There is something unspeakably depressing about Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, seeking a short delay to Britain’s departure date from the European Union, currently 29 March. According to the news reports this morning, this extension should be a short one, of no more than three months.
She has decided on this, apparently, because a longer delay would cause a revolt in her own Conservative Party, including Cabinet resignations. I am no Brexit sympathiser, but such a rebellion would be perfectly understandable. A long delay would mean that Mrs May had failed completely to achieve the goals she set out both when she became Prime Minister in 2016, and went to the country in 2017. How on earth she could contemplate doing so without immediately resigning is completely beyond me. And yet the thought of resigning doesn’t seem to have crossed her mind. She seems stuck in the narrowest of tunnel visions.
But I cannot discern any plan to break the political deadlock that has caused the her to go back to the EU with her request. She is still hoping that a parliamentary majority can be cobbled together to pass the deal she has negotiated, which last time lost by 149 votes. She has been trying to do so by bullying and bribing the MPs who give here a bare governing majority, from her own Conservatives and Northern Ireland’s DUP. She may be able to round up the DUP, but there is a blocking minority of at least 20 Tory MPs who would prefer not to have a deal at all to accepting Mrs May’s deal. Her threat to these MPs is that they might not get Brexit at all. But her bluff has been called. To make that threat credible she needed to ask the EU for a long delay. She has no prospect of succeeding in getting her deal through based on her governing coalition.
To pass the deal she needs to get a lot of opposition MPs on side. Could a large enough block of Labour MPs be frightened enough of no-deal chaos to back her deal? There is no sign of the Labour leadership helping her, and neither any sign of a substantial block of Labour MPs defying their whip to give Mrs May a triumphant victory, which could hurt the party in any subsequent General Election. The political gulf between the party leaderships is so huge that it is hard to see what kind of compromise could be forged. There seems to be only one idea that might break the deadlock: making the passing of her deal subject to a referendum which also gave the public the option of opting to abandon Brexit altogether. That might get SNP and Liberal democrat support, as well as Labour’s. There is just about enough time in the three months to hold such a referendum. But the political ground has not been prepared sufficiently. It is likely that a majority of Conservative MPs would oppose such a U-turn by the government, and that would make Mrs May’s position untenable, which would in practice make the referendum impossible.
Would EU leaders grant the British government’s request for a short extension? They sound reluctant, but they have one good reason to do so. A no-deal crash now is likely to be more damaging than one in June, because there is more time on both sides to prepare for it. Because that is where things are now heading.
Theresa May is stuck in a hole of her own digging. Each shovel of earth had seemed logical at the time. Her red lines were a very reasonable interpretation of the referendum mandate; the Article 50 notice was timed so as not to interfere with elections to the European Parliament, which would have been a major complicating factor – and still are. She o hoped that where she led enough people would follow. But the politics is deadlocked. She has done only one brave thing to try and break that deadlock: which was going to the country in June 2017. And that only made her problems worse. Since then she has simply dug herself in deeper.
What can she do? One alternative is to abandon all pretence of trying to secure a deal, and say that a no-deal is government policy. And then see what happens next. Presumably Labour would then table a confidence motion, which would put Remainer Tories on the spot. That in turn might lead to a General Election, in which she would defend her no-deal proposition. A second thing she could do is to resign as Tory leader and Prime Minister – passing over the premiership to a more politically skilled insider like David Lidington as caretaker, if she can engineer it. That would set off a leadership contest in the Conservatives, while the caretaker might try to either manage a crash out or negotiate a longer delay to exit.
But my guess is that she will do neither of these things. She will plough on with a strategy that has no chance of success, and the country will crash out of the EU on some date in June. That prospect is unbearably depressing.