Special Briefing: So Could the UK Cancel Brexit

Pro Europe and Brexit protesters demonstate with flags and placards outside Parliament a day after the Government suffered three Brexit defeats in The House of Commons and was found to be in contempt of Parliament for failing to publish the legal advice over Brexit on December 05, 2018 in London, England.

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Why you should care

With a key vote on Brexit suddenly postponed, the UK’s government is looking for a way forward.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead. 

WHAT TO KNOW 

What happened? The U.K. had been bracing for a parliamentary vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal tomorrow, Dec. 11 — until, that is, the government suddenly postponed it today, triggering a fall in the British pound to its lowest level in a year and a half. The vote was expected to go poorly even though both May and EU leaders have said this is the only deal on offer. It is, therefore, the only alternative to a no-deal Brexit, which experts warn could shrink the U.K. economy by as much as 9.3 percent over the next 15 years. But a ruling this morning from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) found that the U.K. can unilaterally change its mind about leaving the EU before its expected drop-out date of March 29, 2019, which until now had been an open question. That ruling could drastically change the calculus of support in Parliament for May’s deal drastically — rather than voting for the deal as a way to avoid no deal, those who prefer to remain may vote against the deal to increase the likelihood that Brexit could be canceled altogether. Legally, Parliament must vote on the deal at some point before Jan. 21 — and House of Commons Speaker John Bercow has said Parliament should get a vote on whether or not to cancel the Tuesday vote after all.

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Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May leaves after a press conference following a special meeting of the European Council to endorse the draft Brexit withdrawal agreement and to approve the draft political declaration on future EU-UK relations on November 25, 2018 in Brussels

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Why does it matter? A no-deal Brexit would likely cause turmoil in countless sectors, with businesses warning of shortages, stockpiling and potentially even rationing. But both hard Brexiteers and Remainers have expressed contempt for May’s bill, which allows Europe more control than Brexiteers would like and, from a Remain perspective, is more economically damaging than staying in the EU. Whenever it happens, the vote is unlikely to pass, and no second vote is guaranteed. But the predicted market turmoil of the bill failing to pass could spook MPs into voting for it if a second vote is called. Meanwhile, the Labour Party is expected to try to force a general election, which is likely to fail, or demand a second referendum that could allow Britain to stay in the European Union. 

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

Election on the cards. The prime minister said herself that losing the vote could prompt a general election. May’s power relies on votes from her Conservative Party’s coalition partner, the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). But the DUP detest the proposed deal, which kicks the controversial issue of a Northern Irish border down the road (and negates the U.K.’s ability to unilaterally resolve the issue). Labour MPs and some backbencher Tories, meanwhile, are reportedly considering a no-confidence vote to topple May if the deal is eventually voted down. 

Who’s watching? Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have a major stake in the EU-approved deal. Not only has the border between the two been a huge sticking point in negotiations — as any hard border violates the 20-year-old Good Friday Agreement and risks reigniting sectarian tensions — but the negotiated deal could potentially draw Northern Ireland closer to the republic, and some worry this could lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, Conservative MP Priti Patel has faced criticism for proposing that the U.K. use the specter of food shortages in Ireland from a no-deal Brexit to threaten the EU unless it agrees to new terms. Many pointed out Britain’s problematic history when it comes to policies toward food shortages in Ireland. British territory Gibraltar has also been bargained as May granted Spain a veto over its inclusion in any future trade agreement, potentially opening up talks for joint sovereignty. Gibraltar’s government has said if the deal doesn’t pass, it will seek to stop Brexit altogether rather than seek a revote.

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Protesters demonstrate against Prime Minister Theresa May’s Chequers plan for Brexit outside the gates of Downing Street on September 5, 2018

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Courting controversy. Monday’s ECJ ruling that Britain can unilaterally cancel the Article 50 notification or declaration that Brexit will occur has offered hope to factions who’ve campaigned for a second referendum. Rather than a choice between no deal and May’s deal, there now appears to be a legally viable third way that enables the U.K. to keep its EU membership, along with all its negotiated dispensations like staying out of Europe’s Schengen Zone and keeping its own currency. The court specified, however, that the revocation must be the result of a “democratic process.” Whether that must be a referendum or could simply be a statute or act of Parliament has not been clarified.

Waiting in the wings. If the deal is eventually voted down and Theresa May resigns — a distinct possibility if her plan loses by more than 100 votes — the ranks of potential replacements have grown slim. Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who campaigned to leave and found his last leadership bid complicated by an 11th-hour betrayal from his right-hand man Michael Gove, denies claims he is already mounting a leadership campaign. Meanwhile, former Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who was forced to resign over the recent Windrush immigration scandal, could claim to be a less zany choice — but barely held onto her Parliament seat in the last election. Other names floated include resigned Brexit Secretary David Davis and Chancellor Philip Hammond, who’s deeply mistrusted by hard Brexiteers.

WHAT TO READ 

The Best Way Out of the Brexit Mess, in The Economist

“The government has largely given up arguing that its deal will be good for the country, instead insisting that it is what democracy demands. Yet no one can claim to intuit what the people want. The only way to know is to ask them.” 

I’m a Loyal Tory MP, but I’m Backing No Deal Over Theresa May, by Michael Tomlinson in The Guardian

“Let us be straightforward: if the EU doesn’t accept a sensible free trade agreement such as a Canada-style deal, there will be difficulties. But it is in our country’s national interest to look beyond the immediate short term.” 

WHAT TO WATCH

Prime Minister Theresa May: “It’s This Deal or No Deal.”

“At the end of the line, I think it’s about holding our nerve and getting this over the line.”

Watch on ITV on YouTube:

Special Report: Preparing for No Deal

“He told me the police were considering asking for help from the military and also said that food shortages could result in rationing, something supermarkets say they are also contemplating.”

Watch on Sky News on YouTube:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

Contingency plans. In case May’s Brexit deal is voted down, government plans have been devised to fly in time-sensitive medical supplies like radioactive isotopes for imaging and diagnostic tests, which could potentially be held up at British ports of entry. The goal is to have hospitals stocked for six months of potential trade chaos and tunnel gridlock. Officials told drug manufacturers to keep a six-week supply just in case, while pharmacists could be ordered to ration drugs. 

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