After much speculation, a furious Cabinet and the threat of another backbench rebellion, No. 10 has finally confirmed what type of Article 50 extension Theresa May will seek at Thursday’s EU council summit. Downing Street has said May will not ask for a long delay. Instead, the Prime Minister will seek a brief extension of a couple of months. The source added that May shares the public’s ‘frustration’ at the failure by Parliament to ‘take a decision’.
May’s decision comes after her position looked increasingly under threat were she to seek a long extension – potentially of up to two years. At Cabinet on Tuesday, ministers made clear their displeasure at such a plan. Andrea Leadsom accused the Cabinet of abandoning its promise to deliver Brexit – and instead now being a Cabinet of Remain. In that meeting, May refused to divulge where she sat on the matter but attendees left with the distinct impression she would see resignations if she tried to secure a long extension. The fact that the bulk of Tories (and the majority of government whips) voted against an Article 50 extension last week shows how far away May’s position is from her party.
However, May could still run into trouble over her request. The Prime Minister heads to Brussels with little in the way of leverage – simply a hope that the EU will say yes. EU leaders could still say they only wish to grant a long extension – or no extension. In a press conference on Tuesday, Michel Barnier said that any request must be accompanied by a ‘new event or new political process’ to justify Brussels agreeing to grant one. There are concerns in government that this could include a call for a second referendum, a general election or a Commons vote on a customs union.
One group who will feel boosted by a short delay are the Brexiteers who believe they can not vote for May’s deal and then get a no deal Brexit. Remain MPs warned against requesting merely a short extension as they argued it would solve nothing and remove all incentive for Brexiteers to row in behind the government’s deal. This included May’s de facto deputy David Lidington who said just last week that a short one-off extension would be ‘downright reckless’ and make a no-deal scenario more likely. There’s already talk of a backlash from these MPs – and an attempt to seize control and force May to change course. For now, however, May has chosen to listen to the concerns of the Leave side. It’s now for Brussels to decide whether to play along.