The questions with which Tory Brexiteers are grappling right now

The questions with which Tory Brexiteers are grappling right now

It’s the beginning of another critical week that will likely define whether Brexit happens at the end of next week (as it currently should, on the basis of the law of the land) or if there will be a delay for some as yet unspecified reason and for an as yet unknown period.

I know many of those Conservative MPs who opposed the Theresa May’s deal last week have spent the weekend agonising how to vote if and when it is brought back to the Commons, subject to pressure from a variety of sources giving them distinctly different advice.

On the one hand, they are told by some that blocking a deal that would see the UK formally leaving the EU in a matter of weeks would provoke a backlash from voters who want Brexit delivered. Moreover, they are told that they risk no Brexit at all since it would likely lead to a long extension to the Article 50 period during which anything could happen. Indeed, they are reminded that campaigning most vociferously for the deal to be voted down right now are the so-called People’s Vote campaign, sensing it as their best opportunity to reverse Brexit altogether.

On the other hand, they are advised by others that if they back the deal, there will be a public backlash some months down the line once it becomes clear to voters the constraints which it places on the British Government over the coming years. In other words, that what was a bad deal last week remains a bad deal this week. Martin Howe QC puts this case on BrexitCentral this morning.

Much hinges on whether the Government would put to Parliament in a week’s time an Article 50 extension under whatever terms might be offered by the European Council at the end of this week – and whether it would be passed.

Theresa May promised the Commons last Tuesday:

“If the House votes for an extension [which it did in principle on Thursday], the Government will seek to agree that extension with the EU and bring forward the necessary legislation to change the exit date, commensurate with that extension.”

Those inside the Government lament that despite Thursday’s motion not technically being legally binding, this promise at the Despatch Box effectively gives the Prime Minister no choice but to proceed with such an extension. But what if the terms offered are so punitive or outrageous as to clearly be against the UK’s interests – not to mention in breach of oft-repeated manifesto commitments? Is it conceivable that she would stand up to Brussels and refuse to go ahead on those terms? But then even if the Government relented, would the Remain-dominated Commons not find a way of forcing the Government’s hand in some way?

That said, any legislative move to extend Article 50 would be taking place just a few days before the legal exit day. Would there be sufficient time to get it through Parliament? And if the terms of any extension were indeed punitive or unreasonable, could the Commons yet vote against it, prompting the default of an exit on WTO terms on 29th March?

So many questions… Yet what is clear to me is that it is the antics of those recalcitrant Remainers inside Parliament – and indeed inside the Government – who openly campaigned against a no-deal Brexit and voted accordingly in the Commons last week which have undermined the UK’s negotiating stance to the point that none of the remaining options which the Government says is left available would be acceptable to the majority in the country who voted for Brexit. All in all, a thoroughly sub-optimal situation.