Constitution Street

An uncertain outcome

Published: 16 January 2019

Fellows of the Centre on Constitutional Change respond to the rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement by the House of Commons and the impending no-confidence vote in the government.

Professor Nicola McEwen, Co-Director of the Centre, said of the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement:

“The government’s defeat in the Commons may have been of epic proportions, but the MPs who voted against it did so for very different reasons. That makes finding an alternative way forward extraordinarily difficult.

“The PM’s strategy appears to be to run down the clock, making a version of her Withdrawal Agreement the only viable alternative to No Deal. That’s unlikely to bring many more MPs on side. Instead, we can expect growing pressure for a shift in direction to prevent the hugely disruptive scenario of leaving the EU without a deal on 29 March.

“A shift in direction might be to allow further negotiations with the EU if a majority can be found for an alternative way ahead. Or, failing that, to facilitate another referendum, or a general election. All of these options would require an extension of the Article 50 deadline. Such an extension would require not just a change of heart by the UK Government, but the unanimous support of the European Council.”

Dr Mary C. Murphy, Jean Monnet Chair at University College Cork speaks to a deepening sense of unease in Ireland about the broader implications of Brexit:

"In my lifetime, I have rarely seen such public interest in Ireland in a Westminster vote. The enormous attention being paid to events in London by Irish citizens gives a sense of the real anxiety which is felt here about Brexit. There is deep concern about what the rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement means for the Irish economy and for political stability on the island of Ireland, and there is genuine unease about how the situation can be salvaged and a no deal Brexit avoided"

"The direction of events in Westminster however, heightens the prospect of a no deal Brexit and should that scenario materialise it will mean some form of border on the island of Ireland. There are few certainties these days, but what we do know is that such a development will threaten Irish economic stability, undermine years of political progress, and possibly re-open recently settled arguments about the constitutional futures of our two islands"

Professor Dan Wincott at Cardiff University speaks to the position of MPs:

‘Since Article 50 was triggered, Westminster seems to have been trapped in a catastrophic equilibrium.  It has been unable to move towards or agree an approach to Brexit that can garner support from a workable majority of MPs.  Relatively few MPs want  the UK leaving the EU without an agreement - but that remains the default outcome, what happens unless something else changes.  Many aspects of the current situation are disturbing.  First, the choices MPs face are widely misunderstood.  Second, we lack a realistic appraisal of what can now be agreed at Westminster or negotiated with the EU.  Third, there almost certainly is insufficient time between now and March 29 to achieve agreement on and pass all the legislation needed for a smooth, well-planned Brexit.  
In relation to Prime Minister Theresa May’s ‘deal’ - the Withdrawal Agreement (WA)- there may be good reasons some MPs to oppose it.  Those who openly want the UK to remain a member of the EU to oppose the WA are in this position.  So too are Brexiters who want a very limited relationship with the EU in the future - perhaps now the position of many in the strongly pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG) of Conservatives.  Advocates of intermediate positions who have opposed the WA may be conflating two distinct matters: what can be achieved at the withdrawal stage of the Brexit process with the Future Relationship which the EU and UK have been planning to negotiate after the terms of withdrawal have been finalised.  Of course, the WA - and particularly the Political Agreement on the Future Relationship - help to set the tone for those negotiations.  While the WA makes options canvased by the ERG difficult to achieve as a package,  many of the possibilities now being discussed - such as for the UK-EU relations on customs and the single market, stronger regulatory protections for workers and the environment - remain up for negotiation at the next stage if the WA.’
Dr Coree Brown Swan of the Centre on Constitutional Change reflects on Labour's strategy and positioning:
"Labour may have triggered the vote of no confidence but the party’s position on Brexit remains uncertain. Even if Brexit turmoil were to lead to a general election, the Labour party’s leadership pledge to campaign for a better Brexit deal - reopening negotiations on the terms on which Britain will depart the European Union - is likely to exacerbate deep divisions within the party, between those who feel that Labour must respect the result of the referendum and those who feel that voters should be given another say"
"These divisions may also take on a territorial dimension. In contrast to Sadiq Khan’s call for another referendum, including a Remain option on the ballot, so far, Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard and Welsh FM Mark Drakeford have echoed Corbyn’s calls for a general election. But Leonard especially may face pressure to back another vote, given the clear majority in Scotland who voted Remain in 2016"
Fellows and friends of the Centre on the Constitutional Change will continue to share their thoughts on Brexit over the coming days and weeks. Follow our newsletter and our social media channels for the latest.