Like a broken 24-hour clock that must be correct at least once a day the Prime Minister got one thing right when she addressed the nation. The majority of us are sick of the Brexit deliberations and would like to see it all come to an end so that other priorities like our schools, healthcare and knife-crime might be better attended to. But how? Can there be a satisfactory end to it?
The Prime Minister herself went on to illustrate her own confusion by arguing that to get the job of leaving done quickly she was asking for more time from the EU.
By law we should depart the EU on Friday 29 March, leaving our politicians with less than a week to settle what they have found impossible to agree on after more than two years. What is likely to happen?
Firstly, there are some rules that need to be followed. The Prime Minister has a Withdrawal Agreement signed-off by the EU waiting to be passed by a majority in the House of Commons. It has been defeated in record numbers on two occasions already, leading the Speaker John Bercow to rule that unless there are substantial changes he cannot allow it for debate again. The precedent he quoted also applies to proposals that were in amendments, making it difficult to bring forward alternative solutions unless he contradicts himself (always a possibility).
The EU has refused to offer changes to the Withdrawal Agreement and the DUP has again announced it will not support it, ruling out the most likely ways of providing new wording Bercow could accept. To obtain a third meaningful vote might therefore require the government to directly challenge the Speaker’s ruling – which would be incendiary. If Theresa May has the votes to win then she must surely have the votes to pass her “deal”. Both look unlikely, however.
If May can have her Withdrawal Agreement approved she will then need more time to pass legislation that brings it into effect, hence her request to extend EU membership until 30 June. In response the EU 27 is offering an extension until 22 May if she can have her “deal” passed, or until 12 April if she cannot. The latter date is to ensure no legal clash with the opening of nominations for the European Parliament elections. This will be accepted at Westminster and could meet the Bercow test.
Beyond the government trying to get over the line, there are three other camps jostling to achieve their goal of where Brexit should take us. None, like Theresa May, has been able to find a winning majority, hence the logjam.
Those against leaving, which was the majority of MPs before the people voted, have been trying to find ways to frustrate or reverse the delivery of Brexit. They are now in the minority because many remainer MPs believe they must honour the referendum result and reflect their constituents’ wishes.
Nevertheless some MPs are banking on the government being so desperate that Theresa May might yet cut a deal with Labour by providing a second referendum in return for support to get her Withdrawal Agreement passed.
I think this is improbable. A referendum has already been rejected convincingly by MPs and such a deal would undoubtedly lead to the government collapsing with mass resignations and the withdrawal of DUP support. A second referendum is therefore the most unlikely of outcomes.
Those most supportive of Brexit, often mistakenly characterised as right-wing Tory nut jobs, but including Labour’s Dennis Skinner, are now coalescing around leaving the EU without any comprehensive agreement at all, believing No Deal is better than May’s bad deal. No Deal is currently the legal default position that will happen unless the law is changed, irrespective of the date of leaving. It is growing in support as more MPs and members of the public take the view that escaping after all this time is more important than the terms of leaving.
The settlement of dozens of mini-deals to resolve issues such as haulage licences, airspace access, airworthiness certificates, visa-free travel, residency rights and dispensing with border inspections, has given some comfort – but there is still a great deal of nervousness around. It is not so much there is a majority of MPs in favour of leaving without an agreement as the fact it is the default in law and nobody can agree an alternative, that makes this outcome possible.
The final group is those MPs (such as Sir Oliver Letwin, Yvette Cooper and Nick Boles) who support a Norway-style relationship where the UK would remain inside the Single Market (taking all the EU’s laws without having a vote), handing over billions to the EU every year for the privilege and having open borders for EU nationals.
Some wish to go further and also be inside the Customs Union (known as Norway Plus). The Norway-style option has also been rejected previously but may yet resurface in a manner it can be debated – and could win the support of Brexiteers if they fear they will get no Brexit at all. Their dealbreaker is the proposal must be amendable in future – unlike the Withdrawal Agreement which would become an international treaty the UK could not escape from.
To add to this mix we have Speaker Bercow behaving unpredictably (but generally in favour of preventing Brexit) and the EU seeking to tell British MPs what they should do – usually a counterproductive approach.
With the tightening straightjacket of legal procedure to overcome, a government at war with itself, and a clock ticking, no-one can say where it will end, but end by 12 April or 22 May it must. My money is we leave accidentally without a deal – because the EU will make no more concessions, the Prime Minister’s intransigence blinds her to finding compromise and MPs will struggle to procure a majority for an alternative to leaving without a deal.
Ironically their original decision enjoyed a massive majority, with MPs thinking a deal would materialise by now.