On Tuesday night, as I write in the magazine this week, Theresa May met Leave-voting junior ministers. Her aim was to reassure them that she didn’t want an Article 50 extension and if there was one, it would be short. One of those present then asked her what would happen if Olly Robbins came back saying that a short extension was not negotiable. May was visibly irritated by this comment and shot back, ‘I don’t just do what Olly Robbins tells me to.’ She went on to say that a long extension ‘would be seen as a betrayal by the public’.
This exchange is, I think, revealing. First, it shows how frustrated these ministers are. The exchange about Robbins wasn’t the only hostile questioning. I am told there were repeated complaints about there being two classes of minister, those who have to back government policy and those who don’t. Second, the fact that May is having to deny to her own ministers that she just does what an official says, shows how much trust has broken down.
Some of May’s allies argue that the EU won’t want a long extension as if we stay beyond June then we’d have to take part in the European elections in May and send MEPs to the European Parliament. But I understand that the civil service has been looking at ways of getting around this in a period of ‘continued uncertainty’ (their euphemism for a Brexit extension). One idea that has been mooted is sending MPs or members of the House of Lords to the European Parliament to temporarily occupy the seats that would otherwise be filled by MEPs.
When I put this analysis to one cabinet minister, he said such a fix would violate the EU’s treaties and would not be tolerated. He insisted that means there could be no further delay beyond the end of June. This minister, a secretary of state, argues that this therefore sets up ‘a no deal vs deal vote with no alternative’ at the end of June, and that in those circumstances ‘the deal would definitely pass’ thanks to the Commons majority against no deal. But this assumes that Parliament wouldn’t already have seized control of the process by then in order to try to push through a softer Brexit.