Pantheon Macroeconomics

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15th Mar 2019 08:17News

Q: Can the Prime Minister get her Brexit deal through the Commons on the third time of asking?

A: Mrs. May plans to make MPs vote on her Withdrawal Agreement and the accompanying Political Declaration for a third time on either March 19 or 20, and possibly for a fourth time in the final week of March, if her third attempt fails.  Her hope is that more Brexiteers finally will back the deal, knowing that only softer forms of Brexit, or no Brexit at all, are the alternatives.  The odds, however, remain heavily stacked against the PM.

If all 634 actively-voting MPs vote—650 less seven Sinn Féin MPs, four tellers, one speaker, three deputy speakers and one vacant seat—Mrs. May needs 318 votes to win.  In the second meaningful vote on March 12—“MV2”—only 242 MPs supported her, leaving her 76 votes short of the winning line. 

We doubt that Labour MPs will bail the PM out until she erases more of her red lines.  Only three Labour MPs, plus four independents, voted for her deal in MV2.  So Mrs. May must convert virtually all of the MPs on her own side who voted against her deal; 75 Conservatives and 10 DUP MPs.

Problematically for Mrs. May, six of the Tories who voted against her deal want a softer form of Brexit, no Brexit or a second referendum. They have no incentive to support her, knowing that she already has committed to present an amendable motion on March 25 which will enable MPs to debate other Brexit models.

So she must convert the DUP and 66 of the 69 Tory MPs—mainly ERG members—who so far voted against the deal in MV2 to change tack. The PM, however, won’t have anything new to offer them. The E.U. has been clear that no further clarifications or tweaks to the deal will be made.  If a legal workaround to the backstop were possible, it already would have been found during the last two months when an army of government lawyers sought one.

In addition, the deal remains an anathema to most Leaver rebels.  At least with the status quo, the potential remains for a clean break, whereas under the deal, the U.K. could be stuck in the backstop and a rule-taker forever.  Since MV2, key figures in the ERG have reiterated their opposition; the Deputy Chair, Steve Baker, said on Wednesday that "if we can't become an independent country, then no, I will not be voting for it".  It is also far more important to the DUP to preserve the union between Northern Ireland and Britain than to sever the link with the E.U.

Accordingly, it remains a question of when, not if, Mrs. May is forced to alter the Political Declaration to spell out a softer form of Brexit in order to bring opposition MPs on side.  There is no majority for a harder Brexit; an alternative plan for a clean break, after a longer stand-still period, favoured by some Brexiteers—the Malthouse Compromise—was voted down on Wednesday by a substantial 164-to-374 margin.  In addition, the government lost the vote on the amended version of the no-Brexit amendment, which it whipped against, by 321-to-278.  Softer forms of Brexit, therefore, are the only options left on the table.  Our base case remains that a Norway-plus Brexit will be agreed in Q2.

Samuel Tombs, Chief U.K. Economist

Pantheon Macroeconomics

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Keywords for: Question of the Week, WC 11th March