Issue Briefs

Brexit still unsolved: Another Referendum, revoke Article 50? Or may be no deal

Brexit still unsolved: Another Referendum, revoke Article 50? Or may be no deal

Graham Bardgett

March 25, 2019

Astonishing numbers of people estimated at hundreds of thousands marched through central London Saturday 23 March calling for another referendum on EU membership. And over 5 million people signed a UK Parliamentary petition calling on the Government to Revoke Article 50, this way scrapping Brexit altogether. As MPs search for a way out of the Brexit impasse, EU Leaders of 27 countries put the ball back in UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s court, giving her several options.

Additional pressure

But as Mrs May struggled to find a way out of the impasse, she came under pressure to resign. She angered MPs for blaming them for the problem, via comments made in a Downing Street televised speech to the Nation. At the same time, she said to the people she was on their side.

But aerial film footage by helicopter of the “Put it to the People” march showed a defiant message they have given the Prime Minister. And the Parliamentary Petition signatures demanding Government to Revoke Article 50 was even more stark a message to Mrs May.

One veteran journalist on the BBC’s “Dateline London” said the crisis was not of Mrs May’s making. But he admitted that having called an election and ending up without a majority Government had been a mistake on May’s part.

As Mrs May grapples with 650 individual MPs individual opinions, the three years of debates on Brexit following the June 2016 Referendum sadly is a never-ending problem that brought the UK into what some call a National Crisis Emergency.

Popular unrest

Organizers of the “Put It to The People” campaign said more than a million people joined the march before rallying in front of Parliament. Speakers at the rally included Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, former Tory turned independent MP Anna Soubry and former attorney general Dominic Grieve.

PM Theresa May said she might not put her Brexit deal to a third vote by MPs. Indeed, she wrote to all MPs on Friday saying she will not put the EU Treaty to Parliament again if not enough MPs support it.

Downing Street sources denied reports in The Times newspaper that discussions are under way about a timetable for the prime minister to step down.

Here is the situation, going forward. Unless May’s deal is passed by MPs, the UK will have to come up with an alternative plan, or else face leaving the EU, without a deal, on 12 April.

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran said the petition could “give oxygen” to the campaign for another Brexit referendum.

Is the “Remain” camp growing?

But veteran Conservative MP John Redwood said: “We know that 16 million people wanted to stay in the EU, and some of those would still like to stay in the EU, and within that quite a few would like to have another go and have another referendum – but it was always a minority.”

If Mrs May’s deal is approved by MPs next week, the EU has agreed to extend the Brexit deadline until 22 May. If it is not – and no alternative plan is put forward – the UK is set to leave the EU on 12 April.

What next?

In a letter to all MPs on Friday evening, Mrs May offered to talk to them over the coming days “as Parliament prepares to take momentous decisions”.

Here are four possible scenarios:

Approving her deal next week – which relies on Commons Speaker John Bercow allowing her to put it to MPs to vote on again, which he has ruled will not be allowed unless “substantial” changes are made to it.

Asking for another extension before 12 April – which would mean the UK would have to take part in elections for the European Parliament.

Revoking Article 50 – cancelling Brexit – which Mrs May said would “betray the result of the referendum”.

 The UK leaving with the EU no deal in place.

But the whole Brexit issue means different things to all four countries that make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

In Northern Ireland itself, there are fears that the Good Friday Agreement of 20 years ago that brought peace, ending decades of terrorist violence, could be in jeopardy if a Hard Border between Ireland and Northern Ireland once again came into force.

When the UK’s people voted in the Referendum there was no mention of the possible implications of a Brexit decision on Northern Ireland.

When Mrs May attended the EU Summit last week all 27 Leaders expressed support for her. But their hands were tied. The EU Treaty that had to be ratified by the UK Parliament could not be re-opened. It was closed.


Relevant documents

This is Prime Minister Theresa May’s letter to MPs, released late on Friday night (22 March).

Dear colleague,

I am writing to inform you of the conclusions of the European Council with respect to Brexit.

As you know, on Wednesday I wrote to Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council:

• requesting the approval of the Instrument relating to the Withdrawal Agreement and the Joint Statement supplementing the Political Declaration that I agreed with President Juncker in Strasbourg on 11 March;

• reporting the Speaker’s statement on Monday that in order for a further meaningful vote to be brought back the agreement would have to be “fundamentally different – not different in terms of wording, but different in terms of substance” and that, as a result, some colleagues were pressing for further changes to the Withdrawal Agreement; and

• requesting a short extension to the Article 50 process.

Asking for an extension is a matter of great personal regret for me. As I set out to the House on 12 March, I am passionate about delivering the result of the referendum. But I am equally passionate that the best way to do so is to leave in an orderly way with a deal and I still believe there is a majority in the House for that course of action. I am also conscious of my duties as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of the potential damage to that Union that leaving without a deal could do when one part of our country is without devolved governance.

I am pleased to say that the European Council approved the legally-binding assurances relating to the backstop and alternative arrangements that I agreed with President Juncker in Strasbourg. These should increase the House’s confidence that the backstop is unlikely ever to be used and would only be temporary if it is.

The Council made it clear “that there can be no opening of the Withdrawal Agreement that was agreed between the Union and the United Kingdom in November 2018”.

I warned the House of Commons when I spoke in the second meaningful vote debate that it was “not a guarantee that any extension would be agreed by the European Union or that it would agree an extension in the terms in which the United Kingdom asked for it”.

So it proved. After a lengthy discussion, the Council agreed that if the House approves the Withdrawal Agreement next week then the date of our departure will be extended to 22 May in order to provide time for Parliament to pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which is necessary for the deal to be ratified.

If the House does not agree the Withdrawal Agreement next week, the Council agreed the date of our departure will be extended to 12 April. At this point, we would either leave with no deal or “indicate a way forward before this date for consideration by the European Council” – but that if this involved a further extension it would mean participation in the European Parliamentary elections. As I have said previously, I strongly believe that it would be wrong to ask people in the UK to participate in these elections three years after voting to leave the EU.

The Council’s conclusions have been turned into a legal decision, which comes into force today. We will need to alter the date of our withdrawal in domestic legislation by Statutory Instrument, but the Decision sets the new date of our departure.

The Council’s decisions mean we have a clear choice:

1. We can revoke Article 50 – but that would be to betray the result of the referendum.

2. We can leave with no deal on 12 April – but the House has previously said this is not something it will support.

3. If it appears that there is not enough support to bring the deal back next week, or the House rejects it again, we can ask for another extension before 12 April – but that will involve holding European Parliament elections.

4. If it appears that there is sufficient support and the Speaker permits it, we can bring the deal back next week and if it is approved we can leave on 22 May.

Finally I want to say something about my statement on Wednesday night, which a number of colleagues have raised concerns about. I expressed my frustration with our failure to take a decision, but I know that many of you are frustrated too. You have a difficult job to do and it was not my intention to make it any more difficult. People on all sides of the debate hold passionate views and I respect those differences. I would like to thank all of those colleagues that have supported the deal so far and also those that have taken the time to meet me to discuss their concerns.

I hope we can all agree that we are now at the moment of decision. If you would like to speak to me over the coming days as Parliament prepares to take momentous decisions, please contact my office.

Yours sincerely,

Theresa May


Meanwhile, ahead of last week’s European Summit TUC (Trades Union Congress) General Secretary Frances O’Grady and CBI (Confederation of British Industry) Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn had written a joint letter to the Prime Minister urging a change to her approach on Brexit. They have requested an urgent meeting to discuss their concerns.

The letter – on the CBI website –reads:

Together we represent millions of workers and tens of thousands of businesses. It is on their behalf that we are writing to you to ask you to change your Brexit approach.

Our country is facing a national emergency. Decisions of recent days have caused the risk of no deal to soar. Firms and communities across the UK are not ready for this outcome. The shock to our economy would be felt by generations to come.

We ask you to take three steps to protect the jobs, rights and livelihoods of ordinary working people.

First, avoiding no deal is paramount. Businesses and employees alike need to see their Government clearly acknowledge the reckless damage no deal would cause and recommit itself to avoiding this outcome.

Second, securing an extension has become essential. 88% of CBI members and a majority in Parliament agree this is better than no deal. But at the same time an extension must genuinely allow a way forwards, and be long enough for a deal to be agreed.

Third, ‘the current deal or no deal’ must not be the only choice. A Plan B must be found – one that protects workers, the economy and an open Irish border, commands a parliamentary majority, and is negotiable with the EU. A new approach is needed to secure this – whether through indicative votes or another mechanism for compromise.

We cannot overstate the gravity of this crisis for firms and working people. We request an urgent meeting with you to discuss our concerns and hear your response. 

Your sincerely,

Frances O’Grady, TUC General Secretary

Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI Director-General


Graham Bardgett is a Global Policy Institute Fellow. He has reported for the Los Angeles Post Examiner and Baltimore Post Examiner and is a former BBC Radio News sub-editor in London and Veteran reporter of the Northern Ireland Troubles and Peace Process. He had five years on the news desk of BBC Northern Ireland, nine years as a security reporter on the Belfast Telegraph, four years as Ireland staff reporter for the Daily Mail, and was a correspondent for the Financial Times, Daily Mirror, Sunday Express, and Irish Daily Mail. During his career he has also reported from Berlin, Luxembourg, and Rome, and carried out public affairs critical incident consultancy work in Kazakhstan and in London. He had four years with PwC international accountants and consultants; and was previously a UK Government Higher Executive Press Officer.

The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the author.