Feargal Cochrane

Prime Minister Theresa May’s strategy which has defined her entire tenure in office has disintegrated in front of her eyes and despite all the rhetorical showboating in parliament, there is now nothing credible on the table. The Withdrawal Agreement, that has taken over 2 years to put together, the flagship of the government, is dead – at least in its current form.

So – what happens now? In the short term, Labour have tabled a vote of confidence in the government which will take place on Wednesday evening. This is odds on to fail as the DUP have already stated that they will support the government. There is still a possibility – given the parlous state of the government, that the Cabinet will turn on the Prime Minister and make her position untenable in practice, as happened with Margaret Thatcher in much less difficult political circumstances than today.

If the vote of no confidence fails as expected, then the Labour leadership will come under severe pressure to back a second referendum. That may result in significant internal friction but it would be a reasonable wager that if and when they are unable to precipitate a general election, Labour will back a People’s Vote.

Theresa May said immediately after the vote in the House of Commons that she would talk to ‘senior parliamentarians from across the house’, to find a Plan B. But as soon as had she uttered these words, it emerged that she was already putting down new red lines, about who she would talk to and what the preconditions would be – and that she would start by talking to the DUP. So anyone expecting an invitation for Jeremy Corbyn and others into a government of national unity, is likely to be sorely disappointed.

While the political soap opera is fascinating for those of us with a professional interest in the outcome, the utter failure of government policy on Brexit (and that is how it should be understood) will affect us all if a plan is not devised to steer the driverless vehicle away from the cliff edge of a no deal outcome. This is the pre-programmed route loaded into the Brexit SatNav and if no viable agreement can be secured within the House of Commons then the UK will exit the EU in 72 days time.

In reality it is now very likely that the government will concede that it cannot deliver a rehashed deal by March 29 and will seek a technical extension of Article 50 (probably to July) in order to buy some time. It has to request this from the EU27 and cannot assume that it will be granted without conditions attached.

If it is granted then a number of potential Plan Bs are conceivable. The answer to what Danny Dyer termed the ‘mad Brexit riddle’, lies within in the House of Commons not in Brussels. They are waiting, impatiently and with some frustration. There will be no new initiatives or policy positions coming from Brussels until the UK government presents a viable alternative option to the one that has just been junked in the meaningful vote in the House of Commons.

The reality of that is that Theresa May now has to choose between her party and her country. She has to decide whether to throw in her lot with the Brexiteers in her party and accept a No Deal Brexit, or to water down Brexit by seeking support from remainers including the Labour party and ditching her red lines on membership of the single market and customs union. The latter option would split the Conservative Party down the middle and possibly destroy it in its current form.

As there is clearly no consensus within the House of Commons and if Labour cannot force a General Election, (and if No deal is not actually better than a bad deal) then the spectre of a second referendum may gain traction. It would allow Theresa May to put it back to the country and say –choose between the only Brexit deal available or to revoke Article 50 and remain within the EU.

And what talk of Northern Ireland or Scotland in all of this? Hardly any, and therein lies the conundrum of the United Kingdom –it is anything but united and the constitutional fabric of the UK  is being stretched and reformed in real time, as we watch.

We are living through turbulent political times and they are set to become more so over the coming months as the clock ticks towards the UK’s scheduled exit from the EU on 29 March.


This article was originally published by the University of Kent on 16 January 2019. 


Feargal Cochrane is vice chair of the PSA and professor of International Conflict Analysis at the University of Kent. He is director of the Conflict Analysis Research Centre and deputy head of the School of Politics and International Relations at Kent. His current research is examining the impact of Brexit on the peace process in Northern Ireland and its devolved institutions. His book ‘Brexit and Northern Ireland: Breaking Peace’ will be published later this year.

Image: Peppe Intorto