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15 March 2019

Brexit means Brexit?

Brexit means Brexit?
So this was supposed to be the week that everything Brexit-related was finally decided and we could all sleep easy in our beds at long last.

Predictably, this was not what happened and the decision making was dragged out across an eventful, exhausting and stressful week. The one vote that could become three votes did so (as really we all expected would happen) as MPs voted against May’s deal, against a No Deal Brexit (whether that is leaving on March 29th or at another time) but in support of asking the EU for an extension to Article 50.

In case you’ve somehow managed to avoid the news, the internet or speak to anyone this week, May’s deal was put back on the table on Tuesday, two months after its catastrophic first defeat in the House of Commons. She seemed to hope that the ever present threat of No Deal alongside a few slight alterations surrounding the backstop would be enough to encourage more MPs to vote for her deal, even if they were voting not out of support for her but out of opposition of No Deal. This may have been the case for a few MPs, as May’s deal failed slightly less devastatingly, by 149 votes, compared with 230 in the first vote. There’s just over two weeks to go until we are due to leave the EU, so maybe the more risk-averse MPs decided to hedge their bets by supporting her deal, just in case the alternative really is No Deal.

The game playing that seems to be happening around Brexit is unnerving; so much of it seems to be based on people having to guess what they think will be the least bad outcome rather than voting with what they truly believe. I know that this may often be the case in politics, but it seems painfully clear now that MPs are as unsure as the rest of us, and that May is playing a complicated game of Chicken.

We now know that Theresa May’s deal was unacceptable to MPs, as was leaving the EU with No Deal, but conceded that extending Article 50 is the best option at this stage. However, it’s hard to sit comfortably after the vote to extend Article 50 as really we aren’t any further forward. The extension is initially based on getting a deal by the 20th of March and the extension will function as additional time to confirm legislation. If a deal still isn’t agreed it will remain to be seen what the next step will be. Ironically, the decision around this extension is now in the hands of the EU, who will be able to decide how long, if at all, the extension will be. They have already made clear that an extension will not be granted without a good reason and Parliament will need to demonstrate the purpose of the extra time if they expect to receive it, so if there isn’t a deal agreed they may be more reluctant to grant an extension.

Given that there are EU elections in May it is likely that if the EU decides to offer an extension, it will either be very short (perhaps just a month) or a year or two.

EU elections notoriously have very low voter turn-outs (the UK turn out for the last EU election was 35.6%), so to invest the money in running an election knowing that the MEPs will be returned so briefly is a huge waste of money. It’s likely that the UK turnout will be even lower than in previous elections; people are fatigued and can see the pointlessness in sending MEPs to sit in Europe without any intention of being a part of that parliament long term. This extension may offer us a brief reprieve, but most importantly MPs need to ensure they don’t rest on their laurels and get on with all the other work that has been neglected over the last few months, pushing Brexit to the back of their minds, then meaning we are in exactly the same position at the end of the extension.

It’s been a stressful week and I imagine MPs are hoping for some sort of reprieve next week, but given that another vote of May’s deal is likely, I can’t imagine they’ll get the break they are probably longing for.