If Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement fails to pass in the House of Commons on Tuesday 11th December 2018 , a 'no deal' outcome isn't guaranteed. Here are some realistic scenarios that may unfold in any such event.
The Withdrawal Bill is due to be voted on by the House of Commons on 11th December. As things stand, it appears inevitable that it will not get support from the Commons with more than 100 Conservative MPs reportedly set to vote against the deal. If it fails it won’t be for the lack of trying by the PM and her team. The PM has already put in over 11 hours of work at the despatch box selling the deal and will clock up many more hours before the vote .
However, the likelihood of success appears grim. The DUP have already set out their stall against the deal. Moreover, every day more and more Conservative MPs come out in opposition - including those who are usually loyal to the Government. On that basis the only way it gets approval from the Commons is if a considerable number of Labour MP’s vote with the government – essentially the revolt on the Labour benches would need to be bigger than the revolt on the Government benches.
So, what happens if (or when) the Withdrawal Bill fails? In this instance, there are a number of scenarios that we foresee.
1) Government maintains control, renegotiates parts of the deal and has a second vote of Parliament
This is largely contingent on three things: i) the margin of defeat being no more than 50 votes ii) The Prime Minister holding on to power and iii) the EU being willing to negotiate on the most controversial parts of the deal.
If it's a case of bringing the DUP back on board plus a handful of the more moderate Tory rebels, the EU might - just might - give some ground on the backstop, such as allowing the UK to unilaterally withdraw from it. This could enable the Government to force through a revised Withdrawal Bill and rebels could claim success in having forced concessions from the EU.
This probably isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Media speculation seemed to indicate that Government was preparing for such an eventuality on the basis that a second vote would focus minds following a probable sharp drop in sterling and a stock market rout. This could lead to grudging support of the deal (although the Government couldn't simply present the same deal again).
Likelihood: 7/10 - it seems fanciful at this point to think that the margin of defeat is going to be narrow, but it's likely that the Prime Minister and the EU have realised by now that it's destined to fall at the first hurdle and have made some contingency plans. Given there's a summit of the European Council on December 13 , the timing of the Parliamentary vote seems scheduled to take account for a very quick renegotiation at the Council, followed swiftly by a vote on a new Withdrawal Bill the week after. Incidentally, MPs would have virtually no time to debate and pick apart the second deal before recess.
2) Government loses control, is defeated in a vote of no confidence, a new Prime Minister is appointed and a new deal is presented
If the Government either loses the first vote by something closer to 100 votes or loses a second vote, the Opposition will certainly fancy their chances of destabilising the Conservative Party by tabling a vote of no confidence in the Government. Following a major defeat on the Withdrawal Bill, Labour have indicated they intend to force a confidence vote.
On one hand, the conventional wisdom is that the governing party closes ranks in a vote of no confidence. On the other hand, 27 MPs have openly declared that they have no confidence in the Prime Minister and it is possible that they could be tempted to use a vote of no confidence to force her departure. Given that the Fixed Term parliament Act caters for a 14 day cooling off period in which a new government can pass a vote of confidence (provided the Queen appoints the new Prime Minister), it's possible that Theresa May resigns or is forced out and the Conservative Party and DUP quickly rally around a new Conservative leader who then presents a new deal to Parliament.
What kind of deal this is - and whether it has any more success - would largely depend on the leader. It's hard to see how there can be a majority in Parliament for a Johnsonian "hard Brexit", but someone like Jeremy Hunt or Sajid Javid may be tempted to try a new approach altogether.
Likelihood: 5/10 - It's by no means inconceivable but it remains to be seen if Conservative MPs will vote against their own government and whether the DUP would aid Jeremy Corbyn given his past support for Sinn Fein. It's possible the Conservatives themselves may appoint a new leader via the internal party process in the event of failure, however.
3) Government completely loses control and a General Election is called
This is a real long shot. Conservative MPs certainly aren't minded to call an election against the backdrop of chaos with the current national polls at neck and neck and the Fixed Term Parliament Act requires a two thirds majority in Parliament to call an early election. This is probably the least likely outcome unless the Government itself decides it wants an election, which there's no indication it does.
Likelihood: 3/10 - It could happen if things enter complete gridlock, but it's likely the Conservatives would appoint a new leader who would try and navigate the Parliamentary arithmetic first. It's only really conceivable as an absolute last resort when the Government feels it has extinguished all other options.
4) No clear consensus in Parliament leads to a second referendum
This would almost definitely need a new leader in place given the PM has categorically and repeatedly ruled it out. It would also almost definitely require Article 50 to be extended and given most credible Tory front-runners have also ruled it out, we are probably in the realms of requiring a new government. There's also a complete lack of any real consensus about what question should be asked in such an eventuality. Should it be the Withdrawal Bill vs Remain or should it simply be a case of what type of Brexit people want, such as Withdrawal Deal vs Hard Brexit and a third, softer option? Getting agreement on the question would require a lot of time and Parliamentary maneuvering and its by no means clear there's unity behind one option.
Likelihood: 4/10 - The lack of consensus around what question would be put to the public means this is unlikely. It's hard to see there being any real appetite for simply re-running the 2016 referendum campaign with a Remain vs Leave side and likewise, it's hard to see how you can have competing versions of Leave put to a vote when as things stand, there's only one offer on the table.
5) Gridlock in Parliament leads to 'No Deal' Brexit
In absence of any agreement, No Deal Brexit is the default option. In this eventuality, we face the prospect of no deal being struck, in the short term at least, meaning we leave the EU without any transitional arrangements in place. Whilst it is clear that there is no majority in the Commons in support of this, it's also far from clear that there's any consensus behind anything else right now. Given it is the default position in absence of any other options being implemented, it could well happen. The effects of a No Deal Brexit are disputed by both sides, with the Treasury and the Bank of England suggesting that it could cause significant short and medium term economic dips, but the Leave campaigners have claimed that we heard all this before in 2016 and the warnings were over egged.
Likelihood: 3/10 - By virtue of being the default option, it's theoretically possible. The current lack of consensus in Parliament certainly means that unless they rapidly agree on something else, it could well end up happening by accident rather than design. However, it would be very surprising if Parliament couldn't coalesce behind an alternative. The Grieve Amendment, which allows for amendments to be made to a 'plan B' put to the House, makes a Norway option much more likely.
6) Parliament takes control of the process and rallies behind a “Norway” style deal
This has been gaining currency around Westminster. Initially championed by Nick Boles, it seems to be picking up more and more supporters every day. The Norway style deal would see the UK eventually join the European Free Trade Area (EFTA). It's not the option many people would have opted for at the start but although plenty can find something that they dislike about this approach, it allows something for everyone and may end up being the “least worst” second choice. This is likely to the be the option turned to when all else has failed but given it is a 'soft Brexit' option that would keep the UK in the Single Market but not in the Customs Union. This would enable the UK to have a greater degree of independence over its trade policy and freedom from the Common Fisheries Policy, but it would entail a continuation of freedom of movement. It looks like the most likely outcome from where we are now, but there is likely to be a significant backlash from those who supported Brexit with a view to reclaiming control of borders.
Likelihood: 8/10 - It's easy to envisage a scenario where the Government can't get through a deal and this becomes the "off the shelf" solution that Parliament quickly rallies behind in order to avoid a Hard Brexit. This is even more likely following the Grieve Amendment, which paves the way for The Commons to amend any plan B put to them by the Government if it loses the first vote on the Withdrawal Bill. The numbers in Parliament probably exist to get behind this but whether it proves popular with the country is a different matter entirely.
The opinions in this article are of the author.
Alan O’Kelly is a Conservative Party activist and Head of Events for Conservative Progress.