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26 February 2019

Edelman political update: Playing for Time

Brexit, Government Affairs

As expected by many, the Prime Minister has offered an olive branch to those urging her to find a way to extend the Brexit talks. If her deal fails to pass in the vote on 12th March, she will give MPs a choice of no deal or a short extension of Article 50.

This does not mean no deal has definitively been taken off the table, but reduces the chances and postpones the cliff-edge. We do not know precisely how long any extension would be, but any extension beyond July 1 could require the UK to participate in May’s European elections, a highly controversial prospect. 

A summary of what happened, what it means, and what happens next follows:

What happened: 

  • The Prime Minister has today shifted her position on Brexit, promising MPs that if they vote down her Brexit deal again, in terms of next steps, they will be offered a choice of endorsing no deal or seeking “a short, limited extension to Article 50.”
  • Previously, the Government’s position had been that the only to avoid no deal on March 29 would be to approve her Brexit deal, now Mrs May has conceded that “the United Kingdom will only leave without a deal on March 29 if there is explicit consent in this House for that outcome.”
  • However, she reiterated that she is personally opposed to such an extension as it would do nothing to change the Brexit fundamentals; it remains the case that in the absence of MPs backing a negotiated settlement, the UK will ultimately leave without a deal.
  • While her ongoing efforts to amend the controversial Irish backstop are yet to yield tangible changes, Mrs May said that the UK and EU have agreed to convene a workstream to consider alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland which will run in parallel with the future relationship negotiations, so that even if this has not been finalised by the end of the transition period, the backstop may not need to be activated.
  • Responding, Jeremy Corbyn made clear he fears that the PM’s plan is simply to run down the Brexit clock, and repeated his call for the PM to back Labour’s alternative five-point Brexit plan. If that plan is unable to command support, Mr Corbyn made clear that Labour would support a public vote on the Brexit deal. 

What it means:

  • The significance of May’s shift today risks being overinterpreted – it was looking highly likely that the Government did not have the numbers to defeat a cross-party attempt led by Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin to give Parliament the means of forcing an extension of Article 50. A number of ministers, including three Cabinet ministers, had strongly indicated they would vote in favour, essentially daring Mrs May to have to sack them.
  • Previously, the Government has ended up adopting Brexiteer positions in order to avoid defeat in the House. On this occasion Mrs May recognised the wind was blowing strongly in the opposite direction and acted accordingly. This way, she at least gets to retain a degree of initiative as opposed to being forced towards an even more damaging outcome.
  • What today’s development does not mean is that no deal has definitively been taken off the table – it merely postpones the cliff-edge. We do not know exactly how long any such extension would be for, but the general consensus is that any extension beyond July 1 would require the UK to participate in May’s European elections, a highly controversial prospect.
  • Therefore, while today’s announcement significantly reduces the risk of a no deal Brexit on March 29, it does not give us any additional information over when the UK will leave and on what terms.
  • While many Brexiteers are publicly claiming that ‘nothing has changed’, privately they are worried that even a short extension represents the thin end of the wedge which at best paves the way for an even longer extension and at worst for revoking Brexit entirely. Mrs May could well be betting that this prospect will encourage them to reluctantly back her deal, but many will continue to oppose both her deal on principle.

What happens next:

  • Tomorrow, MPs will vote on a Government motion and Labour will table an amendment to propose an alternative negotiating strategy.
  • Having expressed concern that the Prime Minister may not keep to her word on her suggested timetable, Yvette Cooper has until close of play today to decide if she will move her amendment which could introduce a legal obligation on the Government to extend Article 50. 
  • Mrs May has committed to holding a second meaningful vote on her Brexit deal by March 12.
  • If MPs reject that deal, then on the following day, March 13 at the latest, MPs will be given a choice either to endorse a no deal Brexit or to extend Article 50. It is not yet clear whether the Government will attempt to impose a whip or agree to a free vote – the latter may be the best bet from a party management perspective.
  • If MPs reject no deal in favour of an Article 50 extension, then on the following day, March 14 at the latest, the Government will table a motion specifying the details, which if approved, she will then formally put to the EU (any extension requires the unanimous consent of the remaining 27).

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