majority in parliament. We doubt that it would be possible to muster 434 MPs who currently have the courage to submit to the people’s verdict. There has also been repeated speculation about a possible second referendum. For the latter to take place, though, the EU would need to grant the British a time extension, which would only be possible if the government were to sign up to the “Remain” campaign. But that scarcely looks feasible with the Tory government which is in office.

The interim conclusion: Unless a miracle happens, Prime Minister May will probably lose the vote on 11th December. But that would not yet be the definitive denouement: the Brexit drama could well run on into February.  Nevertheless, we are continuing to assume that both the EU and the British parliament wish to avoid a “no-deal Brexit” at all costs, and that an agreement can therefore be forged before the closing curtain comes down.

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