February 25, 2019
Deal versus short delay
It was a weekend of massive noise about Brexit, but in reality not much happened. Theresa May set a date of May 12 for the meaningful vote. And, to forestall the Cooper amendment on which the House of Commons is scheduled to vote this week, she is offering an alternative short extension under an alternative plan drawn up by Downing Street officials. This is - so far - separate from a third plan, drawn up by backbenchers, that also requires May to extend if there is no deal.
A Guardian story yesterday raised some eyebrows with the claim that the European Commission prefers a long extension of 21 months to coincide with its financial framework. We doubt very much that the UK parliament will agree to this. The Cooper amendment has been drawn up deliberately without a time schedule to maximise support for it. We refer readers to our briefing on Friday when we listed a series of possibilities the government has to frustrate that amendment. There are two additional considerations for fence-sitting backbenchers to consider. First, the Cooper amendment does not amend the withdrawal bill. This offers government another route to frustrate it. And the Labour Party is slowly agreeing on supporting another amendment - piggy-backing on the Cooper bill - that would make agreement of the withdrawal deal contingent on a second referendum. The purpose of this amendment is merely to give the Labour leadership the opportunity to unite the party and the leadership. It has no chance of being adopted. And it may drive natural supporters of the Cooper amendment, such as pro-EU government ministers, towards supporting May's alternative version.
So we are now left with the following scenarios:
- House of Commons agrees withdrawal treaty in meaningful vote on March 12. Brexit proceeds on March 29, or a few days or weeks later after the EP has ratified.
- WA is rejected. May proposes elections - plus short extension
- WA is rejected. May requests short extension to prepare for no-deal, with the option of another meaningful vote in the House of Commons to avert it.
In the end, if delay is an option the EU will always take it, which is why we are discounting the story about a long delay. We can see why civil servants favour this outcome. But the political impact of a long Brexit delay, especially on the Conservative Party, would be catastrophic given the prevailing views of the Tory party membership.
We see May's strategy very much geared towards delivering for her party. She said this at a Tory rally over the weekend:
"Our focus to deliver Brexit must be absolute... We must not, and I will not, frustrate what was the largest democratic exercise in this country’s history."
We know that she has changed her mind frequently during the Brexit negotiations. But why would she want to put her commitment to deliver Brexit in such stark terms if she was about to agree to a 21-month extension?