100 days until Brexit: from no-deal to a People’s Vote, what the hell happens now?

Britain is due to leave the European Union on 29 March next year. But with the clock ticking down and chaos engulfing Westminster, it’s still far from clear how – or even if – that will happen. The PoliticsHome team spoke to those in the know to try and figure out where the UK might go from here…

It’s been described as “doomed”, the “worst of both worlds” and “dead as a dodo”, but Theresa May’s deal is still the only actual Brexit plan on the table. And when it comes before MPs on 14 January they will be faced with the prospect of a plane-grounding, food-hoarding, medicine-stockpiling no-deal Brexit looming just weeks away.

Still, with 106 Tory MPs having publicly declared their intention to vote against her Brexit plan, the Prime Minister is facing an uphill battle. But the failure to oust May in last week’s confidence vote, doubled with a baying opposition, has led a few Brexit-minded Tory MPs to give her a small modicum of hope.

Tory grandee Edward Leigh was the first pro-Brexit MP to break cover earlier this week, suggesting that changes to the Northern Ireland backstop could persuade some hostile backbenchers to begrudgingly back her deal.

Speaking in the Commons, he said: “Many of us who have been sceptical of this deal so far could be persuaded to vote for it if there was a legally binding protocol saying that, as is normal with international treaties, if a temporary arrangement ceases to be temporary then either side can unilaterally withdraw.”

And in a sign of a turning tide, his comments were echoed by Leave-backing Maria Caulfield, who said she would be “more likely to support the deal” if May secured further assurances from the EU over the most controversial elements of the withdrawal agreement. 

While it’s likely that fears of a Corbyn-led government are weighing heavy on the minds of Tory MPs, the pressure from grassroots members to get on with Brexit might also be having an impact. One Tory parliamentary candidate told PoliticsHome: “My members making contact overwhelmingly do not want another referendum. Some strong Leavers have started to see that the Prime Minister’s deal is the clearest way to leaving the EU but many are frustrated with being in this situation. A lot of hope is still pinned to achieving changes to deal on the backstop – from all sides.”

They added: “The public really do want the matter to be resolved by parliament ASAP, and that is not a PR line. I genuinely think she has caught the mood of the country well. She has support on the doorsteps who don’t normally support us. Labour don’t get any praise on Brexit at all.”

That’s a view supported by the polls. Even in the wake of the Conservatives’ chaotic leadership challenge, a poll from YouGov showed the Tories had made gains against Labour to the tune of two percentage points.

But winning those crucial concessions from Brussels is going to be easier said than done, as last week’s bruising European Council meeting made clear. Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has all-but ruled out May getting much more than a wordy clarification on some aspects of the backstop – a far cry from the fundamental legal changes sought by her Brexit-backing backbenchers and her confidence and supply partners, the DUP.

But with both no-deal and a second referendum hated in equal measures by the two ideological wings of the Conservative party, MPs could find themselves holding their nose and voting for May after all.

The Commons could swing behind a different kind of Brexit

If PM’s plan doesn’t win the day, she’ll have up to 21 days to come back to Parliament and set out what she’s going to do next. Some MPs are still hoping that support for a different form of Brexit could emerge in those crucial days, with Cabinet ministers urging the PM to hold a series of non-binding, “indicative” votes to test the appetite of the Commons for alternatives. The one generating the most headlines at the minute is the so-called ‘Norway-plus’ model being touted by former minister Nick Boles, one-time chief of the centre-right Policy Exchange think tank.

That would see the UK join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA) alongside current members Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. As Boles tells PoliticsHome: “Being a member of the EEA/EFTA, is effectively taking us back to the kind of economic partnership that most people thought we were going into in 1972 when we voted to go into the European Economic Community. It is effectively the Common Market that binds the EU economies with those of the EFTA states. The key feature of it is that you’re in the single market, but you’re not in all of the other bits of the EU. So you’re not in the agricultural policies, the fisheries poliices, the justice policies, the home affairs policies, the foreign and security policies – you’re not in any of the political structures of the EU.”

It represents, Boles argues, a “balance between the desire of 52% to leave the European Union and the desire of the 48% not to go too far away”. The plan also has the backing of high-profile Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, who has dubbed it a “sensible, pragmatic and bridge-building course between the economic suicide of no-deal and the political self-harm of a second referendum”. 

But there are questions over whether some of those MPs who once manned the barricades for a Norway-style deal are still up for it. One Labour backbencher who previously defied Jeremy Corbyn to back EEA membership and “soften the blow of Brexit” told PoliticsHome they felt Boles’s plan was simply “too little, too late”. They said: “Those Tories had their opportunity to push for this and they didn’t. They ignored the overtures that we made to them at the time.” 

That view was echoed by a senior Remain-supporting Conservative MP, who is now far more convinced that a second Brexit referendum (more on that below) represents a way out of the deadlock. “What is surprising about all of this is that some of us voted for this some time ago,” they told PolHome. “And you know, where were Nick Boles and George Freeman and all these people then? They didn’t vote for it then.”

Boles – who has vowed to resign the Tory whip if Britain slides into a no-deal Brexit – acknowledges that some of those who once supported a Norway-style arrangement are now “agitating for a second referendum”. But he says Labour MPs representing Northern, working class seats that backed Leave in 2016 are “very nervous” about a second referendum and are seriously considering Norway as a route out of the impasse. He’s also putting faith in an estimated 200 Tory MPs he thinks will back Theresa May’s deal and who he believes will swing behind the EEA option as a “fallback” if she fails to get it passed.

It’s not just Labour he has to think about, though: the Norway model also faces criticism from Tory Brexiteers, with some pointing out that membership of the EEA would see the UK accept EU rules on free movement while continuing to make financial contributions to the bloc. Others feel it represents yet another half-in-half-out form of Brexit that does not fulfil the mandate of the 2016 vote – and are instead pushing for a deal modelled along the lines of the EU’s existing Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada. Senior Tory Eurosceptic Sir Bernard Jenkin has dismissed Norway as a “dead end”.

In a pitch to his Conservative colleagues to rally around the plan, Boles says: “To all of us who support it, it seems to represent a happy medium, a compromise. I’m sure there’ll be aspects of it that people won’t like – we’re still bound by freedom of movement rules, though you do have an emergency brake which you might be able to use in some circumstances, but fundamentally you’re bound by free movement – so that might be something that people aren’t so keen on. But on the other hand, they’re getting a lot of what they wanted while maintaining all of the economic integration that has been so important for British businesses.”

A second referendum could upend the process – and stop Brexit altogether

The loudest calls to break the deadlock come from those calling for a second Brexit referendum. A gaggle of different groups, including the People’s Vote campaign, Best for Britain and Our Future Our Choice are effectively pushing not just for another vote but for continued EU membership. 

The line of senior political figures on board and ministers who have quit the Government to join their ranks has kept up momentum – although polling over whether the public wants another vote or to remain in the EU is inconclusive.

In public, campaigners are bullish about the chances of a second vote. They were given a boost this week when the PM issued an unprompted warning about how divisive another public poll would be – a clear hint that she considers it a risk. Amid reports her allies are war-gaming a second vote, May told the Commons:  “Let us not break faith with the British people by trying to stage another referendum. Another vote which would do irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics, because it would say to millions who trusted in democracy, that our democracy does not deliver.”

But behind closed doors some of those pushing for a fresh referendum are more doubtful. One insider puts the chances of securing a nationwide vote at 30% or 40% – and argues there is a similar likelihood of the PM’s deal getting through.

The roadmap for securing a referendum is of course predicated on the Brexit deal being voted down in January. The PM would be expected to go back to Brussels before tabling a second motion to state the next steps from the Government, which after a parliamentary tweak by Tory Dominic Grieve will be amendable. 

Campaigners expect a call for a second referendum to be tacked on and – possibly after an indicative vote to gauge support and with the hoped-for backing of the Labour party – win the day. Article 50 would have to be extended to allow for a referendum, but EU leaders have indicated they would consent to that.

A key hurdle in that process will be getting Labour to come out for a second referendum. The party agreed a motion at its September conference to consider throwing its weight behind another vote if it cannot secure a general election. 

The opposition is expected to table a no-confidence motion in the Government if the Brexit deal is voted down in January. Its expected failure will be a defining moment for the fresh referendum camp.

When it comes to the referendum itself the vital question will be what appears on the ballot paper. Could the public be made to choose between the deal clinched by Theresa May and leaving the bloc without a deal? Many think not. Reports that key allies of the PM were mapping out a second referendum scenario suggested the Government would offer just the two options with the expectation that some wily MP will stick Remain in as an option too as the required legislation to trigger a vote makes its way through the Commons.

It was Tory MP Justine Greening who first suggested a three-question ballot in any second referendum. Critics suggested it was a bid to split the Leave vote betwen two camps – carving a clear path for Remain to win. But Greening said a preference voting system would be used, allowing voters to mark a first and second choice to ensure both Brexit options are counted against Remain. 

After some considerable wrangling, Labour eventually accepted that Remain would probably have to be on the ballot paper of any referendum it backed. And Shadow Cabinet member Andrew Gwynne has suggested it would allow its members to decide whether the party should campaign to stay in the EU or not. 

Britain could leave the European Union without a deal

“No-deal is still better than a bad deal,” the PM proclaimed this week, as she stuck as doggedly as ever to a line many Eurosceptics think she’s long abandoned. But it’s a sentiment few of her top team can muster much enthusiasm for these days, with warnings from Brexiteers Liam Fox and Michael Gove as stark as those from leading Remainers Greg Clark and Amber Rudd.

So could the country really crash out of the bloc on 29 March of next year? Even though the Commons impasse remains, leaving without a deal does remain the default option and, without a deal in place or an extension of Article 50, it’s where we’re currently headed. 

But Anand Menon, director of the non-partisan UK in a Changing Europe think tank says only “a very, very small set of people” now see it as an acceptable option. “All I’m saying is I think that people will go to enormous lengths to try and stop it, which limits its likelihood – although it’s far from impossible,” he told PoliticsHome.

The King’s College professor – whose think tank is holding its own 100 days to Brexit event tonight –  says the real prospect of Parliament either backing a change of course or rallying behind May’s deal means a no-deal exit could still be avoided. 

But, he believes any second referendum on Brexit could still see ‘no deal’ left on the table – despite the dire warnings about its impact. “I don’t think it’s a question of whether it can be justified. I think it’s a question of whether the politics might make it have to be there, and I think they might,” he says. 

Expert predictions of long lorry queues at Dover and Calais, with food and medicine shortages arising as a result, have fuelled many of the fears about a no-deal. But Brexiteers have dismissed those alarming predictions as ‘Project Fear’ – and think a “managed” no-deal, with Whitehall pulling out all the stops, would be far from the disastrous scenario modelled by the Treasury, the Bank of England and others. 

Conservative MP Andrea Jenkyns is bullish about the prospect of leaving on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms, telling PoliticsHome that while she has long pushed for “a deal which respects the referendum result and delivers on the promises made to the British people”, a no-deal Brexit does not “overly concern” her. 

The Brexiteer adds: “Under WTO rules we will be free from all the interference of the EU and its institutions, we will be able to sign our own free trade deals and we will get to keep our £39bn divorce settlement – which equates to £1,400 per family. The WTO has 160 members and accounts for about 95% of world trade. 

“To say that we would not trade with the EU under WTO rules is not true. I want to see as much global free trade as possible and I look forward to the UK having the opportunity to trade freely with our single largest trading partner, the USA. But this can only be achieved if we leave the EU’s customs union.”

So does this week’s major ramping up of the Government’s prep work make a no-deal more palatable? Menon is not convinced. “What [the Government] are saying is we’re going to tell the European Union that we’re not going to negotiate with them anymore, we’ve had enough, we’re going to go home,” he says. “And then they’ll say to us, ‘well, look we really don’t want no-deal so why don’t we negotiate some bilateral arrangements, for flights, the PM’s insulin supply, whatever it is it might be’. The EU aren’t going to do that, the EU are going to say okay, that’s fine, totally up to you. Give us a bell when you’re ready to give us £39bn.”

Meanwhile, the Cabinet is deeply divided on a no-deal Brexit. Penny Mordaunt told colleagues at this week’s meeting of top ministers that a “managed guidepath” involving a two-year transition period would allow businesses to prepare for life after Brexit if MPs reject the deal the Prime Minister has struck with Brussels.

But Justice Secretary David Gauke shot back: “Managed no-deal is not a viable option. It’s not on offer from the EU and the responsibility of Cabinet ministers is not to propagate unicorns but to slay them.” Chancellor Philip Hammond also told the meeting that a managed no-deal was “not a viable option”, a source told PoliticsHome. Still, there’s plenty of time to figure all this out, er, right?


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