Without the threat of no deal, how can Theresa May pass her deal?

If May follows through and discards the threat of a cliff-edge, then the deal won't pass. 

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Theresa May has ruled out a no-deal exit. Sort of.

The Prime Minister has pledged that should the withdrawal agreement be defeated again on 12 March – which is essentially inevitable – the House will be given two votes in succession. The first will be to back supporting a no-deal Brexit – a position that will certainly be defeated by MPs. The second will be to seek an extension to the Brexit process to prevent a no-deal exit.

So there is nothing binding here beyond the PM’s word and given May’s long record of untruthful statements, there is a debate to be had about whether MPs should believe her but that is secondary: would-be Conservative rebels are in the market for reasons not to rebel and this is good enough for them. It makes it highly unlikely that Yvette Cooper’s amendment to force an extension on the government will pass the House.

But there’s another problem for May. While the threat of “no deal” is not, no matter what some Brexiteers believe, a credible threat to the European Union because the damage of a no-deal exit is sufficiently asymmetric, it is a credible threat to MPs in the House of Commons.

Absent a forced choice between May’s deal and the cliff, it is hard to see how a majority can be found for the withdrawal agreement as devised. The changes that Conservative and DUP MPs want cannot be met through negotiation with the European Union, and while there are enough Labour MPs worried about being seen to “block Brexit” to make it very hard to pass a second referendum, there aren’t enough Labour MPs in that group to make passing May’s deal with some added tweaks on workers’ rights and environmental protections a realistic prospect either.

The only ways out of the Brexit mess are either MPs vote for May’s deal to avoid no deal, a radically reworked political declaration to support a soft Brexit of the kind advocated by Jeremy Corbyn, or some kind of electoral event – whether a fresh general election or another referendum – clears the decks to make the problem go away, or we leave without a deal. 

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.

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