Could Theresa May’s final gamble make today ‘Brexit day’ after all?

The prime minister has played her hand badly, using threats when she should have spent time seeking a consensual approach

Andrew Grice
Friday 29 March 2019 10:55 GMT
Brexit: What happens next?

For Brexiteers, today was supposed to be “independence day.”

Their celebrations were planned as soon as Theresa May triggered the two-year Article 50 exit process in 2017. Some Brexiteers’ parties will go ahead and the Leave Means Leave march which began in Sunderland will arrive in Parliament Square – even though our exit date is unknown and Brexit might never happen.

May’s government, determined to deliver the 2016 referendum result on time, tried to cash in some credit – literally. A commemorative 50p coin was designed but, luckily for the Treasury, only prototypes were minted.

No one from May downwards can be sure when or even whether the coins will ever enter circulation. The prime minister has already begged the 27 EU leaders for a three-month Article 50 extension. Humiliatingly, she settled for just two weeks unless MPs approve her deal by 11pm tonight – the very moment the UK was supposed to leave the EU. She might soon have to plead for a further delay.

How did it come to this?

May triggered Article 50 without a clear plan, hiding behind platitudes like “Brexit means Brexit.” In the negotiations with the EU, she tried, to paraphrase Boris Johnson, to “have our cake and eat it” – keeping the benefits of EU membership without the “nasty” bits, such as the free movement of people, that some voters had rejected in 2016.

It was all a bit like leaving your tennis club, stopping your membership fees, but saying you still wanted to use the courts and the showers once a week.

The prime minister, already hemmed in by her ill thought-out red lines, became even more boxed in after throwing away her overall majority by calling a snap election in 2017. It was obvious, as I and many others wrote on the morning after, that parliament would steer her towards a softer Brexit. But May seemed in denial. Her confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party masked the loss of her majority but returned to haunt her; it still does today.

Why did it take almost three years for the penny to drop? In part, it suited May to put off the difficult decisions that would divide her party, and to run down the clock. Indeed, she tried to weaponise it, using today’s deadline to warn MPs they must swallow her agreement or risk a chaotic, economically damaging, no-deal departure.

Naively, UK ministers assumed EU leaders would offer last-minute concessions. “EU negotiations always go down to the wire,” ministers assured us.

In fact, time proved a much more potent weapon for the EU27. They remained united and disciplined and didn’t blink.

Deadlines came and went. Last October we were told the real target was November, when at least there was finally agreement between the EU and UK. Then the goal was for the Commons to approve the deal by end of the year. At one point Tory whips thought they had found a secret weapon –threatening to cancel parliament’s Christmas break. That one lasted about five minutes.

Surely, the symbolic arrival of 2019 would put pressure on MPs to back the deal, May loyalists argued. They were wrong again.

Still, Brexit has entered the history books. May’s withdrawal agreement suffered a record 230-vote Commons defeat in January. Things could only get better: the 149-vote defeat this month was the fourth worst in history. At this rate, her deal will be approved in September. Unfortunately, time is much more pressing.

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So here we are on exit day, May’s unloved deal still awaiting approval. Yet there might be a strange twist to this sorry tale. May will today try to snatch a symbolic “Brexit day” victory from the jaws of defeat by holding a Commons vote on her withdrawal agreement – without one on the political declaration on the future UK-EU relationship – so the UK can, in theory, leave on 22 May, under a plan approved by EU leaders.

The odds in today’s vote seem stacked against May. But she will be hoping against hope that 29 March features in the history books after all.

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