Last week saw the latest chapter in Westminster’s central saga. With negotiations between the UK and the EU on the Irish backstop ongoing, the Prime Minister gave a statement to the House of Commons on Tuesday 26 February setting out what would happen in the final month before Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on 29 March.
In January the House of Commons passed a motion to rule out No Deal. Whilst non-binding this vote made it clear that the Commons will not allow a No Deal exit from the EU. I and the Government opposed this stance but we were defeated. At the same time the House agreed to support the Prime Minister’s deal if changes were made to the Irish backstop. Subsequently the PM has sent her team to seek clarification from the EU that the UK could not become trapped in the backstop indefinitely. At the time of writing these talks are continuing.
The PM has now said that there will be a vote on whatever deal is available before 12 March (the so-called Meaningful Vote). If that deal is not approved, the following day (13 March) there will be a vote on whether the House of Commons wishes to leave the EU without a deal. If the House votes not to leave without a deal, the next day (14 March) there will vote on whether the Commons wishes to seek an extension to the Article 50 process, delaying the UK’s departure from the EU and giving the Government more time to negotiate. This would then need to be approved by all countries in the EU27.
As I have previously written in these pages, it is likely that the EU would offer either a short extension of a few weeks or a long extension of a few years. This is because if the UK remains a member beyond May it will have a legal duty to send MEPs to the European Parliament following the EU elections on 23-26 May. Consequently, unless a deal is agreed by 12 March it seems that the most plausible outcome will be a long delay to Brexit and continued uncertainty for business. I remain of the view that we must get a deal through Parliament as soon as possible to allow everyone and everything to move on.