After eight hours of talks between EU leaders, Theresa May has been granted an Article 50 extension. If the Prime Minister can pass her deal next week, there will be technical extension until 22 May. If the deal fails to pass, Article 50 will be extended only until 12 April so that the UK can set out its next steps – and potentially apply for a longer extension. This offer appears to give backbenchers time to try and – once again – seize control of the process if May fails to pass her deal.
The Prime Minister’s problem is when it comes to meeting the first condition of the 22 May offer, she is going backwards rather than forwards. Brussels will only grant that extension if the Prime Minister passes her deal and, back in Westminster, hope in government that she can do so is draining fast. May’s decision to address the nation on Wednesday night and blame the Brexit delay on MPs for failing to get behind her has backfired spectacularly. Labour MPs representing Leave seats have been quick to go on the offensive, with Lisa Nandy branding the speech ‘disgraceful’. Within the Conservative party, the comments have also gone down like a bucket of cold sick. Conservative MP Nicky Morgan – who voted for the deal last time – says it was so ‘terribly misjudged’ she no longer holds out hope the Prime Minister’s deal will pass on a third vote. Even the Chief Whip is unamused – reportedly sharing his frustration at the ‘appalling’ speech with MPs.
Not helping matters for May is the fact that ‘no deal’ is once again being talked up as an option. If Eurosceptics vote for May’s deal, the UK leaves the EU at the end of May. If they vote it down, there’s a chance the UK leaves at the beginning of April on WTO terms. It’s not clear what would happen after a 12 April extension but a no deal Brexit cannot be ruled out entirely. Both the Prime Minister and EU leaders have hinted that if May’s deal is voted down, a no deal Brexit would follow in the near future. Within government, there is heavy scepticism that this would actually be allowed to happen. However, May’s most pressing problem is that the perception of ‘no deal’ as a potential outcome means that Tory Brexiteers have lost incentive to get behind the deal – believing they could vote the deal down and be rewarded with a clean Brexit. Tellingly, Conservative MP Ben Bradley who voted for the deal on the second vote says he and ‘several colleagues who switched to support it last time are no longer sure about that’.
The view in Downing Street is that the best way for MPs to ensure Brexit happens is to vote for the deal and get a short extension. Were the deal to be rejected, May would most likely push for no deal than a lengthy extension which involves participating in EU elections. However, given that Parliament has said it does not want no deal this isn’t guaranteed and MPs could well intervene – forcing either a softer Brexit or an early election. This message, however, is failing to land – let alone convince rebels. As I say in this week’s Spectator, the problem is many of parliament’s Brexit tribes still think they can achieve their ideal outcome by rejecting the deal. The prospect of the Prime Minister passing her deal next week is slipping further away.