Brexit 5: What do you want?

Parliament can’t agree on what it wants – again

At Whitehouse we don’t like lapsing into repetition, but over the past few weeks, Brexit has been subject to a continuous pattern of meaningful votes, indicative votes, resignations and party dramas, which was no different this week – and unfortunately, we cannot ignore it. After voting down Theresa May’s withdrawal deal three times, this week MPs once again rejected each of the alternative Brexit plans. This time, the proposals were narrowed down to four options:
– A Customs Union – by Tory former Chancellor Ken Clarke
– A ‘common market 2.0’ – a cross-party motion that suggests UK membership of the European Free Trade Association and the European Economic Area
– Confirmatory public vote – by Labour MPs to have another referendum on any Brexit deal
– Parliamentary supremacy – a cross-party motion to extend Brexit process and otherwise let Parliament choose between a no-deal and revoking Article 50

Interestingly, the Customs Union motion was defeated by only three votes, showing there is increasing support among MPs for the softer Brexit the Labour Party is calling for. Still, no majority was reached, and Parliament now remains in deadlock only days ahead of new Brexit day – 12th April – making a no-deal Brexit or long extension more likely.  Hence, Theresa May has sent today a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk in which the UK Government requests a further Brexit extension until 30th June to give the UK time to ratify any cross-party deal she is able to strike in the coming days. Should the EU leaders not accept this extension, according to PM’s words, UK will leave the EU on 12th April without a deal.

Desperate times

Conceding that it’s unlikely she’ll get her own entire party on board, Theresa May has turned to opposition and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for help. It is no secret that Labour wants a softer Brexit with membership of a customs union and a second referendum, so the question is whether Theresa May is prepared to adjust her red lines to get that cross-party deal or if she will be able to offer Corbyn something else that will suffice and get a majority on both sides of the aisle.
Corbyn now has a chance to help shape Brexit, get it done and dusted and show how Labour saved the day in this political crisis. However, if he concedes too much to the Tories, he’ll run the risk of alienating his own MPs at a time when his party is already split. Also, if it doesn’t work out, he will have gotten his hands dirty on a Tory-led Brexit, which, in any potential future election campaign will reduce his credibility if he wants to play the blame-game. It’s safe to say Labour’s negotiation team will probably have to make some tough calls these days.

Or is she playing a smart game?

May’s outreach to Corbyn sparked huge outrage in the Brexit-wing of her party. Ministers Nigel Adams and Chris Heaton-Harris resigned over the decision, the latter saying his job at the Department for Exiting the EU had become “irrelevant” if the government was not prepared to leave without a deal. However, could this be a simple change in tac to show Brexiteers what the alternatives are if they don’t approve her deal?
Theresa May has indicated that if she is not successful in negotiating a deal with Labour, another set of different Brexit options would be put to vote in the House of Commons, which may include – for the fourth time – her withdrawal agreement negotiated with the EU. Facing the prospect of a softer Brexit or a long extension that would see the UK participate in the European elections, Brexiteers may this time fall in line and vote in favour of her deal. This would, however, be a risky game as these Brexiteers may now just be angry enough to vote down any of May’s proposals following her decision to cooperate with Corbyn.

No deal off the table?

Increasing the pressure on no-deal-advocates to support May’s deal, the House of Commons has passed Yvette Cooper’s backbench bill, which forces an extension of Article 50. In an extraordinary vote, MPs approved the bill by one vote, 313 in favour and 312 against, with 20 Tory remain-supporting rebels crucially voting against the government. The bill still allows the PM to propose the length of extension, but this could be again amended by MPs. Considering how things have unravelled in the House of Commons recently, who is to say what will happen on this one.
While this bill would be legally binding, it is important to note that it will ultimately be up to the 27 EU leaders to decide whether or not to agree with an Article 50 extension. At the last summit, they were clear in telling the UK it will either have to leave on 12th April or hold the European election if it gets another extension.

In today’s letter, Theresa May acknowledged the fact that if the extension will be given and the UK will still be an EU member on 23rd May, then it would be under a legal obligation to hold the european elections.

About that clock…The extension and the EU elections 

Yes, it’s ticking. Whatever Theresa May’s plan is, including the extension until 30th June, it needs to happen fast as EU leaders need time to consider any proposals before the special summit on 10th April. With cross-party talks still ongoing it is unlikely Parliament will be able to vote on any way forward before Tuesday, a day before the PM heads to Brussels.

What will definitely not be an option is for May to turn up empty handed and simply ask for an extension of Article 50 without any explanation on how the UK will use that extra time. Some in the government may feel that committing to holding the European elections is worth it to get the extension, as long as there is an exit-clause ahead of 22nd May, the day before the election is held, to allow the UK to opt out if it gets a deal in the meantime. This, however, is a risky strategy and will likely not bode well with EU leaders, who have their own election campaigns to worry about over the next few months and do not want them to revolve around Brexit. In the words of French President Emmanuel Macron, the EU “cannot be the hostage of a political crisis in the UK”