Following five hours of talks in Brussels that went on into the early hours of Thursday, Theresa May has been granted a second Brexit extension by EU leaders. The EU27 agreed to give the UK a ‘flexible’ extension until 31 October – also known as Halloween – with a chance to ‘take stock’ and review the decision (and the behaviour of the UK in that period) in June. This appears to be a fudge which helps both May – who asked for an extension just until the end of June – and Emmanuel Macron, who has spoken publicly against a long extension being taken for granted and raised concerns that the British could try and cause the EU problems in any such period.
The length of the six month extension is slightly less than had been expected ahead of the summit – with rumours before suggesting it may be a year long. As a general rule, the shorter the extension, the more palatable it is to Tory Brexiteers. Speaking after the extension had been agreed, Theresa May was keen to talk up the fact that if MPs vote for the Withdrawal Agreement the UK can leave before October – adding that it is still possible to avoid EU elections. She said that she understood the frustration felt by many Brits:
‘I know that there is huge frustration from many people that I had to request this extension. The UK should have left the EU by now and I sincerely regret the fact that I have not yet been able to persuade parliament to approve a deal.’
So, what does this mean both for Brexit and for May’s position? In a press conference after the meeting, Donald Tusk said his ‘message to British friends’ was ‘please do not waste this time’. There’s a hope among some EU figures that this period will allow time for serious reflection by Brits – and potentially a second referendum. In theory, it’s also enough time for a general election – and ample time to tweak the political declaration towards a softer style of Brexit. While Macron was keen for a short extension to put pressure on the UK, the bulk of EU leaders do not want to look responsible for no deal and chose to give the UK some breathing space.
As for Theresa May’s position, Conservative sources have been quick to brief out that the Prime Minister plans to stay in post until a deal is agreed. However, with talks between May and Corbyn leading to little progress so far, few in government believe a breakthrough is near. The danger for the Prime Minister is that the length of the extension provides time for the Tories to have a leadership election and to use that debate to work out their next move. There are plenty of ministers and MPs who have been previously reluctant to tell May to go on the grounds it was too pivotal a point in the Brexit process. Unless May can show she has a workable plan, this breathing space could be used by the Tories to try and force May out.