What now for Brexit?
What does Theresa May’s resignation, and the arrival of a new Prime Minister, mean for Brexit? The fundamentals are the same: a divided country, a divided Parliament and a ticking clock. What changes with Theresa May’s resignation? First, we may revert to a ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ standpoint from the UK Government. Second, we may have a PM who has ruled out an extension beyond October 31st. So a No Deal exit from the EU this year, is now a much greater possibility.
Of the four leadership candidates with the most declared support from MPs so far, Boris Johnson and Dominic Rabb are contesting the election from the more Brexity side of the Tory parliamentary party. Johnson is supported by Jacob Rees Mogg, Chair of the European Research Group, who have always argued that No Deal is better than a bad deal, and some of the members even see a no deal exit as desirable: “a clean break”. Jeremy Hunt and Sajid David voted remain in 2016 but have since shifted ground and have been keen to firm up their Brexit credentials too, knowing that the Conservative Party membership will only elect a leader who is committed to delivering Brexit.
Personally, I think Johnson will be the next leader, unless he self implodes. The only person who can beat Boris is Boris. But it doesn’t really matter whether it is Johnson or Raab, Hunt, Javid or one of the ten other candidates, the Brexit destination is the same. During the contest, candidates will be asked to rule out the current deal on offer from the EU, to rule out another extension and therefore to take the UK out of the EU with either a new deal or no deal on October 31st. Most candidates will give these commitments, including the one that wins. The winning candidate will then have to inform the Queen how they intend to form a government, which means a renewal of the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangements with the DUP, who will expect commitments to rule out the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’.
So what can stop a No Deal exit at this point? The EU has said they will not re-open negotiations. They probably mean it, although it will be difficult for them to refuse to talk to a new PM. The Irish government will insist that the backstop remains, as was clear from comments yesterday. There is also a time constraint to take any new deal forward to agreement first between the UK and EU, and then by the UK Parliament. The new PM will be in post as the recess begins and MPs go away for all of August, returning only for two weeks in September and three weeks in October. In summary, negotiating and agreeing a new deal with the EU looks unlikely.
Can Parliament block a No Deal Brexit? The majority of MPs have previously voted against a No Deal, but a new Prime Minister will not be bound by these past votes and debates. Now, for MPs to block No Deal, they would need to introduce legislation to revoke the Article 50 leaving notice to the EU. Legislation is normally introduced by the Government, not backbench MPs, and the Government controls Parliament’s agenda and timings. There could be a constitutional struggle, and Speaker John Bercow has form on helping backbenchers to cause difficulties for the Government, but the Government is likely to prevail. There is also no small matter of winning a vote to revoke Article 50. It is one thing for MPs to indicate they do not support No Deal, or even to say they’d like a second referendum, but it is quite another scale of cocking a snook at the referendum result to vote to stop the UK leaving the EU altogether.
To return to the question, what does Theresa May’s resignation mean for Brexit: the chances of leaving on the 31st October are higher, and as a consequence, the chances of a No Deal are higher. At this stage, and I speak as a remain supporter, I expect many people will welcome a resolution to Brexit one way or the other. This has dragged on for far too long.