This Brexit show will run and run

Theresa May © Rex Features
May is under intense pressure to yield

Postponing Article 50 is now back on the list of possibilities. Emily Hohler reports.

Britain’s “bumpy journey” out of the EU took a “major turn on Tuesday”, as Theresa May handed MPs the power to “slam on the brakes”, says The New York Times. In a series of “commitments”, May said MPs will vote in quick succession between her renegotiated deal (which she will put to another “meaningful” vote by 12 March), a no-deal Brexit, or asking Brussels for an extension to Article 50.

She made the commitments after “intense pressure” from three cabinet ministers – David Gauke, Amber Rudd and Greg Clark – who had been pressing her to give MPs a chance to delay Brexit if she failed to get her deal through the Commons, says The Times. All three threatened to resign.

The PM turns again

Although some Tory ministers angrily accused the trio of undermining May, others were “certain to join them” on Wednesday in voting for a Parliamentary amendment by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Tory Oliver Letwin that would have legally obliged the government to hold a vote on requesting an extension on Article 50, says the Financial Times. By pledging more or less to do what the Cooper/Letwin amendment demanded, albeit without the legal guarantees, May headed it off. Nevertheless, she did not disguise her “deep” reluctance. She has previously told Parliament no fewer than 108 times that Britain would leave the EU on 29 March.

Despite the “tortured flow-chart” that May’s statement implied, in any “serious sense” there are not three votes or stages, but one, says Matthew Parris in The Times. The first “meaningful” vote “determines how” the next two must go. If her deal is rejected, forget stage two: we already know Parliament doesn’t want a no-deal. And if it comes to this, then an extension to Article 50 is inevitable. May was stating the obvious: that if MPs vote down her deal, the UK will have to apply for an extension.

Then why say it at all? Her “one last-ditch strategy” is that the European Research Group (ERG) of hardline Brexiteer MPs, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, will “cave in” and support her deal – not because it supports her, but for fear of where an extension might lead, such as to a second referendum, given Labour’s shift (see below). A government “collapsing before we’ve actually Brexited”? The ERG accounts for 90 of the Conservatives’ 314 MPs, making its support vital.

Rees-Mogg has already “softened his opposition” to May’s deal, saying he is no longer insisting the “Irish backstop” be scrapped and that he is prepared to accept a legal guarantee that it would not become permanent, says George Parker in the Financial Times. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which provides the government with a majority in Parliament, has also “changed its tone” in recent weeks. Rees-Mogg denied that May’s decision to consider a delay had put pressure on the ERG to back down, saying it hadn’t “fundamentally changed anything”.

ERG members believe a no-deal Brexit could still happen, even if the cliff edge has receded by three months (May has said that any delay will not last beyond 30 June). Rees-Mogg even suggested a delay would allow Britain to better prepare for a no-deal and provide some time to “work up technological solutions” to maintain an open border in Ireland, instead of the backstop.

Not everyone sees the extension in this light. Pro-European Conservative legislator Ken Clarke said it would merely see the “present pantomime” continue, says The New York Times, while a “large group of lawmakers, from both government and opposition parties” believe the only way out of the impasse is a second referendum.


Are we heading for a second vote?

When seven MPs walked out of the Labour party to form The Independent Group last week, sceptics questioned what impact they could have, say Jim Pickard and George Parker in the Financial Times. On Monday “they had their answer” when Jeremy Corbyn, “a life-long eurosceptic”, said that he would back a second referendum to prevent “a damaging Tory Brexit” (and more defections). Many Labour MPs worry that any perceived attempt to thwart Brexit will “play badly” in Labour heartlands. However, Corbyn was under growing pressure from “hundreds of thousands of members” who are pro-EU and “ever angrier over Brexit”.

We’re not quite there yet, says Dan Sabbagh in The Guardian. MPs first need to vote on Wednesday on Labour’s own softer version of Brexit, which would keep Britain in an EU customs regime and single market. If, as expected, the plan is rejected, Labour will need to decide what kind of referendum it supports. One option is to back an amendment promoted by two Labour backbenchers, Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson.

This would allow May’s Brexit deal to pass in return for a second referendum asking if voters supported it. Brexit opponents, however, want a “clear choice” between leaving or staying in the EU, says William Booth in The New York Times. In any case, May and most of the Conservative party are opposed to a second vote.

Around 50 Labour MPs are said to be too, says Henry Zeffman in The Times. Not only is the parliamentary arithmetic “daunting”, the majority in favour of one would have to be “stable and enduring”, given the timing and the need to scrutinise issues “around the question, the franchise and the campaign rules”. Corbyn is now committed to a vote he “must pray will never happen”, says Allison Pearson in The Daily Telegraph. Perhaps the point of all this is “to grind us down. If Brexit were an illness, most of us would have booked a one-way flight to Dignitas by now”.