Brexit cliffhanger in the UK

Not only is there no end to the government shutdown in the US, there does not seem to be even any action at all on this front. But there is plenty of high drama in the UK where things are rapidly coming to a head over Brexit. Tomorrow there is a big vote in the British parliament on the deal that Theresa May negotiated with the EU. She is widely expected to lose that vote, and if so is then required to come up with a new plan that will be voted on next Monday. Note that there is a deadline of March 29 for any deal with the EU to be approved. If it does not happen by then, the UK would be faced with a ‘no deal Brexit’ (see below) unless the deadline is extended by both sides which seems likely to happen since few like the idea of a disorderly breakup.

The process that is unfolding is pretty complicated but I found this nice article by the BBC that lays out what is going on.

Here is what is likely to happen:

  • Monday – Day four of MPs’ Brexit debate, with the PM set to make a statement to the Commons setting out reassurances from the EU over the Irish backstop
  • Tuesday – Day five of debate followed by “meaningful vote” on the PM’s deal. MPs will also get to vote on amendments that could reshape the deal. If the deal is rejected Theresa May will get three working days to come up with a “plan B”
  • Wednesday – Mrs May could head to Brussels to try to get further concessions from the EU
  • Monday 21 January – Expected Commons vote on “Plan B”

The article also explains what a ‘no deal Brexit’ would result in, plus some of the jargon that has grown around Brexit such as ‘customs union’, ‘backstop’, ‘political declaration’, and so forth.

There is now even an extraordinary move by some Conservative backbench MPs led by Nick Boles to wrest Brexit negotiations away from the government if May cannot come up with a plan B that passes parliament within the next three weeks. If she fails, a panel of senior Conservative backbenchers would come up with their own Brexit plan for a vote in Parliament. Here is a flow chart that describes what is envisaged.

It would be an untenable humiliation for May to let this happen and you can be sure that she will twist as many arms as possible to avoid it. She is hampered by the fact that Gareth Johnson, one of her parliamentary whips (the people with the task of counting and rounding up votes in support of the party), has just quit the government, saying that he cannot support her plan.

The idea of a second referendum is being treated warily by all sides, since holding referenda until you get the result you want seems like treating the will of the people with contempt. But on the other hand, it is clear that the many complications involved with Brexit only started being fully appreciated after the process started following the first referendum.

One option that came to my mind is for whatever deal that is finally passed by parliament to be put to the people to vote on. Yes, it would be a second referendum of sorts but not indefensible since this time it could be argued that it would not be based on the vague general idea of leaving the EU or remaining in it but instead on an actual detailed plan where people would know concretely the implications of their vote, and that any Brexit plan was too important to be left just to parliament to decide but needed to be ratified by the people.

There must be a reason why this is not being suggested.

UPDATE: A question for readers from the UK: The Irish border question has become a major sticking point. During the Brexit referendum three years ago, was this problem discussed at all, and if so, what was the solution that the Leavers proposed to deal with it? I am really curious to know.


  1. A says

    A common suggestion for the second referendum is that it should be precisely about “May’s deal or no Brexit”. I don’t think anyone actually has a decent factual basis for claiming they’d come up with a better deal, so having first someone else negotiating, and then a second referendum seems kinda pointless.

  2. Roj Blake says

    It’s a mess, Mano. I do not understand why the British even want a trade deal with Europe when they had one but have pulled out of it.

    I have one criticism of your analysis, where you wrote The idea of a second referendum is being treated warily by all sides, since holding referenda until you get the result you want seems like treating the will of the people with contempt.

    This line is being used by the hard line leavers, but it could equally apply to elections. Look, we had an election, Donald Trump is President, surely another election would be an attempt to thwart the will of the people.

  3. Mano Singham says

    Ron Blake,

    I am not sure that the analogy of a second election in the US over Trump holds up, since the US election system is so weird.. A better analogy would be a system where the head of state can and does call for an election before their term is up, and then if they lose, immediately call another election. We would not consider that much of a democratic process.

    But there is one thing I am really curious about and maybe people from the UK can help me. The Irish border question has become a major sticking point. During the Brexit referendum three years ago, was this problem discussed at all, and if so, what was the solution that the Leavers proposed to deal with it?

  4. Jazzlet says

    Roj Blake
    The problem the UK has is that we have a land border with Eire and a hugely significant part of the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace (of a sort) to Northern Ireland was that there was no longer going to be any need for check points at the border. The border check points manned by the British army had been a source of tension and a target of Republican attacks throughout The Troubles. If we do not have a customs agreement with the EU we will have to have a hard border with check points again, and this is something that the DUP, whose MPs are giving May her slender majority, are absolutely and irrevocably opposed to. The only alternative would be a customs border in the Irish Sea, but the DUP are equally strongly opposed to that, they are Unionist and will not accept anything that reduces the status of Northern Ireland from being a full part of the UK. That is despite there being separate legislation for NI on a variety of things like abortion, but I digress. Point is without the DUP May definitely doesn’t have a majority, and the DUP’s conditions mean the UK has to have a customs union with the EU. Yes it’s bloody stupid and really if we are going to be in the customs union we should just stay in the EU, because then we’d at least have a say in policies affecting the customs union, as it is we’ll get the worst of every world.

  5. Jazzlet says

    Mano we crossed posts, to answer your question, no I don’t recall the Irish border being brought up at all by the Leavers (or by the Remainers who bloody well should have done), but then the Leavers were cheerfully promising all sorts of things they knew full well couldn’t happen. Under Boris Johnson’s ‘guidance’ they were completely shameless about promising the things they knew would appeal to Little Britainers regardless of the likelihood of it being possble or even desireable to deliver on those promises.

    On the second referendum question the thing that I haven’t seen mentioned, but that seems important to me, is that younger people voted overwhelmingly to remain, while older people voted overwhelmingly to leave. Two points about that, firstly we have had nearly three years worth of young people turning eighteen (and therefore becomng eligible to vote), and brutally, of old people dying, so that in itself might be enough to shift the result. Secondly it’s the young people who are going to have to live the longest with the mess that will happen if we do leave, despite voting against it, and it seems deeply unjust that they should have to do so at the behest of people who will be dying in the next decade or so.

  6. cartomancer says

    To answer your question about whether the Irish border situation was discussed during the 2016 pro- and anti-Brexit campaigning, the answer is that in England, Wales and Scotland it was hardly mentioned at all, but in Northern Ireland it was virtually the only thing that anyone talked about. Which is one big reason why Northern Ireland was so keen to remain.

    As for a second referendum, the notion has a distinguished place in democratic history, going right back almost to the beginning. Just look at the Mitylene debate of 427BC as told by Thucydides. It seems to me a much more serious deficit of democracy to presume that the people cannot change their minds after two years of wrangling and investigation, when the consequences of the decision have become much more apparent, than it is to keep asking them in the hope that they have.

  7. Holms says

    There is now even an extraordinary move by some Conservative backbench MPs

    Wait wait wait wait wait hold on a second. Do you mean to tell be that the conservatives are not currently the ones in power? That this awful, bumbling government is actually the middle-to-liberal party??

  8. Ross Stephens says

    I liked the comment from an Irish comedian on the News Quiz (radio 4 comedy panel show)- “it’s not the Irish Border, it’s the British border in Ireland. The Irish border is cliffs and beaches”.

    Don’t forget that the Good Friday Agreement includes language around the fact that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland cannot be changed without agreement (via majority vote I think) of both the Republic and the North.

    Northern Ireland voted in favour of remain -- and the beauty of the issue is that the Unionist (pro-remain in the UK) voted leave while the Republicans (pro-leaving the UK) voted remain! Much fun was had by local comedians.


  9. sonofrojblake says

    During the Brexit referendum three years ago, was this problem discussed at all, and if so, what was the solution that the Leavers proposed to deal with it?

    No. The Leavers proposed no solutions for anything, because their position, repeatedly stated, was that leaving would be easy and there would be no problems of this sort. Brexit was going to be a shangri-la of £350m a week for the NHS and no bloody immigrants, both positions even the Leave campaign leadership started admitting were false before they’d even finished counting the referendum votes.

    @Holms, 7: You misunderstand the nature of the UK parliament. (Odd -- for some reason I thought you a Brit).

    We elect 650 or so MPs. Right now, about 330 are Conservatives, which makes the Conservatives the governing party. But not all of those 330 Conservatives are “the government”.

    “The government” is usually mostly a subset of the governing party, i.e. mostly MPs, although it can also be made up of favoured party members from the House of Lords. For instance, Sayeeda Warsi was Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and therefore a member of the government, despite having stood for election just once, an election she lost. The combined number of MPs and wastes of skin like Warsi composing the government varies, is much larger than you might expect, but absolutely does NOT include all Conservative MPs. The ones it doesn’t include are referred to as “backbenchers”, in reference to where they get to sit, compared to the front bench, where the government are.

    A backbencher’s entire job is supposed to be representing their constituency -- i.e. the people who actually voted for them -- although many (e.g. Boris Johnson) mysteriously manage to pull down their MP salary (£77k plus generous expenses) and simultaneously hold down one or more lucrative additional jobs writing newspaper columns or consulting for banks or whatever. So long as all this additional graft is properly recorded in the register of Members’ interests, it’s apparently fine. Their job as backbenchers is supposedly to “hold the government to account”, which in practice means usually voting as they’re told to, but occasionally rebelling.

    Backbenchers are particularly important to the Conservatives because it’s the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs that decides when the party has had enough of its leader and provokes vote of confidence as a prelude to a leadership election. Incredibly, they did exactly this just before Christmas, despite it being massively self-regarding when the important business of Brexit is pending. I said at the time that Jacob Rees-Mogg had the air of a man loudly and obnoxiously demanding that the flight attendant immediately bring him a complaint form so he can register his dissatisfaction with the inflight meal… over the sound of five men in the cockpit shouting “Allahu Akbar”.

    Labour has the same divide between backbenchers and the “shadow government” -- i.e. the opposition. The difference between them right now is that most of the parliamentary Labour party (i.e. backbenchers) are firmly Remain, while their leader, who weakly supported Remain (but didn’t mean it) before the referendum, actually wants to Leave. Compare and contrast the Conservatives, who have a leader who weakly supported Remain (but DID mean it) and now actually wants to leave. How these people are supposed to represent opposing sides is beyond me. Labour backbenchers have less power to unseat their leader than Conservatives, but right now they’re wisely not rocking the boat and presumably hoping (vainly, I think) that if there’s a stramash they can provoke a general election, THEN replace their leader with someone who understands that the 1980s happened.

    I may have got a bit distracted.

    tl;dr -- “the government” is #NotAllConservatives.

  10. Mano Singham says

    Geoff Arnold @#9,

    Thanks for that link. Gaw really saw this coming. Too bad people did not seem to take this issue seriously then.

  11. KG says

    the Unionist (pro-remain in the UK) voted leave while the Republicans (pro-leaving the UK) voted remain -- Ross Stephens@8

    As far as the significant political parties are concerned, only the “Democratic” Unionist Party and (marginally significant) the nationalist “People not Profit” party backed Leave. The Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance (which probably counts as unionist although they present themselves as neutral) backed Remain, along with Sinn Fein, the SDLP, and the Greens. At least a signficant number of voters for unionist parties must have backed Remain to produce the overall 55.8% Remain majority.

    Your general point is correct, but the exact figures matter, and there you’re wrong. There are as you say 650 MPS, but the Tories only have 317, which is why they’re a minority government and need the support of the “D”UP. This is despite the 7 Sinn Fein MPs refusing to take their seats, and the seat taken up by the Speaker, who (unlike in the USA) is supposed to be strictly neutral* bringing down the effective total to 642 (so 322 would be a majority).

    Continuing what I said here Russo’s claims that the original Brexit vote was some kind of leftist uprising against the establishement or “centrist” neoliberal policies are ludicrous. The only significant mainland parties whose voters backed Leave by a majority were the Tories and UKIP, and the core of the Leave campaign was racism and xenophobia, fuelled by decades of lies in the gutter press. Such claims are an exact parallel to the claims that Trump was elected because of “economic anxiety”.

    *Claims that he’s not, but has let his own Remain views influence his decisions on procedure have been a significant aspect of the current clusterfuck in the Commons.

  12. KG says

    the Conservatives, who have a leader who weakly supported Remain (but DID mean it) -- sonofrojblake@10

    How do you think you know May really backed Remain? Just as likely, she went with what she thought would be the winning side, while taking care not to commit herself any further than necessary -- and in doing so, won a promotion far beyond her abilities, as has been abundantly clear. AFAIK, she has no record of enthusiastic support for the EU, as Corbyn certainly has one of opposition to it.

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