Wednesday’s ‘no deal’ vote is also important

by Hugo Dixon | 10.03.2019

Pundits are focussing on Tuesday’s vote in the House of Commons on the prime minister’s deal and Thursday’s on delaying Brexit. But Wednesday’s vote on “no deal” is also significant.

When Theresa May caved into pressure from about 20 of her own ministers two weeks ago and agreed to a process that could lead to Brexit being postponed, she agreed to hold three votes. The first, by March 12, will be on her deal. The last, on March 14, will be on whether to ask the EU for extra time.

The middle vote, by March 13, will ask the Commons “if it supports leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement and a framework for a future relationship on 29 March.” This has been overlooked, largely because MPs are expected to vote against crashing out with no deal. While that seems a safe assumption, the significance of the vote is not mainly over whether MPs decided to commit hara-kiri.

An important question is whether the prime minister will allow a “free vote” on the motion or whether she will seek to whip Tory MPs into line. It looks likely she will opt for a free vote. Otherwise, she will provoke mass resignations from her government and her party could tear itself to pieces.

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A free vote will be revealing. The prime minister herself will have to decide which way to vote – unless she can arrange a last-minute diplomatic trip to Afghanistan or some far-flung country. Whichever way she jumps – “let’s crash out”, “let’s not crash out” or “I haven’t got a clue, I’m abstaining” – will cause her difficulties.

Ministers who have been been trying to appeal to both wings of the Tory party to advance their future leadership prospects, such as Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt, will also be in a bind. Do they say “crash out” in order to endear themselves to the grassroots but then antagonise the sensible sections of their party? Or do they say “don’t crash out” and anger the grassroots? Or do they sit on the fence looking useless?

Similar considerations apply to backbench Tory MPs. If they vote to “crash out” to look macho with their constituency associations, local business will be up in arms. They may conclude that the Conservative Party really has turned itself into the “fuck business” party, on the lines of Boris Johnson’s famous quote from last summer.

The vote on March 13 is also expected to be preceded by a debate. This will be the first time MPs have properly debated the consequences of quitting the EU with no deal. Not before time – given that, by then, it will be just 16 days before we are currently scheduled to quit the bloc. It is important that the arguments are aired in public and that voters get to hear them.

It will be interesting to see what reasons hardline Brexiters give for “no deal”. This will be their time to stand up and be counted. There will be nowhere to hide.

Given all this, some people are speculating that the prime minister will cancel Wednesday’s vote. But Labour’s Yvette Cooper asked her explicitly two weeks ago what assurance there could be that she wouldn’t pull it – and she made a solemn pledge to MPs that she would stick to her word, adding that she was speaking on behalf of the whole Cabinet. So she can’t cancel the vote without trashing her own credibility and that of the entire government.

Edited by Jenny Sterne

4 Responses to “Wednesday’s ‘no deal’ vote is also important”

  • Two odd weeks before crashing out the country finally gets down to some serious business with regards to Brexit. What an achievement!

  • The assumption that only a small minority of MPs will vote for “no deal” is too complacent. Far too little has been done to get across how disastrous such an outcome would be. The mantra about “going on to WTO terms ” makes it sound like this is all about the precise structure of tariffs we trade under. The reality is that “no deal” means no agreement whatsoever as to how we extract ourselves from 40 + years of close integration with the EU trading system and many other important partnerships ranging across security, education, transport etc etc. With no withdrawal agreement there would be no certainty as to the legal basis of trade in many areas. If the threats to combine this with a refusal to pay all or part of the agreed £35bn to £39bn financial settlement the UK would be enmeshed in legal challenges and have its international reputation shredded for decades to come.

    And yet most of the brexit-supporting MPs say “While we would prefer a deal there would not be any great problems with “no deal”. They must know that this is simply untrue.

    As for those who would ideally like to remain in the EU they must at all costs avoid taking actions that could bring about “no deal” by accident or otherwise.

  • “[May] can’t cancel the vote without trashing her own credibility and that of the entire government.”

    There’s just one little snag in that statement. The implied assumption that they have any credibility left to trash.