Two weeks which will decide the UK’s future
With just 11 days to go to the scheduled date of Brexit, Britain is no clearer about how, when or if it will be leaving the European Union.
Theresa May’s plan for a third “meaningful vote” on her Brexit deal looks set to be put off until next week, unless there is a sudden surge in support for the Withdrawal Agreement.
And Parliament may not decide until days before March 29 whether to leave the EU with or without a deal on that date or to delay the UK’s withdrawal for months or even years.
Here is how the crucial days ahead may pan out:
MONDAY-WEDNESDAY MARCH 18-20
Downing Street will continue to use all its powers of persuasion to win backing for Mrs May’s deal from MPs, with a particular focus on the Democratic Unionist Party, whose stance is expected to be influential on wavering Tories.
To overturn the deal’s 149-vote defeat last week, the Prime Minister must win over 75 MPs and retain all those who backed her. Of the 75 Tory rebels who rejected the Withdrawal Agreement on March 12, a sizeable number are likely to resist any attempts to woo them.
Some 23 Tory MPs signed a letter to the Telegraph saying it would not be “moral” for them to back Mrs May’s deal. And at least four others – Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, Steve Baker and John Baron – have indicated in recent days they do not plan to support it.
Another six – Guto Bebb, Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve, Sam Gyimah, Jo Johnson and Phillip Lee – support a softer Brexit or no Brexit at all, and are unlikely to be deterred by the prospect of an extension to Article 50.
Of course, some of these may abstain rather than vote against, but it seems highly unlikely that any of them can be recruited to Mrs May’s cause.
Even if the PM won over the remaining 42 Conservative rebels and all 10 DUP MPs, she potentially needs the support of a further 23 switchers, with the most fertile ground likely to be among Labour MPs in Leave constituencies.
However, many of these are unlikely to jump unless they are sure that Mrs May’s deal will be approved anyway, as they do not want to be accused of handing victory to Tories.
A motion on Mrs May’s deal would have to be tabled by the end of Monday to be debated on Tuesday, or at the end of Tuesday for debate on Wednesday.
Downing Street has said no motion will be put forward this week unless a majority is within reach – something which few at Westminster now expect.
THURSDAY-FRIDAY MARCH 21-22
The European Council summit in Brussels is slated to be the last with the UK as a member.
If the Commons has ratified her deal, Mrs May will ask the other 27 leaders to agree an extension to the Article 50 withdrawal negotiation period to no later than June 30, to allow time for the remaining legislative preparations to be completed.
If the Agreement has not won parliamentary backing, the PM will request a longer extension, perhaps to the autumn or the end of the year, or even to the end of the proposed transition period in December 2020.
EU leaders have suggested they will grant a long extension only if it is clear that the UK has new proposals, such as a change in its “red lines”, a second referendum or a general election.
Brexit will take up only the first part of the formal summit on Thursday, held in Mrs May’s absence. The PM will join her counterparts for dinner and discussions on the economy, climate change, external relations and fake news, as well as a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the European Economic Area.
MONDAY-THURSDAY MARCH 25-28
If Mrs May has secured Commons backing for the deal and EU approval for an extension, work will get under way in earnest to tie up all the legislative loose ends before Brexit Day, probably in May or June. Parliament may cancel all or part of its Easter recess, due to run from April 4-23, to speed Bills through.
If she has not yet won MPs’ support, but has an EU promise of a long extension, the PM is likely once more to call a “meaningful vote”.
With just days to go, she will hope to force the deal through with the reluctant support of Leave-backing Tories fearful that any further delay may end in Brexit being lost.
If she wins, Brexit could still go ahead in May or June. If she loses, it will kick off an almighty debate on the way ahead.
MPs will also vote on amendments to her motion, calling for a second referendum or indicative votes to show what kind of deal the Commons could support. Labour may back a backbench proposal making the PM’s deal subject to a referendum.
If the EU27 refuse to grant an extension and MPs again reject her deal, Mrs May will be confronted by the unenviable choice between halting Brexit by revoking Article 50 – something she has vowed not to do – or going ahead with a no-deal withdrawal which she says will damage the economy.
FRIDAY MARCH 29
Exactly two years after the UK submitted its letter informing the European Council of its intention to quit, March 29 has long been marked down as Brexit Day.
Whether that becomes reality, or the Friday of next week ends up as just another day in the long and arduous process of negotiating withdrawal, will depend on the decisions taken over the next two weeks.