Brexit: Which Way Next?

By Cathy Cole

It wouldn’t take a Nostradamus to predict the outcome of the remaining Brexit votes this week – barring an earthquake, MPs will vote to reject a “no-deal” and then for an extension to Article 50.

But, of course, this would be a matter of seeking to persuade the EU to allow such an extension.  But in what circumstances might Parliament’s wishes be granted?

They are highly unlikely to accede to the request for Theresa May to spend yet more fruitless weeks seeking legal guarantees over the back-stop, efforts which are by now surely exhausted.    So what options remain?

Firstly, and most plausibly, the EU could agree to a short extension to Article 50 if May were to ditch her negotiating “red lines” and switch to a revised negotiating mandate including membership of a customs union – along the lines proposed by Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer. 

This would open up the way to a deal which could be passed in Parliament, however it would infuriate the ERG Group and open up a hugely damaging split within the Tory party. Does May have the power to face down half her Cabinet in order to reach beyond her own ranks and pave the way for a deal?

The only other feasible grounds for an extension to Article 50 are for either a General Election or a Second EU referendum.    May’s robotic performance in the 2017 election, and the pundit-defying appeal of Corbyn’s radical pitch to the electorate, means that the Tories are wary of going to the country.   True, they currently enjoy a comfortable poll lead, and Labour is also divided. But what would they say about Brexit at such a General Election? A significant number of Tory MPs including members of the Cabinet are known to oppose a “no deal” outcome.   It’s easy to see why Corbyn would chance a roll of the dice, but what’s in it for May?

A Second Referendum would expose the extent of Tory divisions all over again – and with May’s Withdrawal Agreement roundly rejected by MP, it’s difficult to see how she’d mobilise mass support for a form of Brexit which most Leavers find so unappealing.  A “no deal vs Remain” referendum could leave the Tories on the hook either way – blamed for either a chaotic Brexit or have sabotaged the expressed will of the voters.

If the EU faces down British requests for an extension – as they could – this would leave just two options on the table: an involuntary “no-deal” even though Parliament has voted against this option, or the revocation of Article 50 altogether – despite the popular mandate from 2016.  

Which way will May jump?   It’s anybody’s guess. Her position is deeply unenviable.