In its 2018 third-quarter forecast, Stratfor indicated that as divisions over Brexit continue in the British government, the chance of Parliament taking control of the negotiating process would increase, potentially leading to a softer Brexit than the one pursued by the government. Recent events at the House of Commons demonstrate that the situation is ongoing.
As divisions within Prime Minister Theresa May’s government over Brexit continue, the British Parliament is becoming increasingly rebellious. On June 12 and 13, May’s government won several votes on Brexit-related legislation in the House of Commons, but only after making concessions to rebel parliamentarians within her Conservative Party. While May will live to fight another day, the possibility that Parliament could assume control of the process of leaving the European Union will persist. Should lawmakers prevail, the direction of Brexit could change. While May’s government has pledged to leave the EU single market and customs union, support is strong in Parliament for the United Kingdom to remain in the customs union at the least.
On June 12, the House of Commons rejected a proposal by the House of Lords to give Parliament the power to veto any agreement reached between the European Union and the United Kingdom and to send the British government back to the negotiating table with concrete policy guidelines. But this happened only after May’s government promised lawmakers that Parliament would receive more oversight of Brexit. A day after that vote, members of May’s Cabinet and rebel Conservative lawmakers presented different interpretations of that promise, with the former saying it would not put the government under control of Parliament, and the latter claiming the opposite. Uncertainty about the exact content of May’s promise should not last long, however, as the House of Lords will vote on the issue next week and shortly thereafter return it to the House of Commons.
The parliamentary votes on June 13 were less dramatic. The House of Commons rejected a proposal by the House of Lords to keep the United Kingdom in the European Economic Area (EEA). This elicited little surprise considering that most Conservatives and a large number of Labour Party members oppose the idea. Membership in the EEA would force the United Kingdom to accept the rules of the single market, which include accepting EU workers. Staying in the EEA would be the softest possible version of Brexit, but it is unlikely to occur.
In another victory for May, the Commons also rejected a proposal by the Lords that would have required government negotiators to keep Parliament informed about the measures to maintain the country's place in the customs union. That vote was not about actually remaining in the customs union, but only about keeping Parliament in the loop. Parliament will debate membership in the customs union in July, when two trade-related bills reach the Commons. The vote could be very close, considering that many lawmakers would prefer the United Kingdom to remain in the customs union.
The events of June 12 and 13 show that May’s government is deeply divided on what the shape of future EU-British relations should be. In fact, before the June 12 vote, Britain’s justice minister resigned to give him the freedom to criticize the government. Those votes also show that Parliament is aware of the government’s weakness and wishes to take control of the negotiations with the European Union and possibly take a softer line on Brexit than the one May's government is currently pursuing. Even if the exact shape of Brexit is still a matter of intense debate in the United Kingdom and Europe, a “no-deal” scenario is becoming less likely, as Parliament will continue to push to take control should the government fail to reach a deal.