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This was another classic Theresa May Brexit day – a lot happened, but nothing has really changed. The main takeaway is that the Prime Minister is still (almost admirably at this late stage) committed to her policy of kicking the can a little down the road until weary MPs simply capitulate and vote for her deal, with choruses of “just make it stop” ringing around their heads, probably.
Amid the threat of a rebellion among the Remainers in the cabinet, May made a statement to the Commons this afternoon. She will bring her Brexit deal back to parliament on 12th March. If that fails, she will put two further votes to MPs. On 13th March they will vote on whether the UK should leave the EU on 29th March with no deal. And, if MPs vote to prevent a no deal Brexit, on 14th March MPs will vote on extending, or at least asking the EU if they can extend, Article 50. If it sounds confusing it’s because it is.
MPs are likely to vote to prevent no deal. So they will then vote on extending Article 50. But as ever there is a catch. Obtaining an extension to article 50 requires the unanimous agreement of all 27 member states.
But, the EU have said they will consider an extension in only two cases, either to give time to pass relevant legislation if May gets her deal through parliament or for a longer extension to try and rework the whole mess. They have indicated they will not entertain the request for a short extension, which is what May has said she would ask for. A long extension may give time for a general election, the UK taking part in the European elections, a new government, an attempt at a customs union solution, perhaps. Two months however? Not much time for anything beyond May all but pleading with parliament to accept her deal.
So, aside from the small likelihood of obtaining an extension no matter how MPs vote, May has quelled some of the threats of rebellion within her cabinet. Several Remain-inclined ministers were threatening resignation today so they could support the cross party Cooper-Boles-Letwin amendment tomorrow evening, which seeks to rule out a no-deal Brexit. The amendment has since been all but pulled, with Conservative MP Oliver Letwin declaring the prime minister has made enough concessions today to avoid a no deal Brexit, for now.
However, May is faced again with the perpetual dilemma. Should she appease the moderates and enrage the ERG, or opt for the other way round. In response to the possibility of an extension of Article 50, Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the ERG, said: “My suspicion is that any delay to Brexit is a plot to stop Brexit.” It is no secret, after all, that the ERG are happy to crash out with no deal come 29th March.
However, May has been given a helping hand to deal with the hard-Brexiteers from the leader of the opposition and parliament’s best Brexiteer Jeremy Corbyn. Yesterday, in a boost to May and soft-Brexiteers, Corbyn said Labour would support a second referendum in some form, via an amendment to May’s deal.
While the ERG are happy to crash out with no deal, they would surely rather leave the EU than not at all. Faced with the prospect (albeit a slim one) of a second referendum, and the possibility (even slimmer) of no Brexit at all, or an extension to Article 50, the ERG and the DUP could in the end be cowed into supporting May’s deal. When faced with this triumvirate of terrible options, they surely wouldn’t risk no Brexit at all, would they?
While the possibility of extending Article 50 may not be enough to frighten hard-Brexiteers into supporting the deal, the threat of a second referendum and potentially no Brexit at the end of that process just might be. If it works, May owes Corbyn a big thank you for reintroducing the spectre of another referendum.