Brexit explained #56/100
Is Theresa May running down the clock until Brexit day?
Analysis: Continual delays and a refusal to extend Article 50 have fuelled suggestions that the prime minister is playing for time – Benjamin Kentish assesses whether there is any truth to the claims
With fewer than 50 days until Brexit and no prospect of an agreement on an exit deal in sight, Theresa May is rapidly running out of time to convince the EU to give her the concessions she needs to win MPs’ backing for her plan.
She has not had much success so far. Brussels has insisted that it will not reopen negotiations on the withdrawal agreement – meaning no changes to the controversial Irish backstop.
On Tuesday, Ms May will have to ask MPs for more time to secure the changes she is seeking.
The further delay has renewed speculation that this is a deliberate ploy, with Labour accusing the prime minister of “cynically” running down the clock.
Some opponents claim that her strategy is to waste time and then force MPs to vote on her deal when it is too late to find any alternative.
In theory she could return to the Commons late in March – just days before the 29 March exit date – and claim parliament has only two choices: back her deal or leave the EU without an agreement.
Ms May has already pushed back key votes on her Brexit deal, fuelling claims that she is playing for time.
First she delayed the “meaningful vote” on her withdrawal agreement by more than a month. Originally due to take place on 11 December, it was eventually held on 15 January.
When the deal was rejected by an unprecedented 230 votes, many people expected the prime minister to change strategy and pivot towards a softer Brexit, a no-deal outcome or some form of public vote.
That has not happened. Instead, she has insisted she can secure the concessions from the EU that she believes she needs to win parliament’s support for her deal, despite Brussels giving no indication that it is willing to budge.
More delays seem to be on the horizon. Last month, Ms May promised that she would either give MPs a vote on a revised deal by 13 February or, if she had not been able to secure further changes, on an amendable motion updating the Commons on her negotiations.
With no alternative deal in sight, MPs will only vote this week on the government’s update, which is likely to say that more time is needed to secure changes to the agreement.
Ministers have floated the prospect of a similar vote being held on 27 February, meaning a second vote on the deal itself is unlikely to happen before the end of February at the earliest. Even if a deal is then approved, it would leave just a month for parliament to pass all the legislation needed to enact Brexit.
An EU summit scheduled for 22 March – less than a week before Brexit day – could give Ms May justification for further delays, if she argues that this is when the EU will finally offer new concessions.
Even if no concessions were forthcoming, some people believe that, faced with the threat of a no-deal Brexit in a matter of days, MPs would reluctantly agree to support the prime minister’s plan (even if it is fundamentally unchanged from the one rejected in January).
But any strategy involving running down the clock is highly risky, not least because it relies on parliament agreeing not to intervene in the coming weeks. Last month, Labour’s Yvette Cooper tabled an amendment that would have delayed Brexit until the end of the year if no deal was in place by the end of February.
That motion was rejected by a margin of 23 votes, but as Brexit edges closer and the prospect of no deal becomes ever more likely, MPs might be swayed into backing another, similar amendment.
The Labour leadership is also seeking to torpedo Ms May’s ability to waste time. Jeremy Corbyn has written to the prime minister offering talks on a cross-party compromise deal, and will this week table an amendment that would force her to hold a second vote on her Brexit deal – revised or not – by 26 February.
No one other than Ms May and her closest advisers knows whether she is deliberately running down the clock. But the continual delays and her refusal to consider an extension to Article 50 do little to quash claims that this is her plan.
Even if it is not, the fact remains that the 29 March Brexit date is enshrined in law and the UK is speeding towards it without a deal in sight. Whether or not it is deliberately being run down, the clock is ticking ever louder.
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