Brexit delay but Theresa May is still fighting for her deal
Britain is to ask for a delay to Brexit. This is the first and most fundamental fact. Regardless of the outcome of votes in the next fortnight Theresa May will be asking EU leaders for a new date for departure. The still unanswered question — assuming European leaders agree to the request — is how long a delay. Mrs May had already signalled, after her defeat on Tuesday, that this would happen. Now the House of Commons has formally backed two options for delay.
If the prime minister’s deal were to be approved at its third vote — probably on Tuesday — then the delay will be a technical extension till the end of June.
If she is forced to abandon her deal then the delay will be significantly longer, probably a year or more. The delay remains in the gift of the other EU nations and some have signalled that this cannot be taken for granted, but this should mean that the official Brexit day of March 29 is cancelled.
After one of the most extraordinary weeks in modern parliamentary history we may be no closer to knowing the UK’s end state, but there is at least some clarity about the next steps. Next week Mrs May will try for a third time to force MPs to back her withdrawal agreement. There are clear signs that hardliners are wavering as the reality of this week’s parliamentary votes sinks in. By voting on Wednesday to block a no-deal Brexit, MPs have served notice on the Brexiter hardliners that the alternatives to Mrs May’s deal are all likely to be less to their liking. The vote carried no legal weight but it was a clear show of intent.
The prime minister still needs to win over another 75 people, which is a big ask. But increasingly the expectation at Westminster is that she is going to make major inroads into that target. Much still hangs on the attitude of the Democratic Unionist party. If it shifts then she is likely to get her deal. If it does not then it is still close. Astonishingly some of the prime minister’s close allies are already canvassing the notion of a fourth vote to get her deal over the line should the third effort come close, but still be short of a majority.
After a tumultuous week, Mrs May did receive one significant boost on Thursday when an attempt by MPs to seize control of the parliamentary timetable in order to test support for alternative forms of Brexit failed. A move to give MPs the power to organise so-called indicative votes fell by the narrowest of margins. The power to schedule these votes remains therefore in the gift of the government, but Mrs May’s de facto deputy David Lidington promised that such votes will be held after the European summit in Brussels should the prime minister’s deal fall again.
The impact is that the threat of a softer Brexit — perhaps the so-called Norway option of remaining in the single market — remains active but will not be tested until after Mrs May has had at least one more go at securing her deal.
Should she fail, she will then go to the EU summit asking for a long delay to Brexit so that MPs can change her red lines and seek a meaningfully different Brexit settlement. She is counting on the threat of this scaring her hardliners into finally backing her deal.
Even on a night when Tory discipline largely held however, a remarkable moment followed when — on a free vote approving the Brexit delay — eight of her own cabinet voted against her motion and against a postponement. The list included her Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay, who just minutes earlier had commended the motion to MPs. The chief whip abstained. At least they had permission to rebel. On Wednesday, remain-minded minsters defied her on a whipped vote. Cabinet government is now merely a theoretical concept.
The one other notable postscript to Thursday was the hefty defeat of an amendment seeking a second referendum. It secured just 85 votes, falling because Labour chose not to support it and leaders of the “People’s Vote” movement judged that the moment was not yet right to push the cause. It did, however, expose the hollowness of Labour’s apparent support for the option. Like every other option in this saga, the referendum is not yet dead, because nothing can be written off until a position is approved.
But the hard fact is that Remainer and soft-Brexit-supporting MPs have still failed to rally round an alternative plan or seize control of events. This means that Mrs May has the time to keep pushing her own unloved agreement.
The upshot then is that the prime minister’s plan is still the only one on the table and that no others will be discussed for at least two weeks. In the meantime the prime minister will seek to delay Brexit and keep trying to secure her own deal.
These, then, are the fundamentals. Brexit is almost certainly postponed, maybe for a few weeks but if Mrs May cannot secure her deal then maybe for considerably longer.
Battered, humiliated, barely able to speak, with her authority over the cabinet in tatters, party discipline under the most enormous strain, the prime minister has once again come through a torrid week, still standing. Parliament may look ever more like a circus, but, incredibly, she is still holding the ring.