Brexit deal: What happens now?

By Gareth Jones,
Associate Partner

In dramatic circumstances, a spate of Cabinet and ministerial resignations have taken place this morning – including Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey. This comes less than 24 hours after the Prime Minister had presented the draft Brexit withdrawal agreement, seemingly with agreement from her Cabinet.

In his resignation letter, Raab stated that he could not support the deal, citing that the Irish border arrangement presented “a very real threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom” and that an indefinite backstop arrangement was unacceptable, claiming that “no democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime”

The concerns cited by Raab and McVey echo many of fears shared by Brexit-supporting Conservative MPs and by quitting their posts, they have dealt a vital blow to the Prime Minister’s attempts to unite her party and agree a deal. It is now increasingly difficult to see how the Prime Minister can get the deal through Parliament (the numbers already looked hugely challenging). And with her authority severely damaged, her premiership is now severely under threat.

So what happens now?

The details of the Brexit withdrawal agreement can, to some extent, can be put on the backburner –as once again, politics takes over. So, what are the potential political next steps?

  • Further high-profile ministerial resignations: Raab’s and McVey’s resignations will be making other Brexiteer Cabinet ministers seriously consider their position. High-profile resignations are likely. However, as Jo Johnson proved, it’s not just Brexit-supporting ministers who are unhappy with the state of the deal (many remainers dislike the terms of the withdrawal agreement). Each resignation will make it harder for Theresa May to form a cabinet that commands the confidence of her Party and therefore her ability to govern.
  • Leadership challenge to the Prime Minister: A leadership challenge is triggered if 48 MPs (15% of the Conservative Parliamentary Party) write letters demanding a confidence vote to Graham Brady, chairman of the party’s “1922 Committee”. It is now being speculated that the trigger point is close, with many Conservative backbenchers having gone on the record stating they have submitted letters. A likely crucial factor in this is the role of the ERG (which includes influential Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg) and whether they publicly push for a vote of no confidence. Once a leadership contest is triggered, Conservative MPs will then vote for or against their leader. If May wins this, she remains in office and cannot be challenged again for 12 months. If she loses, she must resign and a leadership contest will be held. At the moment, there is no clear candidate to replace May as Prime Minister, but possible contenders will include Dominic Raab himself as well as Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. One major hurdle to this taking place is timescales, which are incredibly tight – with key votes and ratification required ahead of next March.
  • The Prime Minister presses on with the EU summit and Parliamentary vote – or the Prime Minister (or her replacement) goes back to Brussels to renegotiate a new deal: In her statement to the House of Commons this morning, Theresa May appeared adamant that it was her intention to press on to conclude the draft withdrawal agreement and hold the parliamentary vote. There are many (including those in her own Party) who believe that this deal will not pass. At this point, there will be a high degree of uncertainty. Parliament may compel the Government to go back to Brussels and renegotiate a deal that will command its support. Potential options at this point include a ‘Canada +’ favoured by hard-Brexiteers or a Norway/EEA arrangement favoured by soft Brexiteers and remainers. In reality, the challenges to achieving this are immense (it is doubtful if any option has a parliamentary majority) – and will almost certainly require an extension of Article 50.
  • Leave with no deal, 2nd Referendum and/or General Election: If no agreement is reached, the default option will be for the UK to leave the EU without a deal. While it has been stated that there is no majority in Parliament for this outcome, the absence of decisive action to present an alternative will ensure this outcome becomes reality. This, of course, is likely to lead to a major political crisis. In order to avert this outcome, radical options could be considered – including the “People’s Vote” (2nd Referendum) and another General Election. A decisive factor in this will be position of the Labour Party, who themselves are also split on their preferred outcome.

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