We’ll be brief because the news of the EU Council to give the UK a Brexit stay of execution until October 31 broke relatively late, and so there isn’t a lot of informed commentary so far. However, this has the appearances of being an arbitrary end date, arrived at as “someplace in the middle” date between Macron pushing for a short extension (reportedly backing Theresa May’s June 30 request) and Merkel’s desire for a longer extension.
The UK must organize itself to participate in the EU Parliamentary elections, otherwise the extension terminates as of June 1
The Withdrawal Agreement will not be renegotiated. If the UK does manage to pass it, Brexit day is the day after it is voted through
The UK must play nicely: it will “refrain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the Union’s objectives, in particular when participating in the decision-making processes of the Union”
The UK has to make a progress report in June
You could see the frustration in Donald Tusk’s official statement in which he wished the UK well and hoped they’d make good use of the time. May is still pretending she can get the Withdrawal Agreement passed by June 30.
It is hard to see how anything changes by October 31. May will still be in charge unless she leaves No. 10 feet first. There will be no General Election or referendum in that time. While key players on the EU side will change (for instance, Juncker will be out by October 31), that seems unlikely to affect Brexit or Not to Brexit, since the ball is in the UK’s court.
Brexit hardliners may get a new shot of life from the upcoming council elections. The hard Brexit faction seemed to be in retreat as stalwarts like Jacob Rees-Mogg were ceding ground by saying they could back May’s deal rather than risk losing Brexit altogether. The pro-EU camp in the Tories even dared float the idea of revoking Article 50.
However, the push for a softer Brexit or revocation is likely to take a setback in the upcoming council elections in early May. This vote is seen as an indicator of party fortune. The Tories are expected to take a big hit due to member frustration over the failure to deliver Brexit. From “We’re doomed”: The mood of Conservative councillors facing the electorate varies from nervousness to despair in ConservativeHome:
However, among most of the councillors and candidates I spoke to the prevailing mood was still downcast. Seasoned campaigners were shocked by the level of anger they encountered on the nation doorsteps – invariably from Brexiteers who felt betrayed.
One councillor in the East Midlands told me:
“I had somebody who was so furious he started getting a nosebleed. Even then he kept talking about the local Conservative MP letting him down.”
Someone from the North West, in a Conservative council, suggested that this week it was even harder pounding than last week:
“The decision to hold the Euro Elections is a disaster for us. For a start, it confuses matters. People think we might be canvassing for them and then really go mad. Before we have a chance of talking about local issues they start the conversation by saying they will definitely not be voting for us in the Euro Elections.”
A leading campaigner I spoke to in the South East detected a class divide:
“To give a big generalisation, the middle class Conservatives are exasperated but still voting Conservative. When it comes to White Van Man it is much worse. We keep finding those who were marked as Conservative last time actually shouting and swearing.”
Where will the angry voters go? As noted above in the great majority of places there will not be a UKIP candidate to vote for. So the biggest problem will be Conservatives abstaining. One council leader I spoke to says:
“Frankly, I think we are doomed. All our work on new housing, on infrastructure. It’s not what people are want to talk about. We don’t have UKIP candidates. But if Labour supporters vote and Conservatives don’t it’s not that hard to predict the outcome.”
And from Conservative Jon Dobinson who is seeking a seat on the Guildford Borough Council:
I’m standing in a part of Surrey that voted Remain and only a few years ago my ward was the safest Conservative seat on Guildford Council, before local problems with development and illegal waste destroyed a lot of trust and the Lib Dems seized their chance. Still, in normal times, it should be eminently possible to win it back. Instead, the message from voters on all sides has been deafening: the failure of the Government to deliver the manifesto promises it made on Brexit has destroyed trust in the party. You might expect to come across the occasional hostile voter in any election, but now the anger is universal. And the most vitriolic are those who voted Conservative last time. They feel totally betrayed over Brexit.
Their only cause for optimism was that Labour turnout might also be low due to Blairite antipathy for Corbyn.
Has the EU created a rolling extension treadmill? The EU lost one reason to stick to its Brexit guns: the need to discourage separatist efforts in other member states. That happened all on its own due to the Brexit shitstorm. It’s not just that the UK is showing how difficult it is to pull a departure off; more important, the groups advocating an exodus and the leadership classes generally have taken a hit.
Having made this concession to the UK, the EU has conditioned key players to expect another extension if things wind up where we expect, as in more or less the same place, by October. One factor that could change this equation is that the difficulty of dealing with the Irish border in a crashout and Irish pleas for relief were significant drivers. Ifthe EU works out a state aid package for Ireland and the Republic gets further along on preparation, that could stiffen the EU’s spine. But Ireland is just as likely to expect neverending extensions as the UK and thus not mobilize.
Would May actually quit? The 1922 Council confronted her last month. May slipped the leash by getting teary-eyed and promising she’d depart after her deal was ratified. Can she come up with another non-concession? Given how she’s managed to survive every attack, it’s not wise to bet against her. But even if she’s finally persuaded to go, that’s not likely to do the Tories much god. From another post in ConservativeHome:
Suppose for a moment that Theresa May leaves Downing Street and her successor enters it just after the European elections.
He or she would be very short of time in which to turn round…what? Perhaps a Letwin/Cooper- driven Commons that has settled – if the Withdrawal Agreement is not passed, with a customs union attached or not – on a second referendum.
This new leader would have very little time to turn the ship round – his ultimate fallback being a general election, if his party and the Commons will wear it.
This all smacks of trick rather than treat. As for things that go bump in the night, well, it isn’t clear whether the EU wants to settle on No Deal if there is no Brexit resolution by next autumn. But we doubt it.
Watching the leading UK parties tear themselves apart would be good clean fun if the stakes weren’t so high. Gridlock and confusion are the new normal.