brexit: everything you need to know about what happens next

What's going on? Will there be a second referendum? Or does Brexit really mean Brexit? Political journalist Marie Le Conte explains it all.

by Marie Le Conte
17 January 2019, 1:12pm

So what is going on?
Brexit means Brexit.

No, seriously.
bReXiT mEaNs BreExIt.

Come on.
Fine. In order to understand what happened this week, we need to take a quick detour via December 2017, and an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill tabled by pro-EU Conservative MP Dominic Grieve.

Oh god, must we?
You asked for it! Anyway -- that amendment is the reason why there was a vote in the House of Commons on Tuesday evening. It stated that MPs should have a “meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal once it is reached and that the government couldn’t just agree on a deal with Brussels and be on its merry way. The government did not want this to happen, but was defeated in the Commons anyway and so MPs got to vote on the Withdrawal Agreement this week.

Cool, and how did it go?
Not well! Very bad. Just no good at all. Everyone in Westminster was expecting Theresa May to lose her big vote anyway, since no-one can agree on what Brexit should be and MPs have just been behaving like feral cats for a while anyway, but it was even worse than predicted. She lost by 432 votes to 202, making it the worst defeat in the Commons on a major vote for well over a century.

Yikes indeed.

How did she manage to screw up so badly?
Well, any Brexit deal was always going to have a tough time in the Commons. The Labour party’s position is that they want a softer Brexit than the one on offer, so May’s deal was always going to be a big no-no. Jeremy Corbyn and those around him are also dying to have another general election, and voting down the deal was a necessary step to get them closer to that goal.

On top of this, a number of Labour MPs, Lib Dem MPs, a handful of Conservative MPs and other assorted Europhiles are campaigning for a second referendum on what should happen next, so voted down the deal.

Then there are the hard Brexiteers in the Conservative party and the DUP who think the deal isn’t a “real” Brexit and dislike the idea of the Irish backstop.

The Irish backstop? Quick refresher on aisle 3?
Oh god. Oh god. This is why Brexit is the worst; it’s impossible to talk about one thing without having to mention three other things, and each of those three other things is linked to several more things, and before you know it you’re reading about regulatory convergence and crying yourself to sleep wondering where it all went wrong.

Which is to say: there is a soft border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and all hell would break loose if there isn’t a deal protecting that border. A hard border between the two would compromise the Good Friday Agreement and make a gigantic mess, and a border between the mainland and Northern Ireland would compromise the integrity of the United Kingdom and make a gigantic mess.

The backstop would protect the soft border by keeping the UK inside the EU customs union and Northern Ireland ~aligned~ to some bits of the single market until something better is agreed. Some Brexiteers think that the backstop might end up lasting forever and preventing a real Brexit from happening.

Right. So where were we?
So -- Theresa May went through the parliamentary equivalent of those scenes in cartoons where a character falls down some stairs, then some more stairs, then somehow a few more stairs, and oh wait, some extra stairs, because the House of Commons decided that it hated her Brexit deal, for roughly seventeen different reasons.

The issue is that it is the only thing the House of Commons can currently agree on, but let’s come back to this in a bit, as after the vote Jeremy Corbyn called a no-confidence vote in the government.

Ah, more drama on top of the already existing drama! Fun.
You tell me. As a result of this, MPs took a break from Brexit on Wednesday to debate the no-confidence motion for six hours, then vote on it in the evening. You might think that those six hours could have been spent better given that everyone presumably knew where they stood before it even started, but there isn’t much this humble explainer can do about it.

Well, and…?
Yes! Sorry. She won by 325 votes to 306, which is roughly what everyone was expecting -- no surprises for once. After the vote, she gave a speech in front of Downing Street to explain that she had been and would continue holding talks with other parties to find a way out of this [vaguely gestures towards general chaos].

What does she expect to get from those talks?
Well -- May needs to present her plan B for Brexit to the Commons on Monday, and she would presumably quite like the Commons to like the plan B more than her plan A. The problem is that no amount of talking can change parliamentary arithmetics, and that a number of politicians think this is too little too late, as May had been broadly ignoring everyone but her party until now.

So she had it coming.
She did, but it is in the interest of those MPs to talk to the Conservatives, as the clock is ticking: on March 29 the UK will be leaving the European Union, and if no deal has managed to pass through the Commons before then, the country will crash out without a deal.

It would be hard to explain quickly but exhaustively how disastrous no deal would be, but in a nutshell: it would be very, very bad. Like, “food and medicine shortages” bad. A minority of pro-Brexit MPs on the right think that it would all be hunky dory and that Britain would survive no deal because it also managed to survive World War II, which you will certainly agree is a comforting comparison to make.

Still, the majority of MPs do want to avoid no deal, and have to work together to prevent it from happening by default.

What are their options?
That’s where it gets more complicated. We know that unless the UK significantly changes it red lines, so for example decides that it is after all fine with staying in the customs union and the single market, the EU won’t reopen negotiations. At time of writing, it does not look like May is ready to do that, but a softer Brexit seems to be the only one that could potentially have a majority in the Commons.

In any case, any renegotiation would almost certainly mean extending Article 50, meaning that the UK doesn’t leave on March 29 after all. There are two issues with this: the first is that No. 10 keeps saying this won’t happen so has painted itself in a bit of a corner (again). The second is that there are European Parliament elections in May, and it is unclear what the UK would do around that.

As mentioned earlier, part of the reason why Brexit is such a headache is that every decision taken always seems to have roughly seventeen unexpected ramifications, which is frankly exhausting.

How about a second referendum then?
It is an option that exists, but still looks unlikely; there is -- all together now! -- no majority in the Commons for it at the moment, and it would also need an extension of Article 50. A bunch of Labour MPs have been trying to convince Jeremy Corbyn to back it, and it might end up happening if he does, but nothing currently suggests that Corbyn will change his mind on it.

So...what happens next?
Hah! Haha. Hahahahaha. Who knows. Seriously -- no idea. It’s impossible to predict how the talks with other parties are going to go, or what sort of deal May is going to offer next week, and what would happen to that deal in the Commons.

As it stands, nothing can get through the Commons and it looks like we’re headed for no deal by default, unless a party or, more realistically, one or several factions decide to blink first and soften their position one way or the other.

Things might change after the plan B is announced on Monday, or they might change over the weekend, or they might change before this explainer is even published, thus making me look like an idiot. There’s just no way to tell.

Edit: seven minutes after this was written, it was announced that Meaningful Vote 2 (Brexit Boogaloo) will be taking place on January 29th, so we should have a bit more clarity on what happens next then. Maybe. Probably. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

You’re really regretting the life choices you made that brought you to where you are today, aren’t you?
You bet I am.

eu referendum
theresa may
Second Referendum