Under terms set out by EU leaders after a summit last week, Britain would be granted an extension until May 22 if Parliament passes the withdrawal agreement – one of two separate documents that make up the prime minister’s deal – by March 29, the date theUK was originally scheduled to leave the bloc, or Brexit.
In a move that caused a stir in the House of Commons, the government announced on Thursday that MPs would be asked to only approve the 585 page-long withdrawal agreement, agreed by negotiators from the UK and the EU last year.
Along with the withdrawal agreement, which sets out the terms of departure, the Brexit deal also includes a 26 page-long political declaration, a non-legally binding text that sets out the terms of the future relationship between the EU and the UK.
MPs on Friday, however, will not be asked to vote on the political declaration.
Why have a meaningless vote?
According to Section 13 of the EU Withdrawal Act, the government cannot ratify any deal until Parliament has approved it. This process has become known as a “meaningful vote”, which requires the House of Commons to approve both the withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship.
However, House Speaker John Bercow has ruled that asking MPs to vote twice on the same motion would breach parliamentary procedures.
May’s deal has already been twice rejected in meaningful votes.
Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons, told MPs on Thursday the government’s move to split the deal aims at meeting the EU deadline for the UK to be granted an extension until May 22, just before European Parliament elections.
Should the UK extend beyond that date, it would be required to elect representatives in the EU Parliament, something the government wants to avoid.
“What you could do is use the withdrawal agreement bill, the legislation needed to implement the deal in domestic law, to amend the withdrawal act to say that you no longer need to approve the political declaration,” Maddy Thimont Jack, a researcher at the London-based Institute for Government, said.
“But you’d need a majority in the House of Commons to do that.”
If the deal is not passed, the EU wants Britain to set out an alternative path by April 12. As a no-deal Brexit remains the default option under Article 50, the part of the EU treaty that allows member states to leave the bloc, the UK could still crash out on that date.
Is May going to resign?
On Wednesday, May told members of her own Conservative party that she was willing to resign if MPs backed her deal, in a last-ditch bid to win the support of hardline Eurosceptic rebels, who prefer a no-deal Brexit.
“I know there is a desire for a new approach – and new leadership – in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations, and I won’t stand in the way of that,” May told her fellow party members.
The prime minister has not specified what she would do if the deal was to be defeated a third time.
Crucially, her statement does not appear to have won the support she needs for her deal either.
Is the deal likely to pass tomorrow?
It’s very unlikely.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), May’s ally in Northern Ireland, holds many of the cards for the approval of the deal.
With 10 MPs in the House of Commons, the DUP is the only Northern Irish party represented in Westminster.
The party has opposed the backstop protocol of the withdrawal agreement, an insurance mechanism that aims at keeping an open border on the island of Ireland, for fear that it would lead to a breakup of the UK as Northern Ireland would be treated differently from the rest of the country.
Hardline Brexiteer MPs have rejected the withdrawal agreement, but in the wake of May’s offer to resign, some influential Brexiteers have said they would support the prime minister’s deal.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chair of the European Research Group (ERG) and Boris Johnson both said they would back the deal.
The main opposition Labour party, which has advocated for a closer future relationship with the EU than that which May has negotiated, also appears unlikely to give its support to the withdrawal agreement on Friday.
Keir Starmer, Labour MP and shadow Brexit secretary, said his party would not support “this latest desperate attempt by the prime minister”.
“To now split the withdrawal agreement and political declaration would leave us with the blindest of blindfold Brexits,” Starmer said during a speech at a British Chambers of Commerce conference on Thursday.
What happens next then?
If the withdrawal agreement does not pass on Friday, the UK will have to request a longer extension from the EU in order to avoid a no-deal Brexit on April 12, which could be granted on the condition it takes part in the upcoming European Parliament elections.
On Monday, Parliament will hold another series of so-called “indicative votes” to find out if it can produce a majority for alternative Brexit options.
The first round of votes on Wednesday ended with all eight options put to a vote being rejected. The top two were a customs union with the EU, which received 264 votes in favour and 272 against, and holding a second referendum, which lost 268 to 295.
However, the non-binding votes were never meant to be decisive, but the beginning of a process for Parliament to find a way out of the impasse.