There is a common saying that a week is a long time in politics, and that couldn’t be any truer than for the week that has just gone. In the space of five days, Britain has been on the brink of leaving the EU with a deal to leaving at some unknown date following an extension of Article 50 for an unknown amount of time.
So how did we actually get to this point? I take you through this week’s developments.
We started the week with Prime Minister Theresa May promising to hold three important votes; firstly, a second meaningful vote on her Brexit deal (with the promise of some concessions from the EU) and, if that were to fail, a vote the following day on whether Britain should leave without a deal, and a vote the following day (if a no deal vote also failed) on whether Article 50 should be extended.
May’s attempts to extract concessions from the European Union to help her deal pass through Parliament were somewhat successful, claiming to have received ‘legally binding’ changes to the Brexit deal. The changes would mean that the EU would not be able to keep the UK in the backstop, one of the more controversial elements of the Brexit deal, indefinitely. Jean Claude Junker, European Commission President, warned that there would be ‘no third chance’ if this was also voted down by Parliament.
However, the changes made to the deal were not enough for the hard Brexiteers in the Conservative Party, namely the members of the European Research Group (ERG), led by Jacob Rees-Mogg. In another stunning defeat, the government’s Brexit deal was voted down by 149, 81 less than last time but nowhere near enough to pass through the House of Commons. Struggling to find her voice while suffering from a sore throat, reminiscent of her humiliating Conservative Party conference speech in 2017, May insisted that her deal was the “best and indeed only deal available”.
The following day (Wednesday) saw the promised vote on a no deal Brexit. The government introduced a motion to prevent a no deal on March 29th but keeping that option on the table going forward, with the Conservatives initially promising a free vote on it. However, after an amendment passed, which said that the House should reject no deal under any circumstances (with a majority of just four votes), the Conservatives whipped their MPs to prevent their own motion from passing. This failed and Parliament voted in favour of the motion with a majority of 43, ruling out no deal under any circumstances.
Yesterday saw the third and final series of votes this week, with Parliament voting on whether there should be an extension of Article 50. After the votes on no deal, the Prime Minister had essentially admitted that an extension was an inevitability, saying that either a short ‘technical extension’ could be asked for if her vote were to pass Parliament next week in a third ‘meaningful vote’, or a much longer extension which would require the UK to take part in EU Parliament elections in late May.
A series of amendments were proposed to the motion on extending Article 50, all of which were defeated. These included an amendment on a second referendum, defeated by 249 and with the majority of Labour MPs abstaining after the party decided it was not the right time for such action. The motion, unamended, passed with a majority of 211, with most Conservative MPs voting against an extension to Article 50.
May explained that Brexit could now be delayed by three months, to June 30th, should MPs vote in favour of her deal by the 20th March. Alternatively, should her deal fail for a third time, May said she would seek a longer extension to Article 50. However, any delay will have to be agreed by all 27 other EU member states.
So what does this all mean in practice?
Well, the planned departure date for the UK to leave the EU is all but certain to be delayed from March 29th, with the only chance of that happening is if the EU refuses any extension to Article 50 (such a scenario would result in a no deal Brexit). This in itself is astonishing, given that the Prime Minister has on almost a hundred occassions stressed that Britain would be leaving the EU on that date.
Next week, there will be another vote on the Brexit deal, little over a week since Parliament last rejected it. A date has not yet been announced for the third ‘meaningful vote’, but this will be before next Wednesday.
The Prime Minister will then attend a meeting of the European Council the following day where it is anticipated she will formally request for an extension of Article 50 for either a short three month period or a longer, as yet unknown, period of time. Should this be approved, the date of departure will be changed.
Looking forward in the months ahead, Britain will then either leave on June 30th, just days before new EU MEPs take their seats in Strasbourg, or at a unknown date in the future, with Britain electing a new group of MEPs on May 23rd, three weeks after the local elections.