How might a new way forward on Brexit be uncovered if the existing deal is not accepted?
Avoiding a No-Deal Brexit is going to require a radical change in the way the House of Commons makes decisions.
Now that the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the EU has been rejected twice by the House of Commons, MPs must now turn to discovering what alternative approach might find actually support. Only then can to UK engage meaningfully with the EU.
This process must be completed by 10 April, the date of a possible special meeting of the European Council on Brexit.
Otherwise the UK will simply crash out of the EU with no deal on 12 April., with dire consequences for us all.
So how might the House of Commons organise itself to make the key decisions?
And will the May government facilitate, or deliberately hinder, the process?
There have been suggestions that the Prime Minister might call a General Election, if support is gathering for a solution that she does not like, or which might split the Conservative Party irrevocably.
The options for decision making in the House of Commons have been analysed in an excellent paper published last week by the Constitution Unit of University College London.
One proposed way (e.g. by Kenneth Clarke and others) of organising the question is to offer preferential voting, a Proportional Representation system of choosing between options.
This method is already used for choosing the chairs of committees in the House . It would avoid the problems of the yes/no voting system, and encourage more sincere voting.
But the choices to be made are complex, and contingent on other choices by other people. MPs may find themselves needing to know how other MPs will vote on other questions, before they feel they can decide how to vote on the question that is actually in front of them.
To address this problem, the Constitution Unit suggests that two separate ballots might be held.
The first ballot would ask MPs to rank preferences,(1,2,3) as between:
- Moving straight to Brexit on the existing deal without a referendum
- Accepting a Brexit deal, but on condition that it is put to the people for approval in a referendum
- Ending the Brexit process and revoking Article 50 and stay in the EU on existing terms as a full voting member( an option that still exists up to 12 April).
These options are incompatible with one another, so the result of the ballot would clarify matters. The option that got the most support would then be the basis for a second ballot.
If MPs do not vote in the first ballot to revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU, a second ballot might then ask them to rank different options for a Brexit deal on a 1, 2, 3,4th preference basis.
They would have to say their order of preference between four options:
- The Prime Minister’s current deal, including the backstop and proposed ‘customs arrangements’
- The current Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop, with significantly looser customs arrangements (the ‘Canada’ model) which in practice would make the backstop more likely to be brought into effect.
- The current Withdrawal Agreement alongside significantly closer arrangements (the ‘Norway’ model or ‘Common Market 2.0’) which would in practice make use of the backstop unnecessary
- A ‘no deal’ Brexit.
The result of this ballot would establish the wishes of the House.
Obviously the process would have to be public so each MP’s ballot paper would have to be published. But the whole process could be completed in a day.
But it would be necessary to have a government in place that would intend to fulfil the preferences of the House in a sincere and constructive way. 650 MPs cannot negotiate with Michel Barnier. Only a government can do that.
Paving the way for a PR type ballot will be very difficult.
The UK Conservative Party has a deep dislike of the whole idea of PR. But PR may be the only way out of its present dilemma.
It is also important that the issue be decided on the basis of free votes, although it has to be recognised that an MP ,who is threatened with possible de selection by his/her constituency association, is not entirely free.
If the present Prime Minister refuses to allow some such system of discerning the will of Parliament, or if she declines to accept the result in a sincere spirit, the question would arise as to whether she should continue in office.
Ultimately, the House of Commons holds the power – and hence the threat – of removing the government from office.
Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a vote of no-confidence does not immediately result in a general election, but triggers a 14-day period during which a new government can be formed.
There is no necessity that any new Prime Minister be one of the party leaders. Any MP could become Prime Minister.
Instead it would be crucial for any new Prime Minister to command the confidence of the House of Commons – beyond the confines of the Conservative Party – to deliver the next stage of the Brexit process.
John Bruton is the former Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland (1994-97) and the former European Union Ambassador to the United States (2004-09). He has held several important offices in Irish government, including Minister for Finance, Minister for Industry & Energy, and Minister for Trade, Commerce & Tourism.