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Dec 4, 2018 | 09:00 GMT

8 mins read

What's Next for the U.K. If Parliament Shoots Down the Brexit Deal?

Pro-EU demonstrators hold placards and wave flags as they protest against Brexit, outside of the Houses of Parliament in central London on June 11, 2018.
(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)
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The United Kingdom is set to leave the European Union in March, but the terms of its departure are still under discussion. The government in London has reached an agreement with the bloc, but the ideologically fragmented British Parliament will be hard to sell on the deal. Though London's first choice is an orderly Brexit, political events in the United Kingdom could still lead to a no-deal exit.

Another critical vote on the Brexit deal is fast approaching. On Dec. 11, the British House of Commons will vote on the agreement that the United Kingdom and the European Union reached in mid-November. According to the deal, the British exit from the union on March 29 will be followed by a 21-month transition period, during which the United Kingdom will remain in the EU single market. (If both sides agree, they can extend this period by two more years.) If the United Kingdom and the European Union fail to find a way to keep the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland open by the end of the transition, the United Kingdom will stay in a customs arrangement with the European Union until they achieve a solution as part of a provision known as the Irish backstop. Effectively, the deal stipulates that the United Kingdom cannot unilaterally withdraw from the customs arrangement. 

Controversial in the United Kingdom

The governing Conservative Party and the main opposition party, Labour, are internally divided on how Brexit should proceed. Lawmakers from both parties have criticized the deal, and some from both are even suggesting that Brexit shouldn't occur at all. Hard-liners, who support a clean break, argue that the agreement forces the United Kingdom to remain in a customs arrangement with the European Union without a clear end date. They claim that London will be forced to follow EU rules without having a say in them; they also say that the EU common external tariff will prevent London from enforcing free trade agreements on goods with non-EU countries. Soft-liners are against the deal because they believe that it won't secure the closest possible British-EU political and economic ties. Finally, a handful of members from both parties think that the country should organize a second referendum on Brexit.

The British government argues that this is the best deal the United Kingdom will get, and it warned lawmakers that voting against it would lead to a disorderly Brexit. Moreover, the European Union has said it will not renegotiate the deal. Prime Minister Theresa May's government also argues that during the deal's implementation period, the United Kingdom will negotiate a trade agreement with the bloc that will make the Irish backstop unnecessary. 

Weak Support in the British Parliament

The prime minister needs roughly 320 votes in the House of Commons to secure the approval of her deal. Her Conservative Party, however, controls just 315 seats, meaning it depends on support from the 10 lawmakers of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to pass legislation. But the DUP has suggested that it could vote against the Brexit agreement. To complicate matters even more, between 50 and 80 hard-line Conservative members of Parliament are likely to reject the deal. 

If May fails to obtain enough support from the Conservatives and the DUP, she will need help from Labour lawmakers. A small number of Labour rebels could support her, but the party's official position is to vote against the deal. Smaller parties, such as the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats, have also suggested that they would reject the deal.  

A graphic showing the current distribution of seats in the British Parliament.

In the coming days, May will try to convince Conservative rebels that voting against her deal could lead to an early election that Labour could win. She will also warn the DUP that rejecting the agreement could end spending programs in its region and usher in a Labour government that may make concessions to Northern Irish nationalists. In addition, the prime minister is likely to reach out to rebel Labour members of Parliament, especially those who hail from districts where a majority of the electorate in the 2016 referendum voted to leave the bloc. But her task remains herculean, because she is far short of the majority she needs.

The Consequences of Rejection

Should the Commons turn down May's deal on Dec. 11, her stint as prime minister would be in jeopardy. This would open the door for at least three scenarios:

  • May could resign. This would force the Conservative Party to appoint a new leader who would become prime minister. He or she would then face a vote of confidence in the Commons. No matter who is selected, the new top minister would have to deal with the same ideological fragmentation in the Commons.
  • Members of the Conservatives could challenge May’s leadership of the party. The support of just 48 Tory members of Parliament is needed for a vote to replace her at the head of the party. But the backing of 159 Conservative lawmakers is needed to defeat her, and that number will be much harder to find.
  • Labour could trigger a confidence vote in the Commons. Success would require the support of a simple majority of the chamber's 650 members. Though many Conservative lawmakers dislike May's Brexit plan, most of them are unlikely to vote against her and open the door for a Labour prime minister. Should the motion succeed, the Commons would have 14 days to name a new top minister. If one isn't appointed in that time, a general election would follow. 

The rejection of the deal by the Commons would also significantly increase the chances of a no-deal exit. But other outcomes are also possible:

  • The British government could ask the Commons to vote again on the exit deal. A second vote could take place in late December or early next month. The government would have to decide whether to negotiate amendments with the European Union or ask lawmakers to vote on the same text. Brussels is unlikely to accept major changes to the Brexit deal, but it might be willing to tweak the wording of the Irish backstop to make it easier for the British Parliament to accept, or it might be open to making additional promises about the future British-EU trade relationship. A second vote could actually help the government ensure the deal's approval, as the stakes would be considerably higher as the threat of a disorderly exit loomed.
  • The United Kingdom could ask the European Union for more time. An extension of the exit discussions (known as Article 50 negotiations), which would require the unanimous support of all EU governments, would give London more time to secure a deal that the Commons could accept or better prepare the country for a no-deal departure. But Brussels may not have the appetite to prolong the process, especially because the main EU institutions will elect new leaders in 2019 and keeping the United Kingdom in the bloc would create problems in terms of representation in those bodies. However, an extension of the Article 50 process without a change in the composition of the British Parliament is unlikely to lead to a different outcome.
  • There could be an early general election. For this to occur, two-thirds of the members of the House of Commons would have to vote for early polls, or the Tories would have to oust May but fail to find a timely replacement. In either case, such a vote can happen less than a month after the dissolution of Parliament. In this scenario, London could ask for an extension of the Article 50 negotiations to allow time for the elections and the selection of a new government. An electoral campaign under these circumstances would focus heavily on the terms of the Brexit, and some parties could even campaign on the promise of a new referendum.
  • There could be another referendum. Only a small number of Labour lawmakers and an even smaller number of Conservatives support another public vote on Brexit. But rejection of the Brexit deal and the threat of a disorderly departure could lead lawmakers to change their minds. The problem is time. The United Kingdom's Electoral Commission says there should be at least six months between the calling of a vote and the actual balloting. Even if the British government tries to shorten this period, it would be hard for London to organize a referendum before March. To work, this scenario would most likely require a time extension on the Article 50 negotiations. 

Even in the case of a no-deal exit, the two sides will still have an interest in reducing Brexit disruptions as much as possible. London and Brussels will hammer out ad hoc agreements and, in some cases, act independently to try to limit the impact on households and companies. Of course, both sides would feel the pain of a disorderly Brexit, but cooperation, rather than animosity, would govern their discussions. Moreover, even a no-deal Brexit would still be a stepping stone to a future permanent trade agreement.

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