The best-laid plans of mice, men, and Theresa May often go awry — especially when the latter somehow overlooks a parliamentary rule in place for 415 years. Last night, May’s plan to bring another vote on her Brexit deal with the EU got halted in its tracks by Commons Speaker John Bercow, who ruled a second vote on the same question in the same session out of order. That derailed May’s plan to give Tories one last chance to avoid a significant delay in Brexit.
But the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg said on Twitter after Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting: “Cabinet sources say PM is writing letter to EU today asking for extension – frustration that she is going to ask for end date of June 30th, with proviso of delay of up to 2 years.”
She added: “One source says there was no agreement in the room, another source furious that it seems PM avoiding making an actual decision again about the option she would like to take but wants option of short delay to try to find way of having another go with her deal.”
Unfortunately for May, the EU is not in a waiting mood. Chief negotiator Michel Barnier and key ministers on the Continent took an unexpectedly hard line after a meeting today, declaring that only a significant new process would warrant a delay in Article 50. Unless May has a concrete plan for acceptance of the deal she hammered out with Barnier, the EU will move forward with the no-deal Brexit instead:
Michel Barnier: "Everyone should now finalise all preparations for a no-deal scenario"
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) March 19, 2019
Barnier said that after two years of talks with Britain on its withdrawal from the bloc, the key moment has now come for London to make up its mind and end the genuine uncertainty that its lack of decision on the way forward has created.
“Does an extension increase the chances of ratification of Withdrawal Agreement? What would be the purpose and outcome? How can we ensure that, at the end of a possible extension, we are not back in the same situation as today?” Barnier told a news conference.
“If Theresa May requests an extension before the European Council on Thursday, it will be for the 27 leaders to assess the reason and usefulness […] EU leaders will need a concrete plan from the UK in order to be able to make an informed decision,” he said.
France followed up with an even tougher unofficial response, rebuking May for “procrastinating.” The concern in the EU has shifted away from helping May to preparing for her failure:
The source at the French presidential palace said London must give clarity on the way forward: “An extension is merely an instrument, it’s not a solution or a strategy in itself … Now is not the time for pondering or looking at perspectives on Brexit”, instead it was the final hour to find a concrete plan.
Paris is adamant that it wants to protect “the functioning of the EU”. If a longer extension were to be granted, for example 12 months, “we would have to look at the implications of that”, in terms of how a country planning to leave would have a seat and a say in key future decisions, the official said.
In case the UK didn’t get the message, the Telegraph’s James Rothwell summed it up:
Michel Barnier press conference tl;dr
– EU wants May to explain why she wants an Article 50 extension and how it will help her to pass the deal before they give it to her
– Extension has costs, both political and financial, for the EU
– Calls on EU to "finalise" no deal plans
— James Rothwell (@JamesERothwell) March 19, 2019
Earlier, it appeared that the EU would likely sign an extension, given the horrid alternatives. Instead, they’ve taken a tough line and signaled that they’ve run out of patience with a parliamentary government that can’t guarantee passage of its own deal. They sound willing to go with a 90-day delay, but only if May can deliver approval on the deal on the table. Otherwise, they’re battening down the hatches in Europe for the crash-out a week from Friday.
That doesn’t leave May with many options. She could prorogue Parliament and open a new session to get around Bercow’s ruling, but that guarantees nothing. Even without Bercow’s ruling, a success on a third vote for May’s deal seemed very much like a longshot, so this crisis would almost certainly have occurred regardless of Bercow’s ruling on the vote. (The parliamentary rule goes back to 1604, when Parliament tired of repetitive demands for votes on bills from King James I, and has been reaffirmed many times since.)
May could call for a new election by engineering a no-confidence vote, but that has procedural issues of its own. Andrew Sparrow explains that a no-confidence vote might leave May in control for longer than her Tory critics want, and stall progress for longer than Europe’s patience will last:
1) After losing a no confidence vote, Theresa May would remain prime minister until the Queen appointed someone else. Under the Fixed-terms Parliament Act, the Commons would have 14 days to see if someone else could form a government. (The procedure is not 100% clear, but presumably the Queen would only appoint someone else if she were confident that PM could win a vote of confidence.) If no alternative PM could command a majority, there would be an election – which would mean May staying on for another month or so.
2) Unless the Commons suddenly decides to vote for Vince Cable to become PM as head of a cross-party coalition, it is very hard to imagine any likely May replacement revoking article 50. (Corbyn has repeatedly said the result of the referendum must be honoured.)
3) Some lawyers argue that, if the PM were to revoke article 50, s/he would need parliamentary approval, which does not seem likely to be forthcoming.
That’s one reason why no one’s floating a no-confidence vote, even though Parliament has clearly lost confidence in the government in handling its most important agenda item of the last decade. The other reason no one’s floating a no-confidence vote is Jeremy Corbyn and his anti-Semitism scandal within Labour. And one more reason: Corbyn likely can’t come up with a Labour-only version of Brexit that can pass Parliament, either. Too many Labourites are Remainers, and the softer Brexit Corbyn wants won’t get support from Tories on its own.
The prorogue option does have one glimmer of hope to it. Now that the EU is embracing a no-deal Brexit, Tories who have opposed the May deal in hope of getting something better might be tempted to sign onto it to prevent chaos. May was already lobbying the DUP and ERG Tories to reconsider when Bercow’s ruling blindsided them. If she can cobble together a majority and then prorogue Parliament and get a new session started, that might give the EU enough confidence to agree to a short delay while the package passes on its third attempt. Otherwise, it appears the only choices May has left are either to crash out of the EU or give up on Brexit altogether. Bet on the crash.