Following the vote, the prime minister told MPs that if her deal fails to get through Parliament there could be a delay in Brexit until 30 June. Sputnik discussed the prospects of Brexit with James Downes, a Professor in Comparative Politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Sputnik: UK lawmakers have rejected a no deal Brexit. What are the next steps for Britain?
James Downes: Britain is now in the clutches of an even bigger political crisis. The next steps for Brexit are incredibly uncertain. There are two potential scenarios on the horizon. The first scenario involves an extension of Article 50. This would involve MPs deciding whether to delay Brexit until the 30th June 2019, in order to allow for the legislation to be passed through the UK House of Commons. However, this is all predicated on MPs backing Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal by the 20th March. Again, it is highly unlikely that MPs would currently accept the Prime Minister’s deal. This causes even more problems as the European Parliament elections will be held in May 2019.
This may even involve Britain having to take part in the European Parliament elections as part of some compromise strategy with the European Union. However, such a move could further undermine political trust amongst voters in Britain, creating further divides between the political elites in Westminster and ordinary voters alongside empowering ‘hard’ Eurosceptic groups in the UK. It is also not even clear whether there would be support for such a move both politically and legally within the EU.
The second scenario would now seem to point to the possibility of a second Referendum. The notion of holding a second Referendum back in 2018 would have seemed completely out of the question. However, we are not living in ordinary political times and a looming constitutional crisis is engulfing the British Government now. Holding a second Referendum may be the only way to clearly solve the current political impasse that Britain is at. Yet there are grave risks of holding a second Referendum, particularly in how this could further undermine political trust amongst Brexit voters and further increase polarisation in the United Kingdom. Parliament would also need to seize momentum from the government and table a vote for a second referendum to take place.
It is also important to underline how it would take considerable time to even set up a second Referendum and this is extremely difficult, logistically speaking. It is not even remotely clear whether there would be a simple Remain or Leave question, or whether different Brexit deal scenarios would be outlined to the British voters. The chances of a second Referendum though are likely higher than the possibility of another General Election. Holding another General Election is highly to lead to no party having a clear majority in Parliament and would likely exacerbate Brexit further and divisions within the United Kingdom. Having said that, the first Brexit vote also highlighted significant age divides, between younger and older voters. A second Referendum would also likely produce similar polarisation amongst different age cohorts and between the North and South of England in particular.
Sputnik: Some reports have noted that the vote will clear the path for Parliament to request extra time for the withdrawal process. What consequences can this have on the already divided Conservative party?
James Downes: This is likely to further divide the Conservative Parliamentary Party, both Remainers and Leavers alike. However, Brexit cuts across traditional political party lines and this would also further split the Labour Party. The only political parties that would come out of Brexit well are likely to be the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalist Party. The latter have even recently been speaking about tabling a motion for a second Independence Referendum, should Britain crash out of the EU.
In short, Britain’s two traditional mainstream parties (Conservative & Labour) will take years to recover from the mess of Brexit. In turn, this opens up political space for other ‘minor’ parties in British politics such as the increasingly far right United Kingdom Independence Party and the newly formed Independent Group. Yet, paradoxically, the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) electoral system that Britain uses for Westminster elections would still make it incredibly difficult for new ‘entrant’ or ‘minor’ parties to translate their vote shares into meaningful seats in the UK House of Commons. This would be the only real saving grace for Britain’s two historically dominant political parties.
Sputnik: In your view, under what circumstances will the EU agree to extend the withdrawal process?
James Downes: The European Union has by no means made any meaningful guarantees that they will agree to prolong or even extend the Article 50 process. The EU long expected the Brexit issue to have been settled months ago and has had enough of compromising. As outlined earlier in the interview, the EU would have wanted a decisive outcome on Brexit well in advance of the May 2019 European Parliament elections. Key leaders of EU member states such as Prime Minister Mark Rutte from the Netherlands and President Emmanuel Macron from France have voiced their scepticism about the EU further extending Article 50. Countries such as France have taken a particularly strong stance and highlighted how they are still working towards March 29th 2019 as the end point for Brexit.
The EU is likely to only make concessions at the very last moment as it will be deeply worried about the possibility of Britain crashing out. The next two weeks will decide the future of British politics and at the same time the future direction of the EU project.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect Sputnik's position.