At 8pm tonight, the House of Commons reaches another critical moment in its attempt to take control of Brexit.
MPs will vote in the second round of the “indicative votes” process to try to reach a consensus on alternatives to Theresa May’s beleaguered Brexit deal.
The key question tonight is whether one of the options can win a clear majority. One prominent MP is confident the motion to back Mrs May’s deal plus permanent membership of Europe’s customs union can secure more than 50 per cent support.
That would be a major development if it happens.
Should the Commons go down that route, Mrs May will probably try to get her own deal passed again, perhaps bringing another meaningful vote later in the week. But if her deal falls again, MPs could try to pass legislation that forces the prime minister to accept the customs union option as policy.
What happens then? There are several possible directions in which events can go before Britain reaches the next Brexit cliff edge on April 12.
The first is that Mrs May stops fighting parliament and champions the permanent customs union after all. This would split the Conservatives and trigger cabinet resignations because Brexiters know it means the UK cannot do its own trade deals. But the PM could say she has no choice but to be a servant of parliament.
The second possibility is that Mrs May goes on rejecting the customs union, forcing the cross-party group that backs it to assert itself — as some Tories suggest. This majority could vote down the May government and put in a national unity administration under someone else. However, the tribalism of the party system makes this difficult to engineer.
The third possibility is that the PM goes for an early general election, a move that would surely be backed by Labour. But the Conservatives would be going into an election with the weakened Mrs May as leader; with the party utterly split over Brexit; and with widespread public anger at its dismal handling of the negotiations. All the advantages of an early election lie with Labour, which is why many Tories don’t want one.
The fourth possibility is that Mrs May goes for a no-deal Brexit on April 12. A letter telling her to adopt this line has been sent to her by 170 Tory MPs. But a clear majority of MPs are against no deal, making it hard to pursue.
Fifth, Mrs May could try to secure a long Article 50 extension at the likely emergency EU summit on April 10 without being too specific what she wants it for. She would say that the UK will seek a new approach to Brexit and commit to taking part in the European elections on May 23. But she would say no more than that.
The underlying motive of this approach is that the PM would then stand down and allow the Tories to elect a new leader. That leader would hold an election and try to secure a working Commons majority for a new version of Brexit.
The problem with this approach is that the EU will insist that any extension has to be for a purpose. One EU official told the FT that some leaders at the April 10 summit would ask whether a lengthy delay “will bring us to a better place or would we simply be importing these problems for another year?”
The problem for the UK is that if it fails to show the EU summit a clear direction of travel, some European leaders might conclude that it would be preferable to risk no deal.
As Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform writes, the Dutch, Germans, Irish, Poles and Swedes want to leave the door open to the UK. “But many other governments, and senior figures in the commission, are keen to excise the British cancer from the European body politic.”
The EU has little appetite to grant another Brexit extension
“Yet there are two arguments why EU leaders might agree to a long extension. First, the council traditionally never misses a chance to kick the can down the road. Extensions are in their DNA. Second, those minded to pull the plug will have to confront criticism that they damage the EU’s strategic interests — on the grounds that the EU would be weaker without the UK as a member in the long run. EU leaders will surely, and rightly, take this argument seriously.” (Wolfgang Münchau, FT)
A customs union would not solve the Brexit conundrum
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