No, Theresa May cannot rule out a No-Deal Brexit.


Theresa May claiming that it is “impossible” for the government to rule out a No-Deal Brexit is technically correct. Professor Simon Usherwood explains why.



In her reply to Jeremy Corbyn’s letter asking her to rule out No-Deal, Theresa May wrote yesterday:

“I note that you have said ‘ruling out’ no deal is a precondition before we can meet, but that is an impossible condition because it is not within the government’s power to rule out no deal. Let me explain why.

Under article 50 of the Treaty on European Union and the Withdrawal Act 2018, we will leave the EU without a deal on 29 March unless parliament either agrees a deal with the EU or the UK revokes article 50 and chooses to stay in the EU permanently.

So there are two way to avoid no deal: either vote for a deal, in particular a withdrawal agreement, that has been agreed with the EU, or to revoke Article 50 and overturn the referendum result.

I believe it would be wrong to overturn the referendum result.”


I am sure someone else has explained this, but since several have asked me today, here is why Theresa May cannot simply “remove no-deal” from the table for Jeremy Corbyn.

As you will recall, Article 50 operates on a trigger-then-resolve approach: a member state notifies of its intention to leave the EU, which starts a 2-year period, at the end of which the state leaves without a deal, unless otherwise jointly decided.

That ‘otherwise’ covers three options:

- the state and the European Union agree to extend the period;

- the state agrees a deal with the EU on the terms of exit;

- the state decides not to leave.

Those are the only three options possible instead of No-Deal.

The first — extending the period — does not remove No-Deal, but just delays its arrival, so that is not an option here.

The second — agree a deal with the EU — is what Theresa May worked to, but Labour (and others) voted on Tuesday that this deal (the Withdrawal Agreement) was not acceptable, so that is presumably not an option.

The third — revocation — is in the government’s gift, but Jeremy Corbyn’s public statements seem to suggest that the 2016 EU Referendum result must be honoured, so presumably this path isn’t in line with his preferences (not to mention May’s).

Thus, to meet the condition of removing No-Deal, Theresa May would either have to convince Parliament to accept the Withdrawal Agreement (in which case there is no need to consult with anyone), or do something neither she nor Corbyn say they want.

Since I am not feeling generous today, I will say that Jeremy Corbyn understands enough to know that this is the case, and so asked for it because he knew Theresa May couldn’t accept, giving him the high ground (and avoiding him having to spell out his policy).

In sum, more messing about by everyone as that clock ticks down to the one outcome that no one says they want.🔷



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(This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article, with the author’s consent, with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.)


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(Cover: Flickr/Number 10 - Prime Minister Theresa May and Brexit Secretary David Davis signing commemorative copies of the EU (Withdrawal) Act for each of the ministers who worked on this crucial piece of Brexit legislation. | 28 Jun 2018. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)


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Associate Dean, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey and Deputy Director of the ESRC's 'UK in a Changing Europe' programme.
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