If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result, then perhaps the Government needs to have a quiet word with itself. Next week we are proceeding to a third – and presumably final – attempt for Theresa May’s Brexit agreement to pass the House of Commons in what has been dubbed MV3 (Meaningful Vote 3). Whilst few still expect MV3 to actually be voted through, with little having been substantively changed since it was defeated by 149 votes just ten days ago, it will mark a definitive shift in theBrexit procedure.
Theresa May met with EU leaders this week to request an extension to Article 50, opting for an end of June date rather than seven days from now. The response was to grant a shorter extension to 22 May, which would be contingent on MV3 being passed. If, as almost all expect, MV3 is shot down by the now familiar alliance of opposition parties, the ERG, DUP and Tory backbenchers, then the EU will admit an extension only until 12 April. Here is the key bit – this two week extension will require the Government to clearly set out its next steps for breaking the impasse.
The options are well known if Parliament cannot agree to the PM’s deal: crash out of the EU via a no deal Brexit, accepting a longer extension of Article 50 for a year or more, or revoking Article 50 completely. On being pressed by reporters, May stated that we should not be revoking Article 50. A long extension might seem like a lifeline, but May – in a grim statement that placed blame everywhere but at her own feet – does not want any extension that compels the UK to take part in EU elections.
There are now whispers from Tory MPs that May is planning to back a no deal Brexit. Unsurprising perhaps given that at almost every turn, May has capitulated to the fervent Brexiteer wing of her party, choosing party over country, Government over Parliament, and hard Brexit over consensus. As recently as last week, May had settled on requesting a long extension to Article 50, before being bounced almost overnight by her backbenchers into a meagre three month one. And why would May allow no deal to happen? For one thing, there is no need for the Government to secure Parliamentary permission, it will happen de facto if Parliament does not pass a deal, and May doesn’t secure an extension. For another, it soothes the vocal demands from Tory Brexiteers.
So are we really staring down the prospect of a no deal? Parliament has made clear its opposition to that choice, but in reality the Government is still in charge of the process. The two weeks from MV3 to 12 April leaves little time for Parliament to wrench control of Brexit from a Government that would seriously consider leaving the EU without a deal. There can be no definitive vote of no-confidence in the Government in two weeks, and the Benn-Cooper attempts to wrest Parliamentary time away from the Government to hold indicative votes has already failed to pass. No deal is now a serious and real prospect, being floated by the Prime Minister and unwanted by any but the ERG.
So, all eyes will once again be on MV3 next week. The last card May has to play is her own deep unpopularity. To try and drag her deal across the finish line, it is expected that she will be offering up her own head and promise to set out her timetable for resigning. Will that be enough to win across another 75 Tory votes? Time will tell, but if not, we will have just two weeks to choose how to respond. With this Prime Minister in charge, the odds on no deal are rapidly falling.