This week, the Prime Minister travelled to the Egyptian seaside resort of Sharm El Sheikh in the hope that she could seal the concessions necessary to get the withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons. Many MPs had expected to vote on it this week, but before the PM’s plane had even touched down in Egypt, it emerged that this would now take place by March 12th - potentially more than two weeks before the UK is set to leave the European Union. In reality, with President Macron skipping the summit, clinching a deal to sell in parliament looked like a tall order.
Back in the UK, the parliamentary dynamics appear to be shifting slightly with the threat of further defectors to The Independent Group, a grouping of independent centrist MPs opposed to Brexit. This has forced both leaders of the two main parties to come up with a way to stem further departures.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn says his party will now back a second referendum after coming under pressure from pro-Remain factions, certainly as a result of those who quit in protest at his Brexit policy and the allegations of anti-Semitism. That move came after Labour’s Brexit plans were defeated in the Commons, although the idea of remaining inside the customs union and having a say in EU trade policy has already been rejected by Brussels. The hope for Corbyn is that the promise to back a second vote will stem the flow of defections, although it is unlikely to win support from his MPs who represent constituencies that voted Leave. There are also practical problems with a fresh referendum, such as the time it would take to organise and agreeing on a sufficiently neutral question. Would the Electoral Commission agree to a question that was the PM’s deal vs. Remain?
The reality is that even with Labour backing, the government’s support would be needed to form a majority in Parliament for another referendum.
However, the PM did make a number of concessions this week. In Egypt she had insisted the UK would leave the EU on March 29th. That stance shifted when some ministers said they would back a plan, supported by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Conservative MP Oliver Letwin, to delay Brexit if her deal fails to get through parliament. The PM then promised a series of votes that will grant parliament greater control over the Brexit process in the coming weeks.
The withdrawal deal is set to come back to Parliament for a vote before the 12th March. If that fails to pass, the Prime Minister will ask MPs the next day if they support a no-deal Brexit. It is likely that the answer will be no. Then a motion would be tabled instructing the government to seek an extension of Article 50. By splitting those votes, it makes it unlikely that MPs will oppose both no deal and a delay (although in theory they could).
But this promise might make some Brexiteer MPs and the Democratic Union Party (DUP) support the deal. The implied inference is the next meaningful vote on the deal will effectively be a choice between Brexit at the end of March, a delayed Brexit, and possibly no Brexit at all.
It also offers a possibility to those MPs who oppose Brexit and who may see the extension of Article 50 as an opportunity to stop the UK from leaving altogether. They may see a benefit in voting against the Prime Minister’s deal.
It appears that the government has made a choice to rule out no deal if instructed to do so by Parliament. Given the probable lack of support in Parliament for a no deal, this was the only viable path open to the Prime Minister. The government could in theory pursue a no deal without Parliament, but politically it would not be able to weather the substantial storms that would follow.
A delay would not change the fundamental issues or the choices available to the UK, which effectively remain the same. The PM’s deal, no deal or no Brexit. An Article 50 extension will not change the parliamentary maths or soothe the concerns over the backstop.
That is why Attorney General Geoffrey Cox was in Brussels this week to try once more to obtain a legally-binding guarantee that the backstop would not be permanent. Much of the focus has been on a time limit or a unilateral exit clause, although the EU still believes both these options would undermine the backstop’s purpose as the insurance policy against a hard border on the island of Ireland. It is possible that wording could be agreed that would allow the British government to exit if future trade talks broke down. Although such an arrangement would not be unilateral; it would almost certainly be decided by the arbitration panel set out in the withdrawal agreement. This would not fundamentally change the deal, but it might give MPs enough to decide if they can finally back it.
Whatever the result of the vote on March 12th, it seems almost certain that the UK will request an extension to Article 50 and delay its departure from the EU. Estimates vary about how long this will be. If the vote passes it would probably be just be a technical extension to grant the government more time for to get the necessary secondary legislation through Parliament.
If MPs vote the deal down, a longer extension looks more likely, perhaps to include negotiations about the future relationship with the EU. This is a key concern amongst MPs, because many feel there is little clarity on what UK-EU ties would look like after the UK has have left. Clarity on the future relationship would also make it easier to solve the Irish border question as the terms of trade would be known.
The EU will, however, be faced with a UK request for an extension barely two weeks before Article 50 is due to expire. They will almost certainly accept the request, they are wary of granting a short extension, only to have to extend again in the summer because the impasse in the British Parliament still has not been solved. A short extension is easier for the EU. A longer one throws up many problems, including whether the UK would take part in the European elections and whether it would need to pay into the next seven-year EU budget, which starts next year.
Whatever happens in the next two weeks, the key issue remains the same as it has been for some time - how to find a clear majority in Parliament for a particular form of Brexit which is acceptable to the government. The government needs to win over 100 MPs to get the deal through and only has two tools left in the armoury. Firstly, that the EU will agree to changes surrounding the backstop and, secondly, the threat of no Brexit at all.
We will know in two weeks if they have given the Prime Minister sufficient leverage to win over MPs. If not, an Article 50 extension is almost certain, and all three options (no deal, no Brexit, the PM’s deal) remain possible.
What is almost certain is that the UK will not be leaving the EU on time, leaving open an array of possibilities as to what comes next. Even if the withdrawal deal does go through, the Brexit negotiations will be far from finished as the future trade relationship will still need to be negotiated. Whatever happens, Brexit will remain at the top of the Prime Minister’s in-tray for many months to come.