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20 March 2019

Edelman Brexit Bulletin: May says she will only accept short Brexit delay

Brexit, Government Affairs

Big Ben Clock Tower in London England

When the definitive history of Brexit is written the events of the last two weeks will probably command entire chapters of their own. Today is no exception.

Having told the Commons only last week that the only option was to pass a meaningful vote and leave on or before June 30, or seek a longer extension, it would appear the Prime Minister changed her mind sometime late last night or first thing this morning following a particularly fractious Cabinet meeting. Rather than seeking two extension options in her letter to the EU – short and long – she asked only for a short extension. She is clearly betting all on the first option. The implication is clear – get behind my deal or we will leave without a deal at the end of June.

Today at PMQs Mrs May went nuclear, effectively saying to MPs get out of my way or we will be leaving without a deal. She has moved to position herself as being on the side of the British people – or at least those who are fed up and just want Brexit delivered and done with.  

It’s pretty extraordinary for a sitting PM to attack all MPs like that, especially when she needs them to pass her deal. You can either read this as genuine frustration, a piece of strategic leadership positioning, or a last throw of the dice.

She appears to be daring her own side to unite and deliver the leaving part of Brexit and has been pretty clear she won’t hang around if they don’t do it because she views that as a betrayal of the British people.  

Here’s our summary of what has happened, our view on what it all means and what comes next.

What has happened?

  • Prime Minister Theresa May has today formally written to European Council President Donald Tusk requesting an extension of the Article 50 process until 30 June.
  • In her letter, she confirmed her intention to hold the third meaningful vote on her Brexit deal “as soon as possible”, and that this should be preceded by the EU formally approving the additional legal safeguards she negotiated last week around the application of the Irish border backstop.
  • In a bid to get around House of Commons Speaker John Bercow’s ruling that any subsequent motion would have to be “fundamentally different” to the one defeated by MPs last week, in addition to the EU formally approving the aforementioned safeguards, she pledged to table further domestic proposals to protect the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK.
  • This is also a clear overture to the DUP, without whose support Mrs May has little chance of getting her deal through.
  • Mrs May also states in her letter that she does not consider the UK holding European elections on 23 May – a condition for the EU to grant a longer extension – to be in either the UK or EU’s interest, although the letter did not categorically reject such a prospect. Speaking at PMQs however, Mrs May also said that “As Prime Minister I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than 30 June”, widely interpreted as a hint that she might stand down if forced into such a move by Parliament.
  • The EU has not yet formally responded, although a spokesperson for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that Mr Juncker had formally warned Mrs May against including a date for the extension that is after the European Parliament elections, i.e. 30 June, unless the UK is prepared to participate in those elections.
  • The Labour position on the extension is not clear, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn choosing not to raise the length of the extension per se at PMQs. Earlier today Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell indicated Labour would also back a 3-month extension, but a number of backbench Labour MPs have indicated their anger at Mrs May’s failure to take account of the will of Parliament.

What does it mean?

  • Last week, Parliament voted last week by 412 votes to 202 to seek a longer extension to Article 50 in the event MPs did not also vote to approve the Brexit deal in the third meaningful vote ahead of tomorrow’s European Council. However, following a concerted push-back in Cabinet yesterday from Brexiteer ministers, Mrs May has opted to disregard that and only seek a short extension.
  • In any event, an Article 50 extension does not in of itself, resolve the underlying issue of there being no parliamentary majority for any specific form of Brexit – it merely extends the cliff-edge.
  • Mrs May now appears to be betting everything on being able to pass her Brexit at the third time of asking, daring MPs who oppose no deal but have so far also rejected her deal to fold in fear of crashing out without a deal at the end of June.
  • From the perspective of the group of Brexiteers who have said they will not vote for the deal as it stands under any circumstances, a short extension could improve their strategic position as without UK participation in the European elections, a no deal is much more likely at the end of June, whereas at the moment a longer extension remains in play. Therefore, they have little incentive to change their approach.
  • Likewise, MPs pushing for a softer Brexit or a second referendum are likely to continue to believe that they have the numbers to block both May’s deal and no deal and will push for the Government to bend to their will, potentially pushing it to the point of complete collapse as the Cabinet is unable to agree on a collective position.

What happens next?

  • Speaker Bercow has granted an emergency debate later this afternoon during which the House will consider and vote on “the matter of the length and purpose of the extension of the Article 50 process requested by the Government”. The debate will be opened by Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Stermer, so we should get a better sense of Labour’s formal position.
  • Normally, such debates are neutral and non-binding, but earlier this week Speaker Bercow said that their “opportunities are fuller than has traditionally been acknowledged or taken advantage of by Members”.
  • This has been widely interpreted as a sign that that the Speaker could seek to claim that the verdict of the House should be binding, a move which would exacerbate the constitutional fissure between the legislature and executive.
  • Mrs May will also attend a meeting of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs – this had been billed as a major flashpoint in the event she had left open the possibility of a longer extension. It remains to be seen how her strident tone earlier today will go down, with many of the MPs present among those blocking the passage of her Brexit deal. She will then issue a further public statement at around 7pm, which will provide an opportunity for her to respond to Mr Tusk’s statement at around 5pm.
  • Beyond that the timetable looks very uncertain and prone to volatility. Mrs May will discuss the length and terms of a potential Article 50 extension with her EU counterparts at tomorrow’s European Council summit. However, the details may not be finalised until next week, with Mr Juncker telling Germany’s Deutschlandfunk radio: “My impression is … that this week there will be no decision, we will probably have to meet again next week.”
  • If an extension is approved, the Government will also have to table implementing legislation to change the exit date in domestic law, although the widespread assumption is that even if this were not to happen, it would be superseded by the UK-EU agreement to delay Brexit.
  • It looks highly likely that we will get another meaningful vote next week, providing the Government can find a way around the Speaker’s ruling on Monday. This will again come in the form of an amendable motion, meaning that we are likely to see another attempt to allow parliament to seize control of the process and table a series of so-called indicative votes on alternative Brexit plans, unless the Government concedes and agrees to holding these itself.

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