Where are we?
In fourteen days the UK will leave the European Union, with or without a deal, unless an extension to Article 50 is requested by the UK and granted unanimously by all remaining 27 EU member states. Parliament has instructed the UK government to request an extension, but it has not indicated for how long this should be or what it should seek to achieve. It has also voted against a no deal outcome, against a second referendum and against giving itself an opportunity to express its view on an alternative approach in a series of indicative votes next week.
Brexit has broken the UK political system. Both major parties and almost all the various Brexit factions are deeply split and whatever path we take is likely to wreak more havoc and damage on the established political order.
What happened last night?
The instruction to request an Article 50 extension was delivered last night via approval of a government motion. This set out two possible extension scenarios; a short extension (likely until June) if Parliament finally approves May’s deal in order to pass the relevant legislation to enact it, or the prospect of a much longer extension if the deal is not passed, likely to be accompanied by unpalatable conditions from the EU.
This motion passed, unamended, by a large majority in a free vote in which MPs were not instructed which way to vote by the whips. All amendments to the motion were defeated, including a call for a second referendum (by a significant margin with Labour abstaining) and an attempt to grant the Commons the chance to hold indicative votes on alternatives to May’s deal (by just two votes). This appeared at first to be a qualified success for the Prime Minister, until it emerged that two thirds of all Conservative MPs and eight Cabinet Ministers opposed the motion.
What comes next?
The next staging post in this process is now expected to be a third meaningful vote on the Prime Minister’s deal next Tuesday. Intense efforts are now underway to find any mechanism to win round the DUP. They are seen as the key to unlocking this process. If they fall in line, many of the ERG Brexiteers and a number of Labour MPs are expected to swing in behind them. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox is again at the heart of these efforts via additional attempts to construe further legal interpretations & clarifications. It currently appears unlikely, though not impossible, that these efforts will bear fruit by Tuesday.
Should the deal be rejected a third time by MPs the only course of action left to the Prime Minister will be to seek an extension to Article 50. There is no precedent for this process. It is expected that the details of whether, and on what conditions, any extension will be granted will be hammered out between EU leaders at the European Council summit next Thursday and Friday (21st and 22nd March).
There will be an expectation that the UK will need to provide a clear rationale for the request. This could be in the form of significant changes to its negotiating stance and there is even speculation that a second referendum will be demanded as part of the price of an extension (though this would represent a very hard-line approach indeed).
Responding to an extension request will be a fiendishly tricky challenge for the EU leaders. They will be balancing the risk of pushing the UK into no deal with the need to end the current uncertainty and the desire to avoid ending up in exactly the same scenario at the end of whatever extension period is granted. This is all complicated by the requirement for unanimity, any single member state can veto an extension. The outcome of this process is highly uncertain, it is by no means a given that an extension will be granted.
How could this play out?
Should the Commons refuse to back May’s deal again next Tuesday, it is likely that MPs will be faced with a final reckoning in the last week of March with just days to go until time runs out. At this point there will be certainty over whether, and on what terms, an Article 50 extension is available and the options on the table will be crystallised.
Should Article 50 extension only be available for a very long period on condition of a softer Brexit or even a second referendum, the ERG Brexiteers and the DUP will have to choose between the lesser of two evils; extension, or May’s deal. It is entirely possible, though not certain, this would finally bring them in line behind her deal. It will be a very close call.
Should Article 50 extension be denied for anything other than a short term administrative period to pass May’s deal, then it is hard to see how Labour MPs, the SNP and other remain supporting groups could do anything other than hold their noses and vote for May’s deal. Otherwise they will facilitate the no deal scenario the Commons has voted to rule out in all circumstances.
It appears then that a significant extension of Article 50 or a last minute backing of May’s deal, under extreme duress, are now the most likely outcomes. Either scenario calls into greater question the future of Theresa May’s premiership. Either she will be faced with implementing a deal the vast majority of Parliament hates or adopting a fundamentally different approach to the Brexit negotiations that she personally disagrees with, during a delay she has consistently opposed. Neither scenario looks like a recipe for a return to predictable and stable government.
UK politics looks set to be dominated by Brexit and characterised by unpredictability for some time yet to come.