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Brexit: What just happened and how could all of this finally end?

Or how a series of unfortunate events ruined Theresa May’s week.

Belgium EU Brexit European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker speaks to reporters yesterday. Source: AP/PA Images

THERESA MAY’S WEEK isn’t going to plan.  

That’s pretty much par for the course. Her year so far hasn’t been smooth sailing either. 

But a surprise move from the speaker of the Commons and threats of revolt within her cabinet in the last few days meant the British prime minister had to radically alter her intended schedule for this week. 

That led to angry scenes in parliament this afternoon as May told MPs she intended to ask for an extension of the UK’s exit time from the EU by three months and appeared to take any longer delay off the table entirely. 

So what led to today’s change of tack?

Where does that leave us ahead of tomorrow’s meeting of EU leaders in Brussels? 

And what are the scenarios that could play out in the coming weeks?

What happened today? 

Theresa May wrote a letter to the EU seeking a brief delay to Brexit.

She told the House of Commons she had written to European Council President Donald Tusk “informing him that the UK seeks an extension … to June 30″.

The European Commission, meanwhile, had advised EU leaders that a shorter delay until 23 May (the date of the European elections) or a much longer one until at least the end of 2019 would be preferable. 

May’s under pressure from all sides in Westminster over her latest position on an extension: some Brexiteers want her to stick to 29 March, while others, including Remainers, would prefer a longer period to allow time to figure out a different strategy. 

Stuck as she is between several rocks and numerous hard places, May indicated in strong terms today that she would quit as prime minister if the exit date was pushed out beyond 30 June, telling the Commons: 

As prime minister, I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than June 30.

Why? 

The way things were stacking up last week, indications were that May would make a third attempt to get the EU withdrawal agreement through the Commons in time for the EU summit getting underway tomorrow. 

In the wake of the votes to reject a no-deal exit (last Wednesday) and extend Article 50 (Thursday last) efforts were already under way to get Tory Eurosceptics in the ERG and the ten DUP MPs on board. 

The hope was that if the DUP could be convinced to back the twice-rejected deal it was unlikely Jacob Rees-Mogg and his group would out-unionist the unionists and might finally move on their position. 

If the deal had been passed by this evening, May could have headed to Brussels seeking her short, technical extension and in all likelihood EU leaders would have acceded. 

If it had been rejected, the implication given by May last week was that a much longer extension would be needed. She said last Wednesday:

The House has to understand and accept that, if it is not willing to support a deal in the coming days, and as it is not willing to support leaving without a deal on 29 March, then it is suggesting that there will need to be a much longer extension to Article 50.

However, to sum up the series of unfortunate events of the last seven days: 

  • Speaker John Bercow threw an almighty spanner in the works on Monday, ruling May couldn’t bring her deal back to the Commons on “the same fundamental proposition”
  • As many as ten senior ministers gave her an ultimatum: they would not accept the mooted long delay to Brexit as it would make a softer exit more likely 
  • And, anyway, those DUP talks, aside from a few early positive signals, appear to have more-or-less ground to a halt

Hence the message to the EU from May today: We need a short extension so I can get this withdrawal agreement through at the third time of asking and if you force us into a longer extension I’ll probably quit.

What’s the EU saying? 

May was thrown a lifeline by Tusk this afternoon when he told reporters a short extension would be possible but that it would be conditional on a positive result when the withdrawal agreement goes back to the Commons. 

“In the light of the consultations I have conducted over the past days, I believe a short extension will be possible but it will be conditional on a positive vote on the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons,” Tusk said

He sounded reasonably positive about the 30 June date saying it “has its merits” but created “a series of questions of a legal and political nature”. He wouldn’t hesitate, he said, to call an emergency EU summit next week if the meaningful vote did not pass. 

Tusk was also speaking by phone to Leo Varadkar today, and in Dublin the Taoiseach told reporters that the proposed length of the extension would be discussed in detail at tomorrow’s summit. 

Varadkar said it was time to cut the UK “some slack” on the extension time as there was a real risk of a no-deal happening by accident. 

The soundings from elsewhere in Europe are less positive for May, however. 

Earlier a spokesperson for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he had warned May in a phonecall that Brexit needed to be complete by 23 May if the UK wanted to avoid having to take part in EU elections. 

France’s foreign minister meanwhile warned the country was prepared to veto an extension unless May presented a credible strategy at the summit.

What could happen? 

There are various scenarios that could play out over the coming days, weeks and months. 

Deal: May gets her deal through next week after returning from Brussels, arguing in the Commons that she’s secured further reassurances from Europe and that the proposition is now substantially different. The UK exits after a short extension.  

No deal: Given that we have only nine days to go and the fact that EU leaders need to agree unanimously to extending Article 50, a no-deal could still happen either by the summer or by 29 March (Friday week). 

A long extension: The emergency summit Tusk mooted in his comments today could result in an offer of a longer delay from the EU. As this would mean taking part in EU elections, May is extremely unlikely to accept this and manage to stay in office. But, those factors aside, a longer extension could pave the way for a rethink by MPs and a possible softer Brexit (or possibly no Brexit at all) – perhaps in the wake of a general election, second referendum or both. 

Revoke Article 50: Both sides need to agree to extending the mechanism the UK is using to leave the EU, but the European Court of Justice ruled in December that London can unilaterally halt the process. May has dismissed this option and it’s one of the more unlikely scenarios. 

May could quit: Going by her remarks in the Commons today, the implication is clear that she is threatening to resign if forced into a corner by the EU requiring a longer extension.

She could be forced out: At the moment she can’t be shown the door by her own party under the official process after a bid to unseat her failed last December. The way things are going, however, she may be vulnerable if Jeremy Corbyn tables a no-confidence motion. 

Neither of the latter scenarios would necessarily solve anything at all and would result in a divisive Tory leadership campaign, a possible split in the party and a possible general election. 

There’s a chance a no-deal Brexit could still have happened by accident somewhere in the middle of all that. 

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