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16 January 2019

What does Theresa May’s record-breaking defeat mean for Brexit?

The government lost by an unprecedented majority of 230.

By New Statesman

Theresa May’s Brexit deal has suffered a record-breaking defeat in the House of Commons – and Labour has tabled a motion of no confidence in the government, which will take place on Wednesday evening. 

The meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration was defeated, by 432 votes to 202, an opposition majority of 230. The largest previous defeat in modern history was in 1924, when Ramsay Macdonald’s minority Labour government was defeated by 166 votes.

In the minutes following the defeat, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn announced that he was tabling a no confidence vote in the government. Theresa May’s reply that the government would make parliamentary time for such a vote the following day is a mark of the Prime Minister’s confidence she would survive such a vote (the DUP have confirmed they will support the Conservatives)  – but this could, nonetheless, lead to a general election. Beyond that, May has three days to place her Plan B before the Commons.

If no majority can be found for any option, Britain is staring down the barrel of a no-deal Brexit. As Stephen Bush outlines here, there are many MPs with ideas of how to avoid a no-deal Brexit, but that doesnt guarantee they will succeed.

So what does a government defeat on the meaningful vote mean for Brexit?

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Does the government’s defeat mean a no-deal Brexit?

By rejecting the government’s deal, MPs are taking us closer to a no-deal Brexit, Anoosh Chakelian explains. As matters stand, all MPs can truly agree on is that they diisapprove of May’s deal. This means no deal is the default alternative.

But MPs representing alternatives such as a second referendum or a Norway-style soft Brexit will hope they can attract more supporters to their cause as a no-deal Brexit becomes an ever more serious and immediate prospect.

And if we do reach 29 March 2019 without a deal, and without an alternative in place, the UK will leave the European Union. There will be no transition period or continuity in our relationship with the EU’s institutions. You can read more about a no-deal Brexit here.

Would the government’s defeat on Theresa May’s Brexit deal mean a second referendum?

Some MPs backing the “People’s Vote” campaign will be hoping the alternative that emerges is a second referendum, as MPs fear a no-deal Brexit and agree to another vote as a last resort.

If the Labour frontbench officially campaigned for a second referendum, it would boost the chances of the proposal – but Corbyn has consistently appeared reluctant to back the idea, and it’s unlikely he would whip such a vote, considering the small number of Labour MPs who favour it.

A second referendum would be very difficult to get through parliament. Read more about a second referendum on Brexit here.

Does a Brexit deal defeat for the government mean a general election?

If a different party were in power, or a political coalition brokered, it could mean a government with a very different attitude to Brexit. But under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, there are only two ways to call an early election: if a motion for calling one is agreed by two-thirds or more of the House, or if a motion of no-confidence is passed and no alternative government can be cobbled together within 14 days.

Labour, though, needs the support of the DUP for its no confidence motion to succeed, and the DUP has only indicated its willingness to vote no confidence in the government if the Brexit deal passes. You can read more about Brexit and the chances of a general election here.

Could the Brexit deal defeat pave the way for the Norway option?

There’s a cross-party group of MPs advocating an exit they’re calling “Norway Plus” or “Common Market 2.0”.

Supporters of a Norway-style Brexit say it could attract Brexiteer MPs’ support, as it involves leaving the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy, as well as the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. There is also technically an “emergency brake” on free movement you can pull in extreme circumstances.

The EU too has been more sympathetic to this idea, with its chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier saying “the only frictionless option for the future with the UK would be ‘Norway Plus’”. You can read more about the Norway Plus option here

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