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Cabinet ministers clash over length of Brexit extension

19 March 2019

3:49 PM

19 March 2019

3:49 PM

The PM presented choices to the Cabinet for the letter she is expected to write to the EU’s President Donald Tusk requesting a Brexit delay – without nailing down precisely what she will do.

That said, her ministers think she will request a delay until 30 June, predicated on her somehow getting her deal ratified by MPs – with an option of an extension to the end of 2020 in the event she ever concedes her own Brexit plan is definitely an ex-parrot (or dead, for the few of you too young to remember Monty Python).

May’s hope is that if this delay schedule is agreed as a legally binding text then it would have the effect of amending her deal – such that the Speaker could not then block her holding the meaningful vote for a third time.

We’ll see if Speaker Bercow feels that way inclined.

The bigger problem, as I mentioned this morning, is I am not sure the EU will agree such a long potential extension without detail about what the delay is actually for, and the prime minister simply cannot furnish on these.

So, I remain solidly of the view a no-deal Brexit remains a very live option, though – as I’ve said – a no deal delayed a couple of months or so.

Which would be music to the ears of the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, who lambasted her Cabinet colleagues this morning for refusing to deliver on no deal.

A minister told me: ‘Andrea was sitting there with a face like thunder. She went bonkers. She said she’d been on the phone to 40 ERGers (Tory Brexiter MPs) over the weekend and they are not moving. Her objection to the Cabinet was not about being “Remainers” but about this being a Cabinet that won’t deliver on no deal. Which Gove said at last cabinet was not what he campaigned for as former chairman of Vote Leave,’ and leaves Leadsom stranded (my source says Leadsom is ‘very much in a minority’).

That said, Fox and Williamson both said they would prefer no deal to a long extension.

Per contra, the foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt surprised colleagues – I understand – by saying the best way for the PM to get her deal through is to formally take no-deal off the table, so that the alternatives are only the PM’s deal or a long extension.

That said, many ERGers are not in practice frightened by an extension – because they think it provides them with an opportunity to secure a true Brexit rather than the version concocted by May they see as wholly false.

Here is one measure of this crisis for the PM. Talks with Northern Ireland’s DUP, on how, and whether, its ten MPs could at the last support her Brexit, have been put on hold. The PM thinks they are totally pointless unless she can somehow persuade the Speaker to permit another vote on her deal.

But without the DUP’s support, her deal can never be revived – and indeed without the DUP’s public support, the prospect of the PM getting any kind of Brexit delay from the EU, even a short one, is significantly reduced.

When it comes to Brexit, this appears to be a government struggling to walk and chew gum at the same time. And that could prove very costly for all of us.

PS: The foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt thinks he has been ‘briefed against’ by rivals in the cabinet who seek to damage his popularity with Brexiter Tory members by saying he advised the PM to present MPs at this morning’s cabinet meeting with an unambiguous choice between her deal and a lengthy Brexit delay, and to take no-deal off table.

He is right. The whole cabinet is jockeying for position ahead of the leadership election they expect any day now.

Here is what a source close to Hunt says is his real position: ‘Jeremy says he didn’t want an extension beyond 30th June and no-deal should be kept on the table, apparently.’

Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his ITV news blog.


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