Key questions about Theresa May’s Brexit plans

Theresa May has said MPs will be given the chance to back a delay to Brexit in order to avoid a no-deal departure from the European Union on March 29.

Here are some key questions about the latest developments in the Brexit saga:

– What has the Prime Minister announced?

She told MPs their next chance to vote on a deal she has thrashed out with Brussels will be by March 12 at the latest. The last time MPs voted on her deal, the Prime Minister suffered a humiliating 230-vote defeat.

If she is defeated again, then MPs will vote by March 13 on whether they are willing for the UK to leave without a deal on March 29. Assuming MPs reject a no-deal Brexit, then they will be given the option on March 14 of calling on the Government to seek an extension to the two-year Article 50 process of negotiating a deal.

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Prime Minister Theresa May updated MPs in the House of Commons on her latest plans (House of Commons/PA)

– What happens if Mrs May wins the first vote?

The other two are called off, and the UK leaves the EU on March 29 as planned. Detailed talks on future trade and security relations will start. There will be a transition period lasting until the end of 2020, during which the UK will continue to follow most EU rules as businesses and authorities take time to prepare for the new relationship.

– Can MPs rule out a no-deal Brexit altogether?

Not under Mrs May’s proposals. A vote against no deal would only stop it happening on March 29. The PM made clear that the option would remain open to leave without a deal later, leading some critics to accuse her of replacing one cliff-edge with two.

Countdown to leaving the EU
(PA Graphics)

– If MPs vote for a delay, how long will it be?

This is not clear. Downing Street declined to say whether the motion on extending Article 50 would suggest a date, and anyway this could be amended by MPs in the Commons. Mrs May said she wanted any delay to be “as short as possible” and gave a clear warning that voters would not take kindly to it stretching beyond the end of June, when they would be required to elect new MEPs in the upcoming European Parliament elections.

– Are we guaranteed to get an extension?

No. Even if MPs vote for it, Mrs May only has the power to request a delay from Brussels. That requires the unanimous approval of all 27 remaining member states. While expectations are high that they would say yes, chief negotiator Michel Barnier has recently questioned whether there is any point in extra time if the UK’s red lines do not change. Reports suggest that Brussels officials may prefer a lengthy extension – as late as the end of 2020 – to allow time for discussions on the future relationship which might resolve the thorny backstop issue.

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Delaying Brexit would be welcomed by many Remainers but is likely to fuel anger among supporters of EU withdrawal (Jonathan Brady/PA)

– What happens if MPs vote down Mrs May’s deal, no deal and an extension?

This is not clear. Downing Street said only that this combination of results would be “contradictory”, but this does not mean it could not happen. As it stands, withdrawal on March 29 is written into UK law. And Article 50 says that EU treaties cease to apply to the UK on March 29 unless an extension is granted – something Brussels can only do on Britain’s request. So unless a solution was found fast, it is possible the UK would end up falling out of the EU on March 29 despite the vote.

– Why has Mrs May announced this now?

Time is running very short on Brexit, and pressure on her was mounting from ministers and MPs who think a no-deal departure would damage the economy. Reports suggested that Mrs May had been warned as many as 15 ministers – including some from the Cabinet – could resign to back a cross-party proposal offering MPs the chance to block no deal in a showdown vote on Wednesday.

– Will Wednesday’s votes go ahead?

Yes. MPs will be asked to vote on a motion “noting” Mrs May’s statement, which they will be able to amend. Amendments are expected to be tabled to pave the way for a backbench bill putting Parliament in charge of ensuring votes to block no deal. However, as Mrs May’s proposals closely mirror the bill – drawn up by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Conservative Sir Oliver Letwin – it is thought likely it will not be forced to a vote. Votes on other amendments are still expected, including one from Jeremy Corbyn asking for backing for Labour’s customs union plan.

My suspicion is that any delay to Brexit is a plot to stop Brexit. This would be the most grievous error that politicians could commit. pic.twitter.com/bVsQIT4Qke

— Jacob Rees-Mogg (@Jacob_Rees_Mogg) February 26, 2019

– What is Mrs May hoping will happen now?

She insists she is still working to secure a deal which can be approved by March 12, paving the way for withdrawal with a deal by March 29. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox is engaged in talks in Brussels in the hope of securing legally binding assurances which will win over Tory Eurosceptics and the Democratic Unionist Party. Mrs May will hope that the prospect of votes to delay Brexit will help rally Leave-backing MPs behind whatever deal he secures.

– And will that happen?

That is anyone’s guess. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the DUP and the Tory backbench European Research Group will decide it is time to find a way to climb down from their previous opposition. But if they don’t, it’s possible Mrs May will lose again and we will be back in a very similar position in June. Jacob Rees-Mogg has warned that any delay will look like “a plot to stop Brexit”, and what seems certain is that a few extra months will do little to allay animosities between hard Leavers hoping for no deal and Remainers demanding a second referendum.