EVEN THOUGH this week continues to be one of the most unpredictable yet in the Brexit process, the simple truth is little has changed – Theresa May is still Prime Minister, albeit with ever diminishing authority, and its MPs are no nearer to settling Britain’s divorce deal with the European Union.
The only difference is that there is even less time now – just over a fortnight to be precise – to reconcile this deepening constitutional crisis as Parliament becomes bogged down by procedural rows and political pointscoring.
Yet, with the Prime Minister still struggling to find her voice (through no fault of her own) and a Labour leader intent on opposing for opposition’s sake because he has nothing new to say, MPs will consider today whether to defer Article 50 – or not.
Like last night’s debate and division in which a majority of MPs registered their opposition to a no-deal Brexit on the record, today’s deliberations are only indicative. And it will be another exercise in delay and dither unless a clearer plan emerges.
The reason is this. Postponing Britain’s exit from the EU beyond March 29 – still the default position in law regardless of whether a delay is agreed – is not totally in the gift of MPs. It also requires the unanimous agreement of the EU’s 27 member states who could, if they so choose, impose financial and policy conditions of their own to any extension, in addition to the £39bn recompense that the UK is due to pay.
MPs should also be aware that the EU is losing patience with Parliament’s procrastinations – even Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier have sounded sympathetic over Mrs May’s predicament – and that they would only be minded to accede to such a request if there was good reason to do so.
As such, all those intending to vote for a deferral of Article 50 need, first of all, to be clear about the timeframe. If it is for three months, they need to set out what can be achieved by the end of June that has not been possible in the preceding 1,000 days since the UK vote to leave the UK.
If it is for longer, it will mean the UK participating in May’s European elections – the very opposite of the ‘taking back control’ mantra espoused by Brexiteers – and risks challenging the judgement of the 17.4m people who voted Leave in June 2016.
It is the potential consequences for Britain’s democracy which Mrs May alluded to at Prime Minister’s Questions when, in a spirited show of defiance, she rounded on Jeremy Corbyn and told him: “I may not have my voice, but I understand the voice of the country.”
And it was re-enforced shortly afterwards by Philip Hammond in the Spring Statement when the Chancellor warned that exiting the EU without a plan would deliver a significant “short to medium-term reduction” in the capacity of the economy.
As such, the choice facing Parliament will, in all likelihood, become even starker in the near future – a choice between a no-deal Brexit that would damage the economy or the damage that no Brexit would inflict on Britain’s democracy – unless sufficient Ministers and MPs step back from the brink, as collective responsibility in the Government unravels, and find a way to put the national interest first. There is still time – just – to do so.