There’s something everyone has missed about Theresa May and the Brexit vote

Even if the United Kingdom escapes the cliff-edge this time, there are other difficult votes ahead.

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There are a lot of things being neglected in discussion of our looming vote on the Brexit deal, but one of the most important is that it isn’t really a “vote on the Brexit deal” at all. It’s the vote on the terms of the United Kingdom’s exit and the outstanding legacy issues arising from that: the rights of the British diaspora in the European Union, the rights of the three million EU citizens living in the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom’s outstanding financial promises to the EU, and what the end of a shared regulatory and customs framework for Ireland and the United Kingdom means for the border on the island of Ireland.

It’s not a vote about what the final EU-UK relationship will look like. There is a vague political declaration about that relationship being voted on the same time, but this is a lot like shaking hands and agreeing to keep things cordial after a divorce has been declared final: just because it takes place at the same time as a legally binding accord doesn’t make it a legally binding accord.

That matters for two reasons. The first is that Theresa May, or whoever is Prime Minister, can fairly easily add some more waffle into the political declaration if it makes it easier to pass, as the political declaration doesn’t mean anything.

But the second is that even if the United Kingdom avoids falling off the cliff and leaving the European Union without a deal in spring of next year – itself a pretty big “if” – then Parliament will face at least one more, potentially two more, knife-edge votes which could lead to the United Kingdom leaving the EU without a negotiated exit.

Despite May’s repeated use of the phrase “implementation period”, what the British government has sought and received from the European Union is no such thing: it is a period of transition during which the final EU-UK trade deal will be negotiated. It is due to expire in December 2020 but almost everyone accepts – despite May’s statements, repeated today at the CBI, that it will have ended by the time of the next election in June 2022 – that it will take longer. The average length of time for a trade deal to be completed is two years, and an EU-UK trade deal is an unprecedented endeavour as no trade deal in history has been designed to make two countries further apart rather than closer together. Adding to that, the government has no majority which severely complicates its ability to reach agreement on anything.

As a result, it is all but inevitable that the British government will have to extend the transition period (something it will have to do by the end of June 2020).  It is not clear whether or not the government would have to seek parliamentary approval to do so though the additional financial expenditure would have to pass parliament. In a way, that’s besides the point, because although the politics of this are very painful for the Conservative Party, they are very easy for Labour, who have already called for a longer transition, so they could and would vote to extend the transition, cancelling out any Tory rebels, and aggravating the Conservatives’ internal divisions.

The difficulty will come if a final deal is agreed before the end of this parliament or if the next election produces a parliament that looks a lot like this one. Why? Because any trade deal will provoke the same divisions within the Conservative Party that we see at work now; but unlike a transition extension, voting it through won’t be painless for Labour, either. In fact it is much harder to see how Labour can find a politically safe way to vote for the final deal than it is to work out ways they could navigate this looming vote.

All of which means, unless there is an election between now and 2020, while the United Kingdom might escape the cliff edge in March 2019, its chances of avoiding one in June 2020 or thereafter are only going to rise.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.