The Irish Times view on Brexit: Nearing the end game

Unclear if May’s warning on UK never leaving EU will impact Commons vote

Brexit is now entering a critical stage but there have been so many twists and turns in the process to date that it would be foolish to try to predict what will happen in the coming days.

The only thing that seems certain in an endless cycle of uncertainty is that the House of Commons will vote again on the withdrawal agreement it rejected so comprehensively in January.

Whether the warning from British prime minister Theresa May that the United Kingdom may never leave the EU if her plan is rejected will have any impact on the hardcore Brexiteers will only become clear when MPs vote. Over the weekend they continued to insist that they will oppose the deal as currently framed. British attorney general Geoffrey Cox looks unlikely – for now, anyway – to be able to reverse his earlier legal advice that the UK could be "trapped" indefinitely in the backstop designed to ensure there is no return to a hard border in Ireland.

The apparently desperate nature of Cox's exchanges with EU negotiator Michel Barnier last week suggest little reason for optimism, though contacts continued over the weekend. Even if he does find a way of reversing his opinion, there is no guarantee the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and right-wing Conservative MPs will back the deal. The findings of the Irish Times opinion poll, which reveals that the DUP is at odds with a substantial segment of its own supporters on the best form of Brexit, should give the party leadership pause for thought.


If the withdrawal agreement is rejected again tomorrow, then the House of Commons is scheduled to vote on Wednesday on whether or not to rule out a no-deal Brexit. There appears to be a solid majority against a no-deal.

In the event this is agreed, they will go on to vote on Thursday over whether to seek an extension to the March 29th deadline for exiting the EU. That choice is not one solely at the discretion of the House of Commons, as most MPs and the British media seem to assume. The other 27 EU member states will have to agree an extension of the article 50 deadline and its duration. Some countries, notably France, have strong reservations about granting it simply on the basis that the British cannot make up their minds.

Nonetheless it is likely that if such a request is made the EU will grant a short extension to allow the House of Commons to formulate a new approach. One possible – and positive – outcome is that moderate Conservative and Labour MPs could build a consensus around a softer Brexit.

Of course there is no guarantee this will happen and if the House of Commons continues to reject every option put to it, then there must be a real chance of a no-deal Brexit after all. That is the disastrous outcome calculated to do the most damage to the UK – and to this State as well.