May’s latest delay of the meaningful vote takes Britain to the cliff edge

Even if Article 50 is extended after a meaningful vote on 12 March, parliament is almost laboratory-designed to be unable to pass a Brexit deal.

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Theresa May will delay the meaningful vote on Brexit until 12 March at the latest – and if you've been been paying any attention to how May operates, you know that means “12 March, and not before.” 

The Prime Minister’s plan has always been to use the threat of the cliff edge to pass the meaningful vote, and as the United Kingdom will, at that point, be just 17 days away from leaving the European Union whether we have a deal or not, you can see how it might well work.

The trouble with May’s gamble is threefold: the first, and most important, is that she is causing real damage to the British economy in the here and now in order to get the legislature to do what she wants. The second is that it might not work and the third is that even if it does, it still leaves parliament facing a desperate dash to pass the accompanying legislation – in addition to the meaningful vote both Houses of Parliament must pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill into law – before 29 March. 

It’s the difficulty of accomplishing that last task which makes so many believe that an extension is a matter of when not if, even should Yvette Cooper’s second attempt to mandate the government to seek an extension be defeated. (Although Cooper’s second amendment has attracted the support of two Labour MPs who voted against it and another Conservative MP, Caroline Spelman, who did not back it last time around has signalled she will do so on this occasion, it is not certain that it will be able to command a parliamentary majority this time either.)

Difficulty is, extension isn’t solely within the gift of the United Kingdom, and as the Guardian reports this morning, the feeling on the EU side is that any extension would have to be a long one, ideally long enough to replace the transition period entirely in order to avoid another panicked extension in three months’ time. It’s far from certain that a majority can be found in the Commons for a long extension. 

It comes back to the biggest problem of the Brexit process, and one that doesn’t go away after 29 March – don’t forget that we have another cliff-edge at the end of the transition period – which is that this parliament is almost a laboratory designed to be unable to pass a Brexit deal and it is not certain that another election would produce a better one. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.