Sunday 24 March 2019

John Downing: 'As Brexit swirls with all sorts of 'definite maybes', the only thing that looks certain for now is a delay'

A view of the Palace of Westminster. Stock picture
A view of the Palace of Westminster. Stock picture
John Downing

John Downing

Again it's all about the politics of delay as the United Kingdom's marathon emotional drama over EU membership is approaching its finale this week.

We already know Brexit will be delayed beyond the March 29 deadline. But the question now is: delayed for how long and to what effect? Even at this distance from some kind of determination, an extraordinary array of options remain.

Delay will happen even in the unlikely event of a last-minute twist emerging from ongoing EU-UK talks, allowing Theresa May bundle her unloved withdrawal deal over the line tomorrow in a House of Commons vote.

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If the MPs reject Mrs May's deal as expected, she had promised to let them vote on Wednesday about whether to reject leaving without a deal on March 29. If, as is also likely, they reject that option, then on Thursday they may well vote on a "limited" delay.

Let's recall two things about an extension of Brexit: One, the UK has to specifically ask for it. Two, the other 27 have to unanimously back the idea.

There is widespread EU support for the principle of a Brexit extension. But some countries, notably France, will insist it cannot be for more of the diffuse wrangling which has dominated the last two years of specifically English politics.

Playing hardball on this again yesterday, French EU Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau told France Inter radio that she did not see any value in extending the window for talks.

"More time to do what? We've had two years ... If there's nothing new, more time will not do anything other than usher in more uncertainty, and uncertainty just creates anxiety," Ms Loiseau said.

"It's not time that we need, but a decision," she continued emphatically.

From London yesterday afternoon came the absurd news that there might even be "a delay on the delay vote". In simple English, there was speculation that Mrs May might defer those two votes slated for Wednesday and Thursday.

In that kind of scenario, the prime minister might yet again take her case once more directly to an EU leaders' summit due on Thursday and Friday of next week, March 21 and 22. That would leave us a bare seven days from B-day of March 29, knowing as little as ever about an outcome. It's impossible to see any gain for London here.

Happily for Ireland, a no-deal Brexit continues to recede, but it could still happen, even after an extension of some kind. There were reports in Britain yesterday of a growing number of voters willing to risk a no-deal outcome, with more Conservative Party members urging the party leader not to fear it.

Beyond all of that stretches the prospect of a snap election which remains ever present, with reports that Conservative MPs will increase pressure on Mrs May to quit. In any other place, at any other time, there would be no discussion there - she would already be gone.

Then there is the slowly growing prospect of another Brexit referendum. That prospect still faces many obstacles and its outcome would remain very unsure. But it is still very much there.

The opposition Labour Party's Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, said his party would support staying in the EU if there was a second referendum. However, he also said his party would not be seeking to secure support in parliament for a second referendum in parliament votes this week.

More immediately, Mrs May and her allies have again ramped up the "you will lose everything" warning delivered to ardent Brexiteers in efforts to get her deal through. British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt re-ran that threat yesterday, warning that the country was now in very perilous waters. "We have an opportunity now to leave on March 29, or shortly thereafter, and it's important we grasp that opportunity because there is wind in the sails of people trying to stop Brexit," Mr Hunt told the BBC.

The foreign minister warned the Brexiteers that failure to back the prime minister's deal would mean delay - and potentially Brexit never happening at all.

"If you want to stop Brexit, you only need to do three things: kill this deal, get an extension, and then have a second referendum. Within three weeks, those people could have two of those three things ... and quite possibly the third one could be on the way," Mr Hunt bluntly warned.

On the other side, Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up Mrs May's minority government, and Steve Baker, a leading figure in the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, combined to give it a bit of "No surrender!" yet again.

"An unchanged Withdrawal Agreement will be defeated firmly by a sizeable proportion of Conservatives and the DUP if it is again presented to the Commons," they wrote in a joint article for the 'Sunday Telegraph'.

The pro-Brexit pairing urged leaving on March 29 - whatever the consequences. "There is today no such thing as 'no-deal'," they insisted, arguing various practical arrangements were already being made and more could be put in place.

Another UK newspaper, the 'Sunday Times', focused on the prime minister's uncertain future. The reports suggested Mrs May was battling to save her job, as aides were considering persuading her to offer to resign in a bid to get the deal approved.

The UK newspaper also said cabinet ministers had spoken about whether she should go - even as early as this week. Given that the UK parliament rejected Mrs May's deal by a historic margin of 230 votes on January 15, a second heavy defeat would make her position very perilous.

So far Mrs May has made little headway after seven weeks of trying to get change to the so-called Irish backstop. That is an insurance policy designed to prevent the return of a hard Border in Ireland by keeping the North inside the EU customs union close to single market product rules.

Many Brexiteers object to the policy on the grounds that it could leave Britain subject to EU rules indefinitely. The DUP and some Brexiteers warn it could split Northern Ireland away from England, Scotland and Wales.

As EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier joined the Taoiseach at the Ireland-France rugby international in Dublin yesterday afternoon, talks continued at official level in Brussels. The UK foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, put a brave face on things, insisting tomorrow's vote will definitely happen.

Despite many negative signals, Mr Hunt said it was too early to say these EU-UK negotiations had "run into the sands". He said realism and a lot of work were needed from both sides to get a deal.

There has been a persistent view in Brussels and other capitals that the pragmatic thing to do might be to extend things for up to two years, rolling this crux into talks on a future EU-UK relationship. Add that to the other 'maybe' options.

Irish Independent

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