The UK is in a rather strange situation: The Prime Minister’s flagship law, the EU Withdrawal Agreement, was rejected by a huge majority of MPs (432 votes to 202) yesterday, but today a majority of the same MPs (325 votes to 306) expressed confidence in her. (It would appear that the word “confidence” might be undergoing a semantic change, but that needn’t concern us here.)
As far as I can tell, Theresa May’s plan is simply to keep going – she’ll ask the EU for some changes to the deal, which they will reject, and to the political declaration accompanying it, which they will accept (given that it’s not legally binding), and she’ll then get the House of Commons to vote on it again.
The Remainers’ plan is to call a new Brexit referendum (the so-called People’s Vote), but their chances seem rather slim unless they manage to sign up Jeremy Corbyn and his front bench. It’s very unlikely they’ll be able to do that – he’s said many times that he’s against a new referendum.
So what is Jeremy Corbyn going to do instead? He wants Theresa May to negotiate a lot of changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, but even if the EU were willing, Ms May has already said no – her red lines remain firmly in place. So the likelihood is that he’ll keep voting No to her deal, but also won’t support anything else.
My best guess is therefore that the House of Commons will keep faffing until the time is nearly up (whether that’s in March or somewhat later due to an extension to Article 50 makes no difference). They might then either vote for the deal after all (because it’s the only way to prevent a cliff-edge, no-deal Brexit at that point), or they might keep staring into the headlights until they get hit by the approaching train.
If I had to assign probabilities, at this stage I’d go for People’s Vote 10%, No Deal 45%, and May’s Deal 45%. This might be too optimistic – as I wrote above, I’m really not sure how they’ll manage to put together a Commons majority for a new referendum, so the 10% should perhaps be 5%; also, May’s Deal will only happen if the MPs eventually panic, and most of the Tories and the DUP seem to be quite complacent with regard to a No Deal outcome, so assigning 45% to that scenario might be hopelessly naïve.
Where does this leave Scotland? A lot of independence supporters were almost ecstatic yesterday when May didn’t get support for her deal, but I’m not entirely sure how the SNP will manage to turn this mess above into an advantageous outcome for Scotland. I guess they might try to get Theresa May to agree to a new independence referendum in return for their support for her deal, but she’s been unwilling to entertain that possibility in the past, so I wouldn’t bet on it. Several SNP MPs seem to think they can perhaps get the other parties’ support for Indyref2 as part of a deal on the People’s Vote, but the latter is unlikely enough as it stands.
I fear that the SNP will be given the choice between No Deal and May’s Deal (without any changes that would make it more acceptable to Scotland). If they’re really unlucky, their votes will be the ones that decide what the outcome will be, and the voters may subsequently blame them for the subsequent disaster. It could even become a new version of the 1979 vote of no confidence, when many people thought the SNP were responsible for bringing down the Labour government in favour of Thatcher’s Tories.
Hopefully the SNP will find a better way forward. It will be brilliant if they manage to use the chaos to gain support for a new independence referendum, and if they can even get a People’s Vote on Brexit at the same time to keep the rUK inside the EU, it’ll be absolutely fantastic.
Time is of the essence, and the stakes are high. I’m afraid I’m somewhat pessimistic – a No-Deal Brexit is much too likely for comfort, and it’s not clear how the SNP can turn this to their advantage. I hope I’ll be proven wrong.