There are now 46 days until Brexit and there is no sign of parliament approving the prime minister’s exit agreement with the European Union. We are now in the last chance saloon for parliament to stop a no-deal Brexit. Why?
If the Withdrawal Agreement and political declaration on the future trading relationship – which the PM has finalised with the EU – is not approved by parliament, the only way to stop the UK leaving without a deal is either: to revoke the Article 50 letter sent by the PM to the EU notifying them of our intention to leave; or to extend the two year Article 50 process that expires on 29 March, which is possible with the unanimous agreement of all other EU member states. There is not sufficient support in the House of Commons for the former but there may be for the latter.
On the EU side, the contacts I speak to – both at the EU Commission and on the EU Council – are clear the bloc would entertain a short extension up until the end of June for a specific purpose, like a “people’s vote” or to allow more time for the Commons to reach a consensus on a way forward. On the UK side, it is clear that we will not be practically ready to leave on 29 March even if the Commons eventually were to back the PM’s deal. We have several major pieces of primary legislation and hundreds of pieces of secondary legislation to process and not enough time. Yet, there is no guarantee the PM will seek this extension before it is too late, if at all.
For any extension to be granted, the request will have to be agreed by EU leaders when the EU Council meets on 21 March. The agenda for that summit is set during a two week preparatory period and the UK will have to ask for the request to be put on the agenda in advance, so by 7 March in four weeks’ time. It follows that the Commons would have to pass the necessary legislation to force the PM’s hand and legally require the government to request an extension to stop no deal by 7 March. This legislation would need to pass both houses in parliament and come into force by that date at the latest.
Those of us working on a cross party basis in the Commons to ensure an extension is sought, to stop the country falling off the cliff, estimate we would need around two weeks to get the legislation through. Thus it would need to start its passage through parliament by the start of next week.
Labour is going to try to force ministers to hold a final “meaningful vote” on the PM’s deal by 26 February but, given the above, that will be too late. Not enough Tories would support such moves by the Labour frontbench in any event (they might if it came from the backbenches). That is where the votes this week come in – they are crucial in ensuring sufficient time is allotted in the parliamentary timetable for legislation stopping no deal to pass, regardless of the wishes of ministers, before the March EU Council.
As things stand, the PM is due to give a statement to the Commons on Wednesday asking for more time to get legally binding changes to her deal in relation to the Irish backstop, to stop there being a hard Irish border. We will vote on this on Thursday and will be able pass amendments to her motion to ensure time is provided for the Commons to do what is necessary to force a request for an extension to be made, if we can assemble a majority.
The last time we sought to pass a measure for this purpose was when Yvette Cooper’s amendment was voted on last month. All the opposition parties whipped their MPs to vote for it, but 25 Labour MPs failed to support Yvette’s amendment – quite extraordinary given the economic damage a no-deal Brexit would do to all communities. Seventeen Conservative MPs also rebelled but that was not enough to offset the Labour rebellion.
So in order to get a cross party amendment through which paves the way for parliament to stop the government running down the clock – which risks the UK falling off the cliff without a deal – we must both reduce the Labour rebellion and increase the Conservative one. If the Labour rebels can be persuaded this is not a move to delay Brexit indefinitely, their numbers may dwindle. On the Tory side, I have spoken to several ministers who are considering their positions and are now contemplating resigning from government to vote for such a measure which would increase their numbers. On the one hand, when I speak to these ministers, they bemoan their lack of influence on the PM and the way she bows to pressure from the right wing ERG; on the other hand they claim to have more influence within government than on the backbenches. A complete contradiction.
On the basis of the evidence, these “sensible” ministers’ influence has been minimal, otherwise government policy would have shifted weeks ago. Yesterday, Heidi Allen, the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, tweeted the following: “It is completely irresponsible to keep delaying, sensible ministers who are worried, MUST step up this week. Parliament can find a way forward & end the no deal risk if given the opportunity, but we backbenchers can’t do it w’out their support. They know who they are. Country 1st.” She is spot on. If they want to influence the outcome of Brexit, now is the “sensible” time to resign and vote accordingly, otherwise it will be too late. There is a huge amount at stake here. History will not forgive those who act as bystanders.