It was the week the countdown clock stuttered to a stop and Britain said goodbye to one of the few certainties of Brexit – the March 29 date for EU withdrawal. Here’s what happened, and what will happen next.
Days to go
Anybody’s guess. Conceivably 14, if the European Union refuses to grant an extension and forces the UK to leave on March 29. Or 107, if Theresa May secures a “short, technical” delay to June 30. Or 657, if there is a long extension to the end of the proposed transition period on December 31 2020. Or some other number that the politicians manage somehow to settle on.
What happened this week?
After a weekend of stalemate, the Prime Minister seemed to have made a breakthrough on Monday, flying to Strasbourg to agree with Jean-Claude Juncker three new documents designed to reassure her critics.
That respite lasted little more than 12 hours, as Attorney General Geoffrey Cox released advice that legally, the new papers hadn’t changed very much. Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement went down to defeat by 149 votes on Tuesday – the fourth-worst in parliamentary history, compared to the number one slot held by the 230-vote drubbing of the same Agreement in January.
Wednesday saw the PM beaten again, as MPs voted to rule out a no-deal Brexit in any circumstances. And on Thursday, a seismic week saw the totemic departure date of March 29 – exactly two years since the UK formally told Brussels it wanted to leave – scrubbed from the timetable, as the Commons voted to delay withdrawal.
What happens next?
Dogged as ever, Mrs May is planning a third attempt to get her Agreement through the Commons in what Westminster is calling Meaningful Vote 3 – or MV3 – probably on Tuesday or Wednesday.
The package will not be much different from the offer decisively rejected twice before by MPs, though the Attorney General is understood to be looking for ways to sweeten the pill of his legal advice. Mrs May is pinning her hopes on Brexit-backing Tories, the DUP and Labour MPs from Leave seats swallowing their objections to her plan to fend off the alternative of possibly seeing their cherished goal receding months or years into the future.
If she wins her vote, Mrs May will go to the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday to ask for an extension of up to three months, to allow time to tie up all the legislative loose ends needed for a smooth Brexit. If she loses, she has said a longer delay will be needed. And EU leaders have indicated that they will only grant that if the UK can explain what it wants to do with the extra time. An extension can only be agreed by all 27 leaders unanimously. If they refuse, Mrs May could return on Friday with no-deal Brexit looming seven days later.
Amid the chaos enveloping Westminster, the Chancellor delivered a low-key Spring Statement and pulled off the trick of appearing loyal to his leader – or at least more loyal than virtually any of his colleagues – while at the same time placing himself at the head of calls for “consensus” on Brexit.
Theresa May’s Chief Whip oversaw a breakdown in Government discipline, with four Remain-backing Cabinet ministers defying a three-line whip on Wednesday without consequences. Publicly, “confusion” was blamed, but privately some claimed to have been given a nod and a wink that there would be no repercussions if they abstained. Angry Leavers vented their fury at a testy meeting the following day, in exchanges which Downing Street described as “honest”, but some insiders claimed had seen the PM “going batshit”.
Mrs May was forced on Thursday to offer a free vote on delaying Brexit in order to avoid the threat of resignations. The move resulted in more than half of her party’s MPs, including seven Cabinet ministers, trooping into the opposite voting lobby to their leader.
Quote of the week
“These are unenviable choices, but thanks to the decision that the House has made this evening, they are choices that must now be faced.” – Theresa May, setting out the options open to the UK after the rejection of her deal on Tuesday.
Tweet of the week
“Tonight I voted against delaying Brexit, but the Parliament agreed to an extension. It must be a swift one, with purpose. We must deliver the result of the referendum, and hurry up about it!” – International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, after Thursday’s vote.
Word of the week
After years of insisting that March 29 was set in stone as Brexit day, come what may, the Prime Minister buckled under the pressure of approaching deadlines, a divided Cabinet and a disobedient Commons and accepted she must ask for more time.
The length of any extension, and the purposes to which it will be put, will dominate Brexit debate over the coming days.