David Herdson dissects the detail of what was said
Brexit is not going to plan, it’s fair to assume. Only the Leave Ultras, intent on a No Deal outcome are likely to be feeling any confidence at the moment, and that group is always given to unjustified hope and expectation before the event anyway. Labour partisans not bothered about Brexit might also be revelling in the government’s discomfort too, but the list pleased with how it’s going runs short after that.
In reality, any optimism on the part of the ERG No Deal fringe should be tempered by the prospect of parliament firming up plans to oppose that outcome. Their asset is the lack of anything like a majority for the existing Withdrawal Agreement, and the lack of time or political space to find an alternative. The EU regards the text as closed and if that does remain the position, it’s May’s Deal, No Deal, delay or revoke. Given that revoke would be political suicide, delay merely postpones the question and there’s no majority for May’s deal, that leaves them in the box seat, yes? Well, not quite.
Can-kicking is an EU speciality. I doubt there’d be any great enthusiasm for it over Brexit, given the extent to which the subject has distracted the EU over the last four years (since Cameron’s intitial negotiations), but putting the deadline off would still for them be the least-worst option when set against both the economic disruption around Britain’s borders, and the Irish issue in particular, where EU officials apparently recently confirmed the obvious to Dublin: that they’d have to choose between a hard border with the North, and some sort of semi-detached status with the Single Market.
For how long might an extension be agreed? Here’s where an overheard comment from Olly Robbins – May’s civil service Brexit supremo – comes in. My assumption had been that any Article 50 extension would be short, in order to enable ratification before the new European Parliament sits on 1 July: three months at most. That in turn implies that it would only be granted to tidy up the parliamentary process and that therefore 29 March was a practical deadline for the Commons to ratify the (or a) deal. However, if Robbins was reported accurately, then “the extension [would be] a long one”.
What are we to take from that? To me, there are two probable interpretations. The first is that the two sides just keep on talking. The problem with that is that it doesn’t resolve the political problems at the heart of the issue. The two sides struggled so much to reach agreement, and have struggled even more with ratification, because the red lines don’t leave space for agreement – and on the part of the UK government, those red lines are determined by Conservative MPs, the DUP and Labour. If those aren’t willing to shift, and are willing to countenance No Deal, then pushing back the deadline isn’t going to achieve a breakthrough; quite the contrary: it takes the pressure off.
The second interpretation, however, is that May might be thinking of offering a referendum.
At first sight, this might seem madness but if it is, there’s method in it. A referendum couldn’t be run within six months at the minimum due to the need to legislate, for the campaign groups to organise and register, and to then hold the vote. That’s why you’d need a long extension.
A referendum also has signal benefits over the otherwise mooted general election. An election puts the entire government at risk, throws many other issues into the mix, and even if May were to win comfortably (a highly optimistic assumption given her last performance), would be likely to produce an outcome little more conducive to passing her Withdrawal Agreement due to the scale of Tory opposition. By contrast, a referendum could be made binding and provide in advance for each outcome.
Where a referendum really wins out though is that it might be the one process that can command a majority in the House, if No Deal and Remain are also offered alongside the agreed deal. Enough people then have enough of an interest in gaining the mandate necessary to deliver what they otherwise couldn’t.
On a low politics level, it would also be richly ironic if, having resisted huge pressure from within Labour to demand and pursue a second referendum, Corbyn then watched May stand up after another defeat and announce precisely that.
Some will say that it would be a democratic abomination to override the original Leave vote from 2016 and reoffer Remain as an option. I have some sympathy with that. However, that might have to be the price and the incentive necessary to get No Deal and May’s Deal on the paper too. If Leave is still the will of the people (and a more informed will now), then it should win again. And if the referendum were structured as two questions: (1) Leave/Remain, and (2) if Leave, then Deal or No Deal, then there wouldn’t be the risk – as there would be with AV – of Remain winning on transfers, despite a majority for one form of Leave or another.
From the other side, many will object to No Deal being explicitly on the table. Well, if it’s that bad an option, argue against it. But it needs to be there, both as a ‘clean’ Brexit option, and also to enable the PM to keep some semblance of control over her own party, without which they would at some point inflict a crushing defeat.
We also have to remember the other side of the equation here, which is that a “long” extension has to be agreed unanimously by the EU, which means it needs justifying. Asking for at least six months implies putting something on the table for them too, which Remain does (as, to a lesser extent, does an increased chance of passing the agreed deal).
Theresa May’s career has generally been marked by caution and to call such a divisive vote would run counter to that. All the same, why would the UK ask for a long extension – which she must know would be hugely controversial – without a game-changing proposal? A second referendum would break the parliamentary deadlock and would be that game-changer. She’d be right to do it.