Events over the last few days in the British Parliament have increased the significance of today’s vote on whether to extend Article 50, as the febrile atmosphere around the House of Commons reaches fever pitch.
To recap, Prime Minister Theresa May suffered her second major defeat to her Brexit deal (by 149 votes) on Tuesday, leaving her deal dead in the water, or so it was thought. However, on 13 March what was supposed to be a straightforward vote on whether to rule out a no deal Brexit on 29 March, the Government motion saw an amendment that raised the stakes, ruling out a no deal withdrawal altogether.
Government went into overdrive, whipping its Members of Parliament to vote against its own amended motion. Nevertheless, the motion was passed and that means that May’s Government must decide whether to ignore Parliament, creating constitutional difficulties, or to try and find another route out of the chaos.
May has responded by immediately entering into negotiations with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Brexiteers in her party to find a solution to the impasse with the potential of presenting her withdrawal deal for a third time.
May’s thinking is that the Brexiteers may believe that voting for her deal could be better than the alternatives, namely a long delay, and eventually losing Brexit altogether. That could affect tonight’s voting and whether we end up with a short or long extension to Article 50.
Brexiteers have, so far, had a mixed response, with some arguing that May’s deal is too awful to support. Others are in the process of contacting friendly politicians within other European Union (EU) countries, such as Italy and Poland, in the hope that they can persuade their friends to veto an Article 50 extension. All 27 EU countries must agree to an extension of the process and they will want to know what would be the purpose of the extension, and how long it will last.
EU leaders are indicating that a longer extension may be acceptable, but such is the tension in the air that this move is considered by the Brexiteers as a cynical maneuver to force them to back May’s deal with the threat of a long delay.
However, there are also European parliamentary elections in May and there will be new commissioners in place as well as the fact that the European Parliament will not meet again until July. Next week’s meeting of senior EU figures and member state leaders is seen as the last opportunity to discuss the United Kingdom’s (UK) options before the EU elections and changes to the European Commission (EC).
Further complicating matters is the emergence, following yesterday’s vote (13 March), that four Cabinet Ministers and seven junior ministers had either abstained, or voted against the Government Whip.
May’s credibility and authority have been severely damaged by the last few days and the consensus among professional observers of Parliament is that this is now a “zombie Government.” They also believe that once the fate of the Withdrawal Agreement is settled and a way forward found that May’s days are numbered, probably up to the local elections in the UK in May.
Meanwhile, voting to reject a no deal Brexit is not legally binding, while Article 50 is enshrined in law and that law means the default position is that the UK will leave the EU on 29 March, with or without a deal. In order to change that position there will need to be a change of the law, revoking or extending Article 50.
Parliament’s vote on extending Article 50 is expected at 5:00 p.m. UK time today.