A Brexit delay could put Parliament in control – and signal the death knell for Theresa May’s premiership

So Heidi Allen thinks it’s a ‘done deal’. But is it a big deal? The draft plan for extending Article 50 – the ‘Cooper-Letwin plan’ – was not voted upon last time MPs had a say on Brexit. Its proponents now think the numbers stack up for an extension of Article 50 in Parliament.

Such an extension, which would be forced on the Prime Minister by MPs, is often dismissed as a political cul-de-sac. An extension of the Article 50 path leading to another brick wall. Certainly, its practical effect would be to create a new no-deal cliff-edge and a new date to panic about, most likely at the end of June rather than the end of March.

However, the finer details of the plan mean it would be likely to shake the politics of Brexit out of their current stupor. The delay would serve two clear, and overlooked, political purposes.

Theresa May wants the House of Commons to face a simple binary question. So you don’t want my deal: do you want to frustrate Brexit, or to leave with no deal at all?

The strategy of those advocating an extension is to reverse this question, and return it to Mrs May. OK so, you can’t get your deal Prime Minister: do you want to change course to an extension and a new deal, or plough on towards no deal?

In effect, the terms of the Cooper-Letwin bill put the ball firmly back in Mrs May’s court. If their bill passes, in mid-March, Theresa May would be legally bound to put down one of two motions: for an extension of Article 50, or for no deal.

The Prime Minister would be forced to take greater ownership of the Brexit outcome. Ultimately, she would be faced with a Hobson’s choice: no deal, or no Brexit on 29 March.

And once she has decided on one of the two options, the political landscape in Westminster could change fundamentally. If Mrs May opted for no deal, an immediate vote of confidence would be likely to follow. This would, most experts think, put her at risk.

If she opted to extend, then Mrs May will have been seen to have stood at the precipice of a no deal cliff-edge, and taken a step back. This removes the pressure on MPs –  on both Labour and Conservative benches – to back her deal, or risk no deal at all.

The Government’s credibility with Brexiters would be shot. There are strong indications that a section of the ERG could drop its support.

Secondly, an extension would create space and time. Some of the options put forward by MPs a fortnight ago – the idea of indicative votes – still remain, for now, minority procedural pursuits.

Last time round it was suggested by Ken Clarke and was not even selected to be considered by John Bercow due to a lack of cross-party support.

The European Union is likely to grant an extension to Article 50.  But this is likely to come with the explicit condition that the UK comes to a decision on what it wants.

In the event of an extension, there would be extra time for MPs to explore options for indicative votes – and our new briefing on the Brexit impasse shows the mechanics of how these votes could work.

If Parliament plainly laid out the choices over the political declaration – a full third party Canada-style relationship through to continued single market membership – the most favoured outcome could be voted on as the core of a potential new political declaration.

If MPs then wanted to vote the new deal down, or attach a condition of a referendum on it being passed, they could do so. But at least the Brexit deal with the best chance of passing through Parliament would have finally been identified.

The House of Commons would be showing significant intent to resolve its Brexit dilemma. With the extra time created by extension, it really could find its voice.

By Dr Alan Wager, research associate at The UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally appeared in The Telegraph.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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