Brexit delay just got more likely after May’s Article 50 announcement

The UK government has announced for the first time that it is considering options to delay Brexit.

Prime Minister Theresa May made clear in a statement to the House of Commons on Tuesday that, in the event her deal fails to secure parliamentary approval on March 12, she will allow lawmakers two further votes.

First, on March 13, the commons will be offered the chance to approve the UK leaving the EU without a deal on March 29. Although no-deal is the default option in the Article 50 process, it’s unlikely that there would be an explicit majority in Parliament for such an outcome.

Should this no-deal amendment be voted down, the Commons will then have a chance to instruct the PM to request a short extension to Article 50, thereby delaying Brexit a few months.

This move could help May’s government avoid an embarrassing defeat on Wednesday, as earlier this week, the official opposition Labour Party announced it would support an amendment in parliament ruling out a no-deal Brexit and supporting an Article 50 extension.

Any extension would first have to be requested by the UK, then agreed by the leaders of the other 27 EU member states. The next scheduled meeting of the EU leaders is March 21, which, as things stand, is the earliest point such a decision could be made.

May’s statement came a day after Labour declared it would also back a second EU referendum, should an amendment for Labour’s alternative to Theresa May’s Brexit plan be rejected by Parliament on Wednesday.

Sea change or cynical political move?

These sudden policy shifts fall against the backdrop of major internal divisions in both the main parties. In some sense, they could be seen as little more than cynical political moves, aimed at shifting the Brexit narrative back onto more comfortable ground for either party. That, and a little bit of party management.

Last week, both saw lawmakers resign and join a pro-EU block of independents within parliament. Labour saw eight go and the governing Conservatives lost three from their fold. It hurt.

Let’s start with the Conservatives. While three might seem a small number, it’s worth remembering that Theresa May only has a majority in parliament because of the 10 Northern Irish Democratic Unionist MPs who prop up her minority government. Any loss is acutely felt.

She has over the past few days had to suffer the indignity of government ministers implying in national newspapers that they would resign, should the PM not take sufficient steps to rule out a no-deal Brexit. The Independent Group (or TIGgers) may be small, but its impact is being felt in Westminster. Her announcement today will, the PM hopes, give ministers threatening further resignations the reassurance that she understands their concerns.

May also has the difficult job of balancing the will of her softer, pro-EU MPs against harder-line Brexiteers, who would be perfectly happy to see the UK walk away with no deal on March 29.

This is where things get interesting. The hardline Brexiteers, who hate May’s deal, will for the first time face two realities. First, they will see exactly how much support a no-deal Brexit really has among their colleagues, something which has been entirely hypothetical till now.

Second, they will finally face the choice that May’s allies have wanted to confront them with for months: vote for May’s deal or see the real prospect of having their treasured Brexit formally delayed. Only last month, it was reported that Olly Robbins, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, had said in a bar that the fear of seeing Article 50 extended could sharpen the minds of Brexiteers.

Schrodinger’s Brexit

Next, Labour. As mentioned, May’s move will in no small part have been motivated by the desire not to be defeated by a motion to delay Brexit that Jeremy Corbyn announced he would support on Monday.

Why would Corbyn back this amendment?

Labour MPs are on the whole more pro-EU than their Conservative counterparts. There are a large number of Labour MPs whose views on Europe align almost exactly with those of the eight TIGgers that bounced out of the party last week.

In the 2017 election, Labour saw success by having what some called a Schrodinger’s Brexit policy. By not clearly backing much of one thing or another, Labour was able to tell Leave voters in its more traditional constituencies that it respected the Brexit vote, while appearing to its younger, Europhile party members as the more pro-EU of the two main parties.

Labour’s sudden move to supporta second referendum could have a similar impact. Since the announcement, Corbyn has enjoyed headlines that paint him as the savior of the Remain cause. However, it is still a very long road to a second vote and, in the eyes of most Westminster types, that remains something that is unlikely to happen.

So there we are: two significant policy shifts in two days, neither of which are certain to budge the political dial whatsoever. As ever with Brexit, just as things appear clearer, the true magnitude of its complications comes further into focus.