Article 50 extension looking likely – if only to prepare for no-deal Brexit

Short of strapping her dead deal to a horse, El Cid style, Theresa May has few options left

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

 

The second House of Commons defeat of the withdrawal agreement, this time complete with clarifications, assurances, guarantees and declarations, arrived on Tuesday night accompanied by the now familiar braying tones of the Speaker John Bercow. “So the Nos have it, the Nos have it!” he roared at 7.25pm in a packed chamber.

At least Bercow, a sometimes controversial figure cheerfully loathed by his former Conservative Party colleagues, seems to be enjoying all this. Not many others are. The margin of defeat was considerably less that the whopping 230 votes by which UK prime minister Theresa May’s previous attempt to pass the agreement went under at the start of January.

But not even as miserable a political figure as Mrs May could claim that the 149-vote loss in parliament – in a vote which she touted as the most important in decades – was anything other than a crushing defeat.

In any normal polity, Mrs May would now have to resign. No, in any normal polity, she would have resigned a long time ago.

Nobody, outside of a small group of hardline Brexiteers in the Commons, wants to prompt a crash-out for which nobody, including the Irish Government, is prepared

But, as has been frequently pointed out hereabouts and elsewhere, the strange political otherworld that is Brexit Britain does not observe the normal laws of political gravity. Or indeed of mortality – do not be surprised if Mrs May seeks to resurrect the corpse of the deal and strap it upright on its horse like a parliamentary El Cid to frighten the Brexiteers into backing the deal as the only way out of the EU.

Who knows? Predictions eventually make fools of us all, but British politics in the age of Brexit takes the hazards of trying to figure out the likely course of current and political events to a whole new level. So what happens now? The British Parliament will vote on Wednesday on whether to rule out a no-deal outcome – though to give effect to this would require other actions by government and parliament to bring this about. That is expected to pass by a large majority.

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Seek an extension

Then on Thursday on a motion to seek an extension of the article 50 mechanism, postponing the date of Brexit from March 29th to ... well, to whenever. An extension would have to be agreed unanimously by the 27 other leaders of the EU at next week’s summit in Brussels, but, once requested by the UK, there seems little doubt that it would be granted. Nobody, outside of a small group of hardline Brexiteers in the House of Commons, wants to prompt a crash-out for which nobody (including the Irish Government) is prepared. So there will almost certainly be an extension.

British prime minister Theresa May: The EU was always afraid it would make its concession to Mrs May on her assurances that she could pass the deal, but she would be unable to keep her part of the deal. Video still: EPA
British prime minister Theresa May: The EU was always afraid it would make its concession to Mrs May on her assurances that she could pass the deal, but she would be unable to keep her part of the deal. Video still: EPA

The question will be, I think, how long will it last – and what is it for. The EU side appears to be done with these negotiations. Jean-Claude Juncker was unequivocal in Strasbourg in Monday night, and conversations with senior sources in Dublin and Brussels confirm that settled view. The sense among people in Government and the EU institutions who spoke privately that they have reached the end with Mrs May was everywhere on Tuesday.

That Mrs May would agree a deal with the EU without having secured the agreement of her own attorney general – whose advice would always prove decisive – was the cause of reactions ranging from disbelief to despair to something near an exasperated amusement. The EU was always afraid it would make its concession to Mrs May on her assurances that she could pass the deal, but she would be unable to keep her part of the deal.

In the wake of Mrs May’s defeat this week, we are likely to see a huge intensification in no-deal preparations

It has now had that experience twice. It is very unlikely to try it a third time. That means that for the EU side, an extension – for two or three months, sources say, and no more – serves two purposes. Firstly, it is to let the British see if they can figure out what it is they want. The convulsions and convolutions of the withdrawal treaty are themselves an attempt to reconcile the British desire to leave the rules of the customs union and the single market while maintaining some of their advantages – chief among them the absence of a hard border in Ireland. They may have to choose between a hard Brexit and the Border.

That process may require a general election, or a second referendum. An extension will provide space for that process.

Prepare properly

The second purpose of an extension to article 50 is to allow everyone to prepare properly for a no-deal Brexit. Irish parliamentary preparations have proceeded at a breakneck pace in recent weeks, but the truth is nobody is ready for the practicalities, and Ireland has a lot more to prepare for than anyone else.

In the wake of Mrs May’s defeat this week, we are likely to see a huge intensification in no-deal preparations. That will inevitably include preparations to protect the single market and the customs union in Ireland – the polite term for figuring out what to do about the Border.

The Irish Government’s position that it will not partake in any preparations that might require border infrastructure will not remain tenable for much longer. During a recent visit by European Commission officials to discuss no-deal preparations, I understand there was a good deal of eyebrow-raising at the Irish unwillingness to engage on matters relating to the Border. Brussels is very unlikely to adopt the “ah sure, you’re grand” approach for much longer.

As Westminster lurches deeper into drama and crisis, the quotidian demands of Government loom in Dublin. On Wednesday the British will publish proposed plans for the Border, and the tariffs that will be levied in the event of a no-deal. Detailed contingency plans for the Border may be the next headache for the Irish Government.

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