It is now nearly three years since Britain voted to leave the European Union in the largest expression of democratic will in the entire history of the United Kingdom. Since then, every discussion of British politics has unavoidably been framed in terms of Brexit. What’s more, it does not appear that we will escape from the Brexit mire any time soon. As fervently as one might believe in the Brexit cause, the endless droning talk of trade regulations and customs unions grates to such an extent that one would eventually rather watch the paint dry on Nigel Farage’s new bus.
To make things even worse, for the last several months, pundits and commentators have been repeatedly saying that ‘crunch time’ was just around the corner. This is it, they’d say. It has all been leading up to this. When crunch time never came, and we realised that we were somehow still swirling around in this political Groundhog Day, complete with poor acting and predictable plot twists, it became all the more painful.
It is therefore with a certain degree of reservation that I declare that this week is, in fact, crunch time on Brexit. Starting tomorrow, the House of Commons will hold three extremely consequential votes which will determine how and when the UK finally leaves the EU. Tomorrow (Tuesday) is the first of those votes, in which the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement will be put to a vote once again.
When this vote was originally due to be held back in December, I wrote an article boldly defending the Brexit deal and calling on MPs to back it, in the expectation that they would, and that would be that. Oh, how wrong I was. The vote was pulled by Downing Street at the last minute and when it was rescheduled for January, the government suffered the largest defeat of any government in the entire history of British politics.
Given that there has been no seismic shift in parliamentary attitudes towards the Withdrawal Agreement — and especially in light of the fact that Attorney General Geoffrey Cox has apparently failed in his bid to secure further concessions from Brussels on the backstop — it seems extraordinarily unlikely that the deal will earn anything like a majority in Parliament. There has even been talk of the vote being postponed yet again. Please, God, no.
Assuming that the government wishes to stave off the almighty wave of parliamentary fury that it would surely face if it pulled the vote now, it seems inevitable that the only Brexit deal on the table will suffer another resounding defeat on the floor of the House tomorrow. That means we move on to vote number two, which concerns leaving the EU without a deal.
As arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg helpfully put it, “there will be a vote in Parliament on no No Deal, and I will vote no to no No Deal.” Such is the incomprehensibility of the fundamentals of Brexit. In slightly less obfuscatory terms, on Wednesday, Parliament will vote on whether or not to block a No Deal Brexit. Although Rees-Mogg and many of his Eurosceptic friends in the European Research Group will oppose this bid to block a hard Brexit, it is widely accepted — including by the Brexiteers themselves — that there is a majority in the Commons for preventing No Deal.
So, by the end of Wednesday, the House of Commons will have rejected both leaving with a deal and leaving without a deal. Enter vote number three, to be held on Thursday, concerning an extension to Article 50. As is specified in the Treaty on European Union, from the date when a country formally decides it wants to leave the EU, it has two years in which to carry out exit negotiations.
In the case of Brexit, that two-year period expires on 29 March 2019 — that, therefore, is the date on which we are due to leave the EU. However, if we cannot agree to leave with a deal, and we cannot agree to leave without a deal, we have reached something of an impasse. So, on Thursday, the House of Commons will vote on whether to request a three-month extension to Article 50, so that the Brexit date moves to the end of June.
It is likely that this vote — in the form of an amendment proposed by backbenchers Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin — will pass, since there appears to be no parliamentary majority for any other course of action. In that case, the immediate problem for Downing Street is that an Article 50 extension cannot be granted unless all 28 EU member states agree to it. In the light of disputes with Spain over Gibraltar and growing frustration in France and elsewhere, it is entirely possible that consent may not be forthcoming.
Nonetheless, if Parliament commands it, the Prime Minister will be forced to go to Brussels on her hands and knees pleading for a delay, which may well invite the opportunistic Europeans to demand more from her in exchange for granting her wish, such as inflating the £39bn divorce bill further still. Then, at least, the government would have a few more weeks to try to forge a path forward.
As is always the case with Brexit, just when all the bases seem to be covered, more complications arise. As I write, the Prime Minister is travelling to Strasbourg — just hours before the vote on her deal — in a last-ditch attempt to secure the concessions on the backstop that the Attorney General has so far failed to achieve. If she succeeds in the miraculous creation of an exit date or a unilateral exit mechanism — and more unbelievable things have happened in recent memory — that could well swing the balance in tomorrow’s vote.
Even if the deal does pass tomorrow, there may have to be an extension to Article 50 anyway, in order to pass vital Brexit legislation before the country is actually ready to leave the EU. And in the likely case that the deal does not pass, the calls for the Prime Minister’s resignation from within her own party will grow stronger still. If she were to resign, that would precipitate a chaotic Conservative party leadership contest or, worse still, a general election.
In other words, it seems that the very best we can hope for at the moment is that this mayhem is postponed for a few weeks, so that we can forget about it for a while, before beginning it all over again.