Theresa May hoped to get a lifeline from the European Union, but what she got might be an anchor that will sink her career once and for all. Late last night, EU ministers decided that they would only allow for a delay in the UK’s Brexit until the day before the EU elections, resetting the deadline from March 29th to May 22nd. On top of that, the EU predicated any delay on a commitment to pass the deal that’s already in place, a deal that might not even get a vote at all:
The European Union is poised to take control of Britain’s exit by rejecting Theresa May’s request for a three-month delay and setting a new withdrawal date of no later than 22 May.
The prime minister is seeking an extension of the negotiating period to 30 June to allow the necessary legislation to be passed should she finally get MPs to back her deal next week.
But EU ambassadors at a meeting late on Wednesday night agreed that the risks of having the UK as a member state beyond 23 May, when European elections are due, were too high. …
“The 22nd of May has to be the limit,” one senior diplomat said. “The reason is that there has got to be a very clear message from the European council. Yes to a short extension on condition that the prime minister passes her deal through the Commons. But beyond that it is utterly complicated. It cannot be done without British MEPs having been elected.”
That doesn’t mean that the EU has actually agreed to a delay. They have not yet taken a position on May’s request except to reject the length of her requested delay, but the meeting produced plenty of skepticism about what a delay would accomplish. One member called it “useless,” and for good reason; May’s two attempts to pass the existing deal have both failed by three-digits margins in Parliament. It would take a unanimous vote among EU nations to grant a delay to the Article 50 deadline, and some are questioning why it makes any sense to delay the inevitable crash-out.
May’s speech to the nation last night didn’t improve those calculations. She lashed out at members of Parliament for not backing her deal before now, insisting that the current crisis was not her fault. “So far, Parliament has done everything possible to avoid making a choice,” May accused. “It is now time for MPs to decide”:
That turned out to be a bad way to get MPs to pull one’s chestnuts out of the fire. British newspapers this morning were unmerciful across the board, calling the speech a “blame game”:
Almost all of the front pages carry photos of Theresa May as she delivered her address to the nation on Wednesday night, standing alone at the podium with a backdrop of union jacks.
The Sun says Mrs May delivered a “furious attack” on warring MPs, assuring voters she is on the side of the people.
But the Guardian reports that the prime minister herself is facing a “furious backlash” from her own backbenchers, some of whom are now calling on her to resign.
Boiling down her message to the headline “it’s not my fault”, the Daily Mirror describes her statement from Downing Street as a display of “deluded defiance” by an “arrogant PM”.
If May hoped to win enough support to reverse a 140-vote-plus defeat from the last time her deal went to the floor of Parliament, it appears she badly miscalculated, at least from initial responses. Brexiters within the Tories are furious over her attack and Labour MPs aren’t much cheerier, Sky News reports. Even her allies were despondent afterward, if anonymously so:
One of Mrs May’s own ministers rounded off the criticism by telling Sky News her speech had “compounded” a “pretty bad day” for her.
“Outrageous to claim parliament has rejected options we have never seriously had,” they added. “No free votes, always whipped against.”
Another told Sky News: “She is clearly trying to win over Labour MPs. It will not work, they do not trust her… This strategy is guaranteed to see MV3 [meaningful vote three] will be beaten badly.”
Even Labour’s Lisa Nandy, an opposition MP considered by some as a potentially swing voter to back the Brexit deal, was excoriating.
She called the statement “disgraceful”, adding: “Pitting parliament against the people in the current environment is dangerous and reckless…
“She’s attacking the MPs whose votes she needs. It will have cost her support.”
May will meet with other EU leaders in Brussels, clearly hoping to win last-minute concessions on the backstop to swing the DUP and the hardline-Brexit ERG to support the deal on the third try. However, it sounds as though the EU has decided it will have to live with a crash-out, or at least they seem less than convinced that May can deliver anything else except a crash-out. Last night’s speech might have put the final nail in a coffin that was already most of the way down into the grave as it was.
Better buckle up, folks; it’s gonna be one bumpy ride on March 29th. Or May 22nd. Or any day in between.