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Brexit defeat could end May's premiership

After the House of Commons voted down her deal on Tuesday night, she could now lose control of the EU withdrawal process as well as her wider term of office.

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Mrs May is at the weakest point yet of her premiership as in the coming days, she could yet be forced from office.

THERESA May's premiership is hanging by the threads after the House of Commons voted down by 391-242 the Brexit withdrawal deal on Tuesday night. While the scale of defeat was less than the 432-202 margin in January, it was another historic defeat, and Mrs May could now lose control not just of the European Union withdrawal process, but also of her wider term of office.

Despite her last-minute shuttle diplomacy on Monday night in Strasbourg, the accord that she reached with the EU simply was not enough to deliver victory. The agreement features three main measures: a "joint legally binding instrument" on the withdrawal agreement which the UK could use to start a "formal dispute" against the EU if it tried to keep the United Kingdom tied into the backstop indefinitely; a joint statement about the UK-EU future relationship which commits to replacing the backstop with an alternative by December 2020; and a unilateral declaration stating that there is nothing to stop the United Kingdom from leaving the backstop if discussions on a future relationship with the EU break down, and there is no prospect of an agreement.

Yet, the fate of Tuesday's big vote was sealed by the advice of Mrs May's own Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox. Ultimately, he ruled on Tuesday that Monday's accords "reduced, but did not eliminate" the likelihood that the UK could remain, indefinitely, in the so-called Irish backstop arrangements, against its will.

This legal judgement simply did not give sufficient "political cover" for many of the hardline Conservative Brexiteers, and the 10 Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs, who prop up Mrs May's government, to fall behind the deal. Many of these MPs had been hoping for further concrete legal assurances that the Irish backstop will not become a permanent arrangement which would leave the nation effectively tied up in a customs union with the EU which is strongly opposed by many Brexiteers and the DUP.

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In a nutshell, Mrs May ultimately lost because only 43 of the 118 Tories who voted against her deal in January (more than a third of the parliamentary party) came over to the government's side of the ledger on Tuesday. This ultimately doomed the measure, and possibly her premiership.

With many Tories unhappy with the way that Mrs May has led withdrawal negotiations, including her most recent discussions this week with the EU, there are now growing risks to her premiership. Brexiteers, for instance, argued that a change of occupant - and more robust approach - would be needed in Downing Street for more next-step talks, if a withdrawal deal is ultimately agreed, on a future UK-EU trade deal.

Mrs May's political strategy on Tuesday failed not only with Tory and DUP backbenchers, but also with Labour counterparts. She failed to peel off any more Labour MPs in constituencies that voted "Leave" in the 2016 referendum beyond the three who voted for her deal in January.

This is despite the political outreach that Mrs May did to try to woo Labour MPs. This includes an announcement of £1.6 billion (S$2.9 billion) in new funding for deprived English towns, plus also a package of greater guarantees for worker rights post-Brexit.

With Mrs May's future now so uncertain, her tenure in Downing Street will be particularly precarious if Parliament votes, which could happen as soon as Thursday, for an Article 50 extension that potentially delays Brexit Day beyond the currently scheduled March 29 date. It is likely, but by no means certain, that the House of Commons would take up this opportunity to request an extension to Article 50 - and it is in this scenario that a general election and/or further referendum would grow in likelihood.

A key question however, if such an extension is sought from the EU, is how long this would be for. Even if London asks for only a very short technical extension to try to complete the Brexit withdrawal process, Brussels may want to see a longer time frame to avoid another mini-deadline crisis in April or May.

There has even been some discussion in Brussels of a much longer extension of Article 50 to potentially as long as December 2020 - which is when the planned transition period, if a withdrawal is agreed, was planned to end. However, a key challenge with this proposal is that any extension that goes beyond July 2 - the first day that the new European Parliament meets - is that UK politicians would have to take part in the May 23-26 elections. It is for this reason, and the complications that this would bring, that an extension no later than June is perhaps most likely.

Any extension to Article 50 would probably not be finalised with the EU until next week's March 21-22 summit of presidents and prime ministers in Brussels. In this context, there are now still several days in which Mrs May could - potentially - have one further attempt at getting her deal through.

One trigger for this is the possibility that she could get further concessions from Brussels next week. If this were to happen, she could potentially then seek to expedite votes from March 23 through both the House of Commons and the Lords. While primary legislation of this sort can be rushed through quickly in principle, the government cannot rule out a significant number of amendments being tabled that could still make the currently scheduled March 29 departure date unattainable.

The reason why this scenario cannot be ruled out is that Mrs May knows that she will be most vulnerable in the event that Article 50 is now extended for several months, or an even longer period.

There are several ways that she could be forced out of office in coming days or weeks, short of her own resignation. Such an immediate resignation can only happen if she tells the Queen who should replace her. This may see the effective Deputy Prime Minister, David Liddington, act in a sitting capacity while a Conservative leadership contest happens.

Other ways that could see Mrs May ousted include losing a vote of no-confidence in the House Commons after the last one in January failed. Moreover, there remains a possibility that the Cabinet demands that Mrs May go, possibly by several of them resigning themselves, to make the prime minister's position untenable.

Taken overall, Mrs May is at the weakest point yet of her premiership. In coming days, she could yet be forced from office; and much may now depend upon whether there is any extension of Article 50 - and the prime minister will be particularly vulnerable if the currently scheduled March 29 Brexit Day is delayed for several months or more.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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