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13 February 2019

Does Theresa May want a no-deal Brexit?

Conflicting claims abound in the media – but nobody really knows the answer.

By Patrick Maguire

Westminster has worked itself into a frenzy over two contradictory stories about Theresa May’s Brexit endgame this week.

On Monday, HuffPost’s Paul Waugh contended that, unwilling to countenance a solution that will split her party, the prime minister has warmed to the once “unthinkable” idea of leaving the EU without a deal as a fallback position should her withdrawal agreement be rejected for a second time by MPs. ITV’s Robert Peston generated much excitement with a similar argument in a blog published the same day.

But just as SW1’s groupthink began to shift to a belief that May’s position meant a no-deal outcome was, if not inevitable, then more likely than most people have given it credit for, another ITV report encouraged the opposite impression yesterday. Overheard holding court after-hours in a Brussels bar, the prime minister’s Europe adviser, Olly Robbins, said he believed MPs would face a straight choice between approving the withdrawal agreement and extending Article 50, possibly by as long as 21 months.

So which is it to be? May’s party is equally unsure of her intentions. MPs will vote tomorrow on a motion that would affirm their support for the views expressed by the Commons on 29 January, one of which was a symbolic rejection of leaving without a deal. Downing Street insists that, though her preference is for a deal, the Prime Minister is not bound by the House’s resolution and that no-deal remains the legal default. Tory Eurosceptics are nonetheless uneasy about supporting a motion that would imply that they too rejected the principle of no-deal.

It’s also clear from the last set of Brexit votes that parliament is unlikely to take the decision for her. Too many Labour and Conservative MPs are squeamish about being seen to delay Brexit for procedural wheezes like the Cooper-Boles amendment – which would bend parliamentary rules in order to give a bill extending the Article 50 period precedence over government business, in the event no Brexit deal is approved – to give them the power to stop, rather than merely object to, a no-deal scenario.

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Both of these camps are working under the assumption that, when it comes to the question of how exactly we will leave the EU, May will do what they want. Tory Brexiteers assume she will allow us to leave without a deal. Opponents of no-deal assume that, as Olly Robbins indicated, she will inevitably take the politically painful decision to extend the Article 50 period or otherwise make a policy concession that allows a negotiated settlement to pass the Commons.

Only one can be right. There are compelling arguments for both: May never truly believed her mantra that no deal was better than a bad deal and has made explicit her preference for a deal. Yet she has never shown any willingness to incur political pain – or damage to her party – at points where a compromise would deliver an accord in the Commons.

But ultimately, only the prime minister knows – and she herself is unknowable. For that reason, we won’t know which of this week’s theories are correct until it’s too late to stop it.