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13 February 2019

How Olly Robbins’ claims about extending Article 50 actually make a no-deal Brexit more likely

Which MPs would risk the political uncertainty of voting for Yvette Cooper’s Article 50 amendment if they think it’ll be extended regardless?

By Stephen Bush

However bad your morning may be going, it could be worse: you could be Olly Robbins, Theresa May’s top Brexit official. Robbins was overheard gossiping in a Brussels hotel bar with his fellow officials about Brexit, the cabinet and how the Brexit crisis is going to play out by ITV’s Angus Walker.

The highlights: the description of the Irish border protocol as a “bridge” into the final EU-UK relationship and Robbins’ claim that MPs will ultimately face a choice between voting for May’s deal or a delay to Brexit.

While Robbins, who worked with May when she was at the Home Office before becoming her top Brexit official, is one of the few who works closely with May, I wouldn’t read too much into his thoughts about what will happen in the future. Policy-wise, the important part is that description of the backstop, which will put the backs up both Brexiteers and European diplomats. Brexiteers don’t like it because they regard the backstop as a customs union by another name and fear that it means too close a relationship with the EU after Brexit. European diplomats dislike the backstop because it represents a large enough hole in the sanctity of the single market as it is and turning it into a enduring EU-UK free trade agreement would turn it from a necessary evil to a permanent pain in the neck.

Closer to home, the most important immediate part will be Robbins’ belief that the Article 50 process will be extended if MPs do not agree to back May’s withdrawal agreement.

It further increases the chances that Yvette Cooper’s amendment to seek an extension for Article 50 to prevent a no-deal Brexit will be defeated when it returns to the Commons on 27 February. What killed off that amendment was that 24 Labour MPs broke the party whip to vote against or abstain on Cooper’s amendment, while just 17 Conservative MPs went the opposite way, with many privately supportive Tory MPs opting to keep their heads down and vote with the government.

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Both Labour rebels and Conservative loyalists had the same rationale: Theresa May is going to seek an extension, so why should I take the political pain with my Leave-voting constituents/Brexit-loving party members for something that’s going to happen anyway?

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They will look at Robbins’ remarks and think that they had the right idea when they voted down Cooper 1 and they’ll likely stay the course and vote down Cooper 2.0.

But in their shoes, I wouldn’t put too much store in Robbins’ prediction: we all gab off with our colleagues about what our bosses do and what they’ll end up doing in the future over a drink from time to time, and sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong.

It speaks to the biggest reason that a no-deal exit might happen: almost everyone is convinced that when push comes to shove, a no-deal scenario is so catastrophic that someone will take political damage to prevent it. Up until the point where a majority of MPs are ready to say “and that someone is me”, the chance of a no-deal exit remains very real.