Several things obvious to eventually take place, at least to those paying close attention to the Brexit process, have been confirmed this week already. Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, has tacitly admitted that the EU isn’t going to reopen negotiations and change the backstop in any meaningful way. This means the ERG won’t vote for the deal and it will be defeated again on March 12th. On March 13th, parliament will vote on no deal. This has to be a free vote. It will be voted down by a massive majority. The following day, parliament will vote to extend the Article 50 period. It will win by a comfortable margin. The government, through Jeremy Hunt, has all but confirmed this will be a free vote. It has to be, as nothing else is possible without causing May massive immediate problems.
May will state that the extension will be brief, in the order of two or three months, short enough to avoid the UK having to take part in the EU elections in June. The EU will not accept this and insist on a longer extension – more like 21 months. The logic is that this is the minimum amount of time needed to negotiate a future relationship between the UK and the EU and if the backstop is the issue, then that is what they will need to do. With no deal having been explicitly rejected by parliament and an extension explicitly approved, May will have no choice but to accept whatever extension the EU wants. Worse, this means it will have to be voted on again by parliament. What happens if parliament rejects the longer extension I will leave aside or the time being.
It is very difficult for me to see how the above sequence of events is now avoided. There is one possibility: the ERG just accepts that it’s probably May’s deal or no Brexit, at least eventually, and so they best take what they can get while they can get it. But that isn’t how those MPs think and so this is very unlikely to happen.
What happens after parliament accepts a 21 month extension? There is a lot to consider. Everyone in the Conservative party will want May to resign, but there is now no way to really compel her to do so if she doesn’t want to go, unless the whole of the cabinet resigns – which I suppose is possible. Labour looks set to blow apart at any moment, and the resolution, for now, of the immediate Brexit issue could be the catalyst for whatever the next stage might be. Yet one should never underestimate the power of inertia.
How will the country react? The culture war will enter a new stage of hellishness in all probability, but one can hope something saner takes over.