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15 November 2018

It’s true that there is no majority for a no-deal Brexit, but that may not matter

MPs may have missed their chance to prevent a no-deal Brexit already.

By Stephen Bush

It’s become a commonplace among pro-European MPs of all parties to say that there is no majority in parliament for a no-deal Brexit, whether those MPs favour a second referendum for the United Kingdom to leave the political project of the European Union but to remain within the single market and customs union, or no Brexit at all.

And as far as the parliament elected in 2017 goes, this is true. If there were a straight-up vote on whether or not to leave without a deal today, “No Deal” would be defeated and it wouldn’t be close.

But the problem is that this was not true for the parliament elected in 2015, which voted by a overwhelming margin to trigger Article 50, kicking off the two-year process where the United Kingdom negotiates its exit from the European Union. The wording of Article 50 is very clear on this: assuming that no accord between the departing nation and the rest of the European Union within two years, the departing nation leaves without one. In voting to trigger Article 50 without passing any amendments to bind the government’s hands, MPs left the potential of No Deal open, and crucially within the control of the executive, not the legislature.

The problem for anyone wanting to avert No Deal is twofold: the first is that it isn’t clear whether the United Kingdom can revoke Article 50 unilaterally or only after negotiation with the rest of the European Union, though an important court case at the European Court of Justice will confirm that one way or the other. But equally importantly, it is the British executive that controls the legislative timetable and that makes it very difficult to see how Article 50 can be revoked unless whoever’s in Downing Street wants to do so. The current occupant, Theresa May, does not want to do that. Any replacement from within the Conservative Party is highly unlikely to be able to do that, even if they want to (and the dynamics of the Tory leadership election make it hard to see how any winning candidate won’t have had to pledge not to).

So, yes: there is no parliamentary majority for No Deal today. But it is far from certain that that matters very much.

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