And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals.
And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?
– Revelations 5:1-2
We’ve been more pessimistic than most commentators about the likelihood of the UK escaping the default of a no-deal Brexit. We may not have been pessimistic enough.
EU officials had repeatedly made clear their condition for giving the UK an extension to the Brexit date of March 29: it had to give a reason, and that reason had to be persuasive.
As most readers know well by now, Theresa May sent a letter into the EU Council on Tuesday requesting an extension to Brexit, a day later than planned. The content of the letter was also different than what the EU had been led to expect. May had intended to ask for a short extension to try again to get her Withdrawal Agreement passed, with the option of a longer extension if that failed. That was unlikely to have gone over well with the EU. Parliament had decisively reject the idea of holding a second referendum, which was the most plausible device for the UK breaking up its Brexit logjam. So even if May had gone down that path, the EU very likely would have rejected her request for longer extension, due to May’s inability to explain why the EU should believe the UK would come to a political consensus on Brexit, and on top of that, one that didn’t amount to new versions of cakeism and unicorns.
But May’s cabinet had a 90 minute row on Monday, with the hard Brexit faction telling her she needed to drop the request for a long extension or face large-scale resignations. So May sent in a missive that was still likely not to sit well with the EU. It asked for an extension through June 30 and gave a long litany of what she had done so far. But the letter didn’t even clearly state why she was asking for more time, save she was still hopeful of getting the Withdrawal Agreement approved despite being barred from holding another vote. She asked for for formal approval of “supplementary documents” she and Juncker had settled on to help. And she also needed more time to pass a bill to amend the Withdrawal Act (which as reader David pointed out, is more cumbersome than using a Statutory Instrument).
The EU reaction was harsh. Donald Tusk announced that the EU would consider a short extension only if the House of Commons approved the Withdrawal Agreement next week. May is going to Brussels to make her case on Thursday. But in another blow, Jean-Claude Juncker said the EU was unlikely to make any decision at this summit. And on top of that, May’s track record is that her charm offensives usually are just offensive.
Moreover, the French magazine Le Point reported yesterday that Macron planned to tell the EU Council today that France would veto any Brexit extension. The French government basically ignored the question when asked about the rumor. If the story is true, then there’s nothing to discuss with the EU and the ball is entirely in the UK’s court.
The Financial Times confirmed that France is not willing to cut the UK any slack:
France’s pro-EU president Emmanuel Macron never wanted Brexit. But as the clock ticks down towards Britain’s intended March 29 departure date — and with Theresa May’s government in open crisis over its plans — Mr Macron is among the most hawkish of EU leaders in questioning why Britain should have more time to get its house in order…..
Jean-Yves Le Drian, foreign minister, told members of the French National Assembly that France would oppose a Brexit delay without a credible plan from the UK.
Mr Le Drian said France would be open to a “technical” extension of a few weeks to allow British institutions to finalise formal ratification of the UK-EU withdrawal agreement. But without a vote in the House of Commons to approve the deal, “the central scenario is a no-deal exit — we are ready for it”, the foreign minister said…
An extension that would require Britain to take part in the EU elections — which are due to start on May 23 — would be a “red line”, said a person familiar with Mr Macron’s EU strategy.
Even if Macron was merely privately saber-rattling and does not take an extreme a position today, he’s not the only hard liner. From the Telegraph:
At least three European Union countries are ready to block any extension to the Brexit talks, unless Theresa May can convince them she has a credible plan to break the impasse in the House of Commons at Thursday’s summit in Brussels…
Countries such as France, which has struck a consistently tough stance on Brexit, Spain and Belgium are thought to be among the countries signalling they will demand concrete assurances from Mrs May. “A situation in which Mrs May is unable to deliver sufficient guarantees on the credibility of her strategy at the European Council meeting would lead to the request being refused and a preference for a no deal,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in the French parliament.
This may explain Juncker’s pessimism that anything will be agreed this week, that it would take a full bore effort just to keep the tough trio from telling the UK to pound sand.
It’s also not clear what the legal implications would be if May has cut things so close to the wire that she manages to get her deal approved but the UK had not passed the legislation needed to extract itself from the EU legally as of Brexit day.
What May said after she reached an agreement with the EU last November is still true. There are only three choice: her deal, no deal, or no Brexit.
As we’ll discuss, however, a lot of the UK press and punditocracy is still in unicorn land and thinks May can resurrect an opportunity that was never there, that of a long extension. The reason that was never on was the EU’s clear position that the UK had to give a reason for an extension, and more specifically, lay out a strategy about how the UK would arrive at a different sort of Brexit, meaning what process it would take to change its red lines so it could find a different position on Barnier’s ladder. Parliament’s firm rejection of a second referendum killed the only plausible case and Labour rejected it again last night.
May would never offer to hold new general elections, and even if she did, with both parties divided, there’s no strong reason to think it would lead to fundamental changes with respect to the UK’s stance on Brexit.
Now there is a popular push for an Article 50 revocation, with a petition already at over 400,000 signatures as of this hour. But as we’ll discuss, May would have to do a complete reversal to revoke Article 50, which is within her power, not just a Prime Minister, but also implementing the motion by Parliament rejecting a no-deal Brexit.
But as we’ll discuss, May has given no sign she is considering that idea, but is stuck on her brinksmanship plan of getting Parliament to knuckle under and approve her deal. And she didn’t help her cause with her speech to the nation last night, which alienated MPs she needs to win over (mind you, that doesn’t mean they won’t get over their pique by next week).
Let’s turn to the factors in play.
The EU is really, really over Brexit. For months, there has been a subtext in reports from EU-oriented news outlets that European leaders feel they have more pressing matters than the never-ending Brexit. Our readers confirm that Brexit has gotten virtually no coverage in European media outlets over the last year. A poll in France found a significant majority thought the UK had already left. Voters don’t see Brexit as an important issue:
While the UK is self-obsessing about Brexit, it’s not really a priority forEuropeans. The UK has constantly and consistently overestimated its own importance in this endeavour.https://t.co/8EOBcHQPUt
— Ray Leonard (@aindiachiarrai) March 20, 2019
Despite the widespread antipathy for a crash out, May’s deal is still loathed, so it is not clear who will win the contest between Cinderalla’s ugly sisters. Note we are assuming Bercow will allow Meaningful Vote 3; our informed readers believe he does not have the stomach to risk going down in history as the man responsible for a no deal Brexit. On top of that, May’s letter to Juncker asked for formalization of their side agreements. If the EU takes that step, that would also allow Bercow to save face in reversing his earlier view.
Why May’s deal looks likely to lose again. Admittedly, when the stakes weren’t quite this high, Robert Peston, who does actually seem to get out a lot and listen, was of the view that a third vote would fail. He thought that MPs who had voted twice against May’s deal would find it hard to justify changing their vote on the same treaty.
While the DUP may relent, that’s only 10 votes when May needs about 75. The Ultras are much less likely to defect than before since now a defeat for May means an almost-certain Brexit, when before she was threatening them with a long extension, which could eventually morph into no Brexit.
So it would appear that the fate of May’s deal lies in Labour’s hands’. Labour so far is still opposed. There are clearly Labour MPs who will defy the whips, but the tone of the press right now is it’s not significant numbers.
Another reason why some MPs may vote against May’s deal despite the prospect of a no-deal Brexit is too many MPs are still in unicorn land and believe that a long extension is to be had. In other words, they think if they reject May’s agreement yet again, the EU will blink. I’m not making this up.
First, from a borderline unhinged editorial (yes, editorial, not op ed) from the Guardian that was published relatively early on Wednesday. It argued that May had blown her letter by not making a good case for a short or long Brexit. But it took the position that May could have asked to “reboot” Brexit if her deal failed again. That would never have worked. The EU is long over the UK faffing about. Various EU leaders all made the same demand: the UK needed to provide evidence that there was agreement to pursue a different type of Brexit, or at least a credible strategy as to how to get there.
The key bit is the editorial still depicts a longer extension as a possibility…and makes no mention whatsoever of revoking Article 50.
I fail to understand why cancelling Brexit is still being treated as a third rail issue, particularly since Parliament rejected a no-deal Brexit earlier this month (although we pointed out they really meant no “no deal” as of May 29, as opposed to doing a Brexit “never mind”).
But we see the same sort of illogic here:
— Peston (@itvpeston) March 20, 2019
Notice specifically: “We know the European Union is likely to offer a long extension if we don’t vote for the deal.”
May only alienated more MPs with her address to the UK last night. The clip from Peston above is representative; if you look at his Twitter feed, he has clips from interviews with several other MPs who excoriate May for bullying Parliament. Ian Dunt (admittedly a reporter, not an MP) was foaming at the mouth while live tweeting her speech. For instance:
Sweet mother of Gid she is the most hapless ghoulish buffoon.
— Ian Dunt (@IanDunt) March 20, 2019
Labour is also performing badly. Corbyn stormed out of a meeting with Theresa May because May had invited Chuka Umunna from the breakaway Independent Group. So he’s wasted at least a half day when time is of the essence.
And now the reality has really hit. And it is rightly said that we have no obvious way out of the situation that we (or at least Theresa May) has created. It is entirely possible that we will crash out of Europe as a result. Indeed, that seems the most likely outcome to me. And yet we still have no obvious political opposition.
Was Labour demanding parliament sit all this coming weekend to deal with this situation as yesterday’s fiasco unfurled? No, it wasn’t.
Was it demanding that emergency legislation be tabled now to address the issue? No, it wan’t.
Was it even very obviously backing one of the routes forward that the EU has offered, such as a second referendum? Again, no it wasn’t: it did not agree on that approach with the leaders of the four political parties that asked it to do so.
Has it published its own route through this crisis, saying what it wants to happen and when to prevent us crashing out? No, it hasn’t.
And whilst May has to take responsibility for this crisis, and nothing will prevent that being true, it has to be said that Labour’s failure to offer any coherent response to this is deeply disturbing.
Everyone seems to have lost sight of the clock. Let us say May actually does manage to get her deal passed. The EU Council has an emergency session penciled in for March 28-29. May proposed a short extension to June 30 but the EU has signaled that May 23 is the limit so as to give a sufficiently wide berth to the European Parliament elections.
This is still very tight in terms of agreeing a new Brexit and the UK getting all of its legislation passed, particularly since May’s letter indicates she intends to pass bills rather than rely on a Statutory Instrument. And we have the risk of the Ultras somehow jamming the controls. If the UK gets that far, it is still likely to scramble across the finish line, but there is still a risk of mishap.
May is not going anywhere soon enough to make a difference. Let’s say May blows it as badly in Brussels as she did in her address last night. There’s no changing horses now. Even if her ministers were to resign en masse, the only way to replace her quickly would be if the Tories had reached a consensus on her replacement. Our Clive points out that leadership contests routinely take “weeks and weeks” and a fortnight is on the fast end. No one in charge would pretty much guarantee a crash out.
Could May blink? What happens if the EU, as expected, just reaffirms what Tusk said before the summit, that the EU might approve a short extension if the House approves the Withdrawal Agreement and Parliament again says no? Is it possible that submarine May would execute one of her U-turns on March 28 or 29 and revoke Article 50? By then, the petition for revocation could easily have 2 million signatures, giving her air cover in addition to Parliament’s “no ‘no deal’ motion. She’s guaranteed to go down in history as the worst PM the UK ever had if she presides over a crash out. That might change even her fabulously rigid mind. It seems highly unlikely given her well-established pattern of carrying on despite repeated defeats (Richard Smith recalled a famous deportation case when she was at the Home Office) but it can’t be ruled out.