Brexit: why a delay to Article 50 process looks likely
FT editor Lionel Barber and political commentator Robert Shrimsley look at where the UK prime minister stands in the ongoing negotiations to secure the UK's withdrawal from the EU bloc.
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Brexit was always going to come down to the wire. Now, with just 12 days before a key parliamentary vote, I'm here with Robert Shrimsley, the chief UK political commentator, to assess the chances for Mrs May in pushing her version of Brexit through.
Well, has she got a chance?
Well, yes, I think she has. There have been a number of key events this week, things that have changed, which are pushing in her direction. She's always thought it was going to come down to the very end, then at the very end she could force enough people to back her. The big change is number one, Labour has started to back a second referendum. That's going to scare her Brexit hardliners. Number two, members of her own cabinet forced her to agree to a vote on extending Article 50 so that Brexit could be delayed. That's going to scare her hardliners.
Number three, her attorney-general, Geoffrey Cox, is trying to negotiate some kind of legal codicil, which is not going to go anywhere near far enough to removing the backstop issue, but might just go far enough to allow everybody to climb back down. So I think when this vote comes on March the 12th she's got a chance that people are going to get back into line. It's not guaranteed.
Just hold that thought, now wait a minute. More than 200 MPs voted against Mrs May's deal first time round. So that would be a tremendous swing in opinion.
Yeah, she lost by 230 votes. She's got to get 115 back. That's a lot of people to win back. But a lot of them are a bloc, a lot of them are the Brexit hardliners.
Yeah. And though not all of them will vote as a bloc, a lot of them will. I think if she can persuade the Democratic Unionists that she's done enough on the backstop...
The Irish backstop.
The Irish backstop.
To prevent a hard border.
Exactly. So I think they are looking for a way out of this fix. Whether she does enough is another question. If she can persuade them, that will immediately pull back a lot of her Brexit hardliners in the European Research Group. So they also have to look at the situation and think, this referendum could really happen. If we don't get this deal through, we could lose everything we've fought for.
And the easy thing to forget, Robert, is that Mrs May's deal is the only one on the table.
And it's not like it's a soft compromise either. This is something the ERG have managed to make it look like Mrs May has completely sold out Brexit. In fact, it's a very tough Brexit. It's very close to what they want. And it is the only deal on the table, and the fact remains that unless you think parliament will allow a no-deal Brexit through - which I don't - then they know that they're up against it. And if they don't find a way to get behind Theresa May's deal, they could easily find themselves in a second referendum territory.
Now, one or two our colleagues, who of course will remain nameless on this programme, have come out very clearly, our commentators, and said this is a rotten deal. What do you say to that?
If you are, as many of them or many of us were, people who didn't want to leave the European Union and want to remain, then compared to staying in the European Union, it's a rotten deal. If you look at the deal that she has got against what she said she was going to try to achieve, it's pretty good. Against her own red lines, against the criteria that she set, she's got as good a deal as could be got under those circumstances.
Impossible question, of course, but that's my business to ask them. What percentage, then, chance for a second referendum, in your view?
I still think it's less than 50 per cent, but it's been sneaking up. I don't think there's anything which you could yet say has more than a 50 per cent chance of happening. They're all possibilities rather than probabilities. But whereas two or three weeks ago, I would have said the chances of a second referendum were still down in the 10s or 20s, it's sneaking up to 30 per cent. If she cannot get her deal through, then I think it's got a real chance.
And then will we leave on March 29th as mandated?
I think there is no possibility that we will leave on March 29. Even if Mrs May gets her deal through on March 12th, which is a big if still, there is still a lot of supporting legislation that has to get through parliament. So I don't see us leaving much before June, even if the deal is done. Because there's lots of loose ends to tie up.
Now, I know you wanted to talk about Queen's Park Rangers beating Leeds. But perhaps a more serious question is Mrs May's future. How long does she last if she achieves what I think you and I understand is how she sees her historic mission is to bring Britain out of the European Union?
That's a good question, although our chief executive is a Leeds fan, so it's a shame not to mention that they fell to the Super Hoops. Mrs May's future. It's very interesting, because a lot of the people in the ERG are saying, well, maybe if we get behind your deal, we want an assurance from you that you'll go very soon afterwards. Because of course, this is only round one of Brexit, if it happens. Then you've got the whole negotiations on the future relationship. And they don't like the idea of her handling it. So to them, that would be quite a good trade off.
On the other hand, if Mrs May gets her deal through against all of the odds and all of the obstacles, she's going to have a sort of honeymoon period in the country where people are going to say, it's amazing. She did it. She kept her head when all about were losing theirs. So she might not be quite in the mood to go at that point.
I think September, October, Tory party conference, we'll know that. Robert Shrimsley, thank you very much.