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29 March 2019updated 08 Jul 2021 10:30am

Why is Theresa May holding yet another doomed vote on the Brexit withdrawal agreement?

By Stephen Bush

MPs have another opportunity to vote for the withdrawal agreement at 2:30pm today. While previous votes were on both the withdrawal agreement (the legal text covering the terms of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union) and the political declaration (the accompanying statement about the type of relationship the EU and UK hope to have after Brexit), this vote is just on the divorce deal.

But we know that there is little to no chance of the withdrawal agreement, whether tied to the political declaration in its current form or not, passing the House of Commons today.

While the Brexit ultras in the European Research Group are an obstacle to Theresa May passing the withdrawal agreement, they aren’t the only obstacle. There are also the five committed Conservative supporters of a second referendum, the ten DUP MPs, the 62 MPs of the various anti-Brexit parties, and of course the Labour Party, which supports Brexit in the abstract but won’t vote for the withdrawal agreement without guarantees about the future.

There are some Labour MPs who are willing to contemplate breaking the Labour whip to back the deal, but there almost certainly aren’t enough of them to cancel out the ERG holdouts, the DUP and the Conservative second referendumers.

So what’s May up to? One theory doing the rounds among the government is that this vote is all about minimising the share of the blame when polling cards for the European elections start dropping on doormats when – as most now think is inevitable –Brexit is extended past 12 April. The view in the EU27 is that if there is to be an extension, it should be until the end of 2020 to give time for a change in British politics, whether via another election, a second referendum or both.

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Another theory is that while the withdrawal agreement is not going to command majority support in the Commons, it is going to win a majority within the Conservative Party, potentially making it easier for the party to go into an early election with a vaguely unified Brexit position. In practice, getting an election is fairly straightforward should the government want one, as the opposition parties would back it, meaning that the government payroll vote alone would be enough to secure the required two-thirds majority.

It all comes back to how the prospect of an extension and European elections – which as Patrick explains, happen organically as a matter of British and European law if the exit date is moved past 23 May in any case – goes down among the British public. If it provokes an eruption, a surge in the polls for the pro-Brexit parties and a disastrous set of local and European elections for the established parties, then you can bet that the pressure to settle the terms of withdrawal and move on are going to skyrocket. But if the European elections turn out to be a fairly pedestrian affair, all bets are off.

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