For a long time, I have assumed that a soft Brexit was all but assured. This was because 1). it is blatantly clear that May is engineering one and 2). either the ERG bunch don’t feel they have the power to remove her, don’t want to and are thus happy to settle for a soft Brexit (for now) for fear of ruining Brexit altogether, or even possibly that they don’t see what she’s doing and are still naively listening to what she says as opposed to watching what she does. However, the real possibility of a hard, no deal Brexit is now hovering into view. The crucial showdown is tomorrow.
Of the 15 amendments the Lords made to the Withdrawal Bill, two are significant, ie if carried they would massively change Brexit. One is the EEA amendment, but given Corbyn has said he will abstain this is dead in the water. The other is the meaningful vote amendment. If the government doesn’t manage to defeat this amendment, it means that a no deal Brexit could only happen if parliament explicitly wanted it to happen. If the amendment is defeated, all the ERG have to do to get hard Brexit is wait, hope Corbyn does what they think he’ll do in the autumn, and then they are there.
Up until late last week, I figured it was impossible for the government to defeat the meaningful vote amendment; every opposition MP would vote for it, and even 15 Tory MP voting for it would carry the amendment. Now, rumour has it that Remainer Tory MPs are worried about May being deposed and Boris becoming prime minister should the government not obtain a “clean sweep” tomorrow, and are thus thinking of voting with the government on everything. It’s up to them how they vote, but I would only point out that their thinking is seriously flawed here, if indeed they want to achieve what they say they do and what I think they do. If the Withdrawal Bill passes without the Lords’ amendments, the Eurosceptics are in a stronger position to get rid of May, not a weaker one. She has, at that point, served her purpose: the Withdrawal Bill achieves Royal Assent with no caveats. Since they want the negotiations to go totally pear-shaped and think we should have walked away from them a long time ago anyhow, May is redundant to them.
They are much more likely to hang onto her as PM for the moment, however, with the crucial moment being in the autumn. At this point, May presents her outline negotiation plan to parliament; the one pager or whatever it is on what the final deal with the EU will look like. The Eurosceptic bloc vote this down, citing how poor it is – and given it involves becoming a vassal state of the EU at great expense, this won’t be difficult to justify. If Labour votes against it, which given their “six tests” will be nowhere near met, it could be defeated.
It depends a lot what Lib Dems and the SNP do, since the whole thing could be very tight indeed; also, how many Labour MPs would defy the whip and vote with the government in order to avoid a hard Brexit. But if May’s plan is defeated, all the ERG gang have to do is sit back and let a no deal Brexit become a fact on March 29, 2019. May will want to step down; they would probably convince her to stay on in order to be PM during the “meltdown” as Boris himself puts it. Then she can take the blame for the whole thing, or so they hope.
Watch for the meaningful vote amendment in tomorrow’s news. If it is defeated, hard Brexit starts to look much more likely.