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Why we are still no closer to a Brexit prognosis

10 February 2019

8:19 PM

10 February 2019

8:19 PM

I have this mental image of Brexit Britain on a hospital ward waiting for treatment that never comes. We are hanging on for an operation that is supposed to make us stronger and happier, but we still don’t know what kind of procedure it will be – or even when or whether it will definitely happen.

This coming Thursday was supposed to be a big day. It was billed as when MPs would vote on whether Brexit should be postponed, and what kind of Brexit they might eventually support. But it now looks as though the consultant in charge of our treatment, the prime minister, will announce on Tuesday or Wednesday that she would dearly love them to hold fire.

And she will probably persuade enough of them to do so by promising, from the despatch box, that on 27 February they will have another opportunity to have those votes and thereby force her to follow their Brexit will, rather than her own.

She will urge the delay to the moment she becomes parliament’s pawn, to give her more time to persuade the EU to amend the so-called backstop, to make it more palatable to her Brexiter MPs and Northern Ireland’s DUP.

Whether or not MPs see the PM’s attempt to biff the backstop as windmill tilting, they will probably indulge her – as, probably, will those of her ministers who insist they would have to quit rather than underwrite any future decision she may make to embrace a no-deal Brexit as the preferred option.

But it is touch and go.

Because for those MPs, led by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and the Tories’ Nick Boles, who are desperate to force her to delay Brexit if there is any risk of a no-deal departure, 27 February is absolutely the last moment the vote could be held.

The significance of the 27 February deadline is that if the motion were passed any later, there would be little prospect the associated legislation would then be passed by the Commons and Lords in time to compel the PM to request a Brexit postponement at the EU council scheduled for 21 March.

All of which means the coming week looks like yet another period of waiting in the hospital bed, for something (anything) to happen.

Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, may try to liven up life on the ward by trying to force the PM over the coming few days to hold a vote or series of votes on 26 February – or a day before May’s preferred date – that would establish what kind of Brexit could be supported by a majority of MPs, and would also oblige the PM to then attempt to negotiate with the EU whatever turned out to be the revealed will of parliament.

Many Tories would approve as a matter of theory of this attempted coup by the legislature against the executive. But they will be highly reluctant to back an amendment sponsored by the leader of the Labour Party.

So if you are waiting anxiously for the Brexit prognosis, this will be another nerve-wracking but ultimately unsatisfactory and unfulfilling week. Godot may well turn up before our EU destiny is crystallised.

Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his Facebook page


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