Almost exactly two and a half years from the Brexit vote, we have reached the point where MPs get to vote on the deal. There has been a lot of bluster and hot air from all sides. A lot of nonsense. A lot of late nights. But now, we're here. The issue is that lots of people don't want to be here. They want to be somewhere else entirely.
The issue I have here is that I don't know what's going to happen. I'm not embarrassed to say that. Nobody knows what is going to happen. Anyone who pretends to is either lying or a fool. Or both. So, I'm going to lay out some options for you and give you my best guess. Feel free to reply to this with your best guess or just to tell me how wrong I am. I'd be interested in your thoughts.
Before we get onto what happens, it's worth looking at what the vote is about.
The deal has two bits to it, one that's legally binding and one that's an expression of good will.
This sorts out three things. The divorce bill (£39bn). That EU citizens can stay here and UK citizens can stay in the EU (mostly in Spain). The Irish border issue.
I'm sure you know by now that it's that third point - the Irish border that is so difficult. Everyone wants an open border and some think we can sort that out in time for January 2022 when the transition period will be over. In case it's not sorted, though, there is this backstop thing. Just in case. And this backstop is a real issue. We may not be able to exit whenever we want. Some are saying we could be held in the agreement for decades. The DUP are particularly unhappy.
This is a lot of nice words about what great friends we'll be in the future. We can trade and travel and arrest and hold hands at the weekends. But none of it is binding, nor has anything actually been agreed with the EU. This is a statement of intention before talks start properly next year. I personally think it's about as much use as my statement of intention when I join a gym in January.
Six amendments will be selected on Tuesday. They will range from the Labour one refusing the deal and ruling out a no deal Brexit to Brexiteers laying down a change that means that we can walk out of the deal if the EU are trying to keep us in the backstop, to a call for a second referendum, to specific types of deals like Norway plus. I don' think that any one of these amendments will have enough MPs to go through. That means the motion will, I think, go through to the final vote unamended.
Right now there are three possibilities for the vote:
The vote is delayed - there is a lot of talk right now of the PM pulling the vote. She knows she can't win, so she will find a way to postpone until she can do a bit more work to make it a little more palatable. In an interview on Thursday morning, May refused to be drawn on this issue. We'll see.
The vote is won - there are a lot of people who think this almost certainly won't happen, but... it's still a possibility. Theresa May is meeting with a lot of Conservative MPs. There is speculation that she intentionally lost a vote on contempt of Parliament to show some MPs that Brexit may not happen at all.
To be fair, when you look at numbers it is tricky. The DUP have been very clear they won't vote with the government if the backstop is still there. It's hard to see how May can get rid of the backstop before Tuesday. So, that leaves the government with the 315 Conservative MPs. But lots of them have said they would vote against. The PM needs to do some pretty solid deal-making here. There are also a handful of Labour and Lib Dem MPs who could swell the numbers in support, but nothing like enough if the 100 or so Conservative rebels make good on their words.
There is still time, though, and she's a pretty determined Prime Minister. Don't be too surprised if she manages to squeeze herself over the line.
The vote is lost - this is, right now, by far the most likely outcome. All those Brexiteer Conservative MPs voting with the DUP and the opposition parties mean there just aren't the votes to get this through. Sky News estimated this week that she'd lose by 170 votes. I think that's much too big a number. MPs don't like voting against their leader. It's not a great look for their party. Many are waiting to the last minute to see what concessions they can get. We'll see.
If the vote is delayed - all this Brexit chat carries over until January. It's all a bit of an anticlimax.
If the vote is won - Brexit is *on*. As soon as next week, Parliament start passing the necessary legislation. Theresa May starts focusing on domestic bits and bobs. We're leaving on 29th March 2019. After that, I'd expect a Conservative leadership challenge, and a new leader to take us through transition and into the 2022 General Election. That said, if she's managed to get this vote through, she's a blooming miracle worker and may find a way to survive as PM.
If the vote is lost - this is where things get a bit less certain. Nobody really knows what will happen. The PM is refusing to discuss it because she is 'focused on winning'. Here are some things that may or may not happen...
A no-confidence vote from Labour - This is almost certain to happen the next day if the vote fails. But, it almost certainly won't pass. The DUP have said that they would support the government if May goes back to the EU to try to renegotiate the backstop. So the vote happens but is narrowly defeated. There will be no General Election.
A leadership challenge from the Conservatives - almost certainly the 48 letters would now emerge. She's lost the biggest vote of her career. She's spent her entire leadership time building to this. The knives will be out. There would then be a vote of confidence within the party. She survives or she doesn't. If she does, there can be no more challenges for a year. If she doesn't, we could have a new Prime Minister in 3 weeks or so.
A return to Brussels to make some (cosmetic) changes - regardless of confidence votes in the House or in the party, May will go back to the EU and try to get some concessions. Right now the EU are saying there are none to be had. It is widely expected they'll change their minds once the vote falls. The PM will be hoping to get enough from the EU to go back to MPs in January and win that vote.
So far, so good. I'd expect all three of those things to happen in the event of a failed vote. There are more things that could happen - with varying degrees of likelihood.
A second referendum - OK, by this stage, Labour have failed in their attempt to get a General Election. The policy is, in that eventuality, they will campaign for a second referendum. They would join an array of opposition parties in that policy, as well as a few Conservative MPs. That's quite a lot of pressure on the PM. The issue is that Theresa May has been very, very clear that she thinks a second vote is completely off the cards. It might be that the only way this happens is if there has been a change of leadership. That said, she's quite keen on hanging on, our current PM. Could we see her make a huge U-turn? It's not completely out the question.
Norway plus - This is possibly the most popular option in the Commons. It accepts the Withdrawal Agreement as it stands, but re-writes the Political Declaration (which is only a guideline anyway). The plan would be that our future relationship would be like Norway, plus a bit. Norway is members of EFTA which is part of the single market - including freedom of movement, but with an emergency brake if 'difficulties' arise. The plus would be some form of a customs union to ensure the Irish border works properly. We leave the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy. This could be done with Theresa May still at the helm. If the EU27 are up for it, we could see a vote on this in late January, and then, if it passes, Brexit is back *on* and we leave on 29th March 2019.
The Big 'Tatton's best guess' as to what on earth will happen.
I've got this nagging feeling that she wins the vote. I think she's tenacious and driven and prepared to do all kinds of backroom deals. Literally no pundits seem to agree with me, so I'm not going to make that my big guess. Sure, I'm a sheep and a coward. But sometimes you need to listen to your elders and betters, right?
So. Here we go: I think she loses. I think there is a leadership challenge. I think she's replaced v quickly with someone (possibly an interim to get us through Brexit) who goes back and renegotiates. Possibly by some kind of backstop adjustment. More likely a Norway Plus model. With cross-party support, that vote (maybe on January 23rd). We head to 29th March. Leave and start transition. Full Conservative leadership election takes place.
Sunday - If you love this stuff and find the creation of history fascinating and engaging, watch Marr (BBC One, 10am) and Ridge (Sky News 9am). If you find it irritating, repetitive and futile, maybe give them a skip.
There will be no prime time debate in the evening. The BBC & ITV have pulled out. ITV, though, have The Chase: Celebrity Specials and Catchphrase Celebrity Specials in the slot that had been mentioned. So, you'll get well-known faces being challenged with some tricky questions, but not those faces or those questions.
Monday - 'Twas the night before the meaningful vote, when all through the House
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
Except that, of course, there will be much stirring. MPs will be enjoying the fourth day of Brexit vote chat. The first three were fairly unremarkable. Lots of predictable stuff. Apparently, Theresa May likes the deal and Corbyn doesn't. That kind of thing.
Tuesday - Here it is. Tuesday 11th December. The meaningful vote. First up will be the day's debate and the selection of 6 amendments to be voted on before the big one. Voting will take place in the early evening. Summing up will happen just before. It'll be worth following from 5ish.
Tune in if you can. Follow or catch up with us if you can't. This stuff matters.
Wednesday - I mean, who knows what's happening? PMQs, presumably. Maybe a vote of confidence in the government? Maybe 48 letters emerge? Maybe, just maybe, a triumphant Theresa May makes a statement. Official business today is just 'Consideration of Lords amendments'. Which means 'we're keeping this day open for whatever needs to happen'.
Thursday- Gosh. I don't know. The end of days? Business as usual? Something in between?
Theresa May has scheduled a general debate about using public health to reduce youth violence, so it's clear that she wants tp win the vote and then get back to the domestic agenda. Sometimes, though, you don't always get what you want.
Friday - No Parliament. Well, that's not true. Over in the Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury has a debate about linking British foreign, defence and international development policy. It's a pretty interesting topic, to be fair. But. By this stage next week, I'm not expecting anyone to care.
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