42 days to go to Brexit. Just over 1000 hours. And we still do not know what is going to happen in the Brexit saga. Yet as the clock ticks, some things become clearer. My Brexit diagrams have fewer branches. There are fewer possible outcomes.
An early general election (or Corbyn forcing one) looks out. Removing May as Prime Minister is likewise next to impossible, and she is not going to resign in shame (she has has ample opportunities to do that already – a 230 vote defeat! – and has not). The threat of an early election or attempts to No Confidence the government are about the only things that really rally Tory MPs to May’s side.
The central issue is still the degree of party unity in UK politics, and how May and Corbyn play the party political game. More background on that here. While both Labour and Tories might split factionally (as The Guardian so brilliantly illustrates here), the revulsion of May for Corbyn, and Corbyn for May, prevents any real effort to secure a cross-party Brexit consensus. Paul Waugh’s excellent piece this week gives further background as to why May is so reluctant to reach across the house – she fears the party totally fracturing. So a tack towards a softer Brexit (permanent membership of a Customs Union for example) likewise looks to be out.
A People’s Vote also looks a long shot at present, because the strongest case for such a vote – that the House of Commons is blocked, and the issue needs to be put back to the people… has failed as yet to gain traction among those people who are paralysed – MPs. And because of the UK’s top down political system, you need a law to make a referendum happen, and yes, it is MPs who have to back that. A further referendum may eventually come to pass – as I will outline below – but I cannot see how that will happen this side of the summer now.
Through this process of elimination there are three options still in play, with a fourth that might just come into play before 29.3.2019 – these are No Deal, May’s Deal, a request to extend Article 50 and, at the last minute, the option to unilaterally rescind Article 50.
No Deal is a the default, but the Spelman-Dromey Amendment shows there is a majority of MPs against it. The question is whether this can actually be leveraged effectively. May also does not want to face this one head on – either to rule it out, or to go for it explicitly – as to take a clear position on it causes major headaches within her own party.
May’s Deal is an even longer shot – it failed by 230 votes in the “Meaningful Vote” and no plausible amendment to the backstop is available that will win enough Tory MPs around to it and is still acceptable to the EU.
All signs then point towards delay. If a variant of the Cooper-Boles plan is put to the Commons around 27th February, there is a good chance it will be approved, and May then dispatched to Brussels to demand an Article 50 extension. There are of course a whole slew of problems with this. As Gary Younge so eloquently outlines, Britain does need more time, but that time should not be entrusted to Theresa May.
Then there is the issue of how much time to even request. Anything up to three months does not pose major problems for the EU, but anything more does – because of the European Parliament elections (as I explain here).
Granting an extension requires the unanimous approval of the rest of the EU’s Member States – 27 countries. If you were in the shoes of Merkel or Macron or Rutte would you really be ready to grant such an extension without any concrete idea from the UK side to find a way out of its impasse? And grant that time to Theresa May, a politician who has been dragging the whole negotiation out? I doubt it. There would be criteria or the demand for a clear timeline for approval of the Withdrawal Agreement. With that as the price for an Extension, a People’s Vote might well then come swiftly back into view.
After the Wightman et al. case, we know that the UK can unilaterally revoke its Article 50 notification, but that is a major step that MPs are only going to take if all hell breaks out – runs on supermarkets for example in the final weeks before a possible No Deal Brexit. Yes, Britain putting a stop to the whole thing sounds nice, but – again – it is MPs that have to act, and even the Remain-leaning ones are so paranoid about respecting the vote of the 2016 referendum that they’re reluctant to make any bold moves.
So, in short, get the UK to a position where Brexit is delayed first is the least undesirable option. And after that other options open up. This is the game to watch for the next fortnight.