Four things we learnt from PMQs this week

Theresa May is walking on a thin tightrope.

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Today’s PMQs came after a dramatic u-turn which saw Theresa May cave to pressure from Brexiteers and back a short extension until 30 June, instead of the longer one outlined in the government’s motion last week. Here’s what we learned from the exchange.

May is using MEP elections as a stick to beat her MPs with…

May is walking on a very thin tightrope. She defended her decision to rule out a long extension—to the chagrin of many in the House—by pointing out that delaying Brexit past the end of June would require the UK to elect a new set of MEPs in May. This is despite the fact that her de facto deputy David Lidington said last week that “a short, one-off extension would be downright reckless”.

May invoked the threat of European elections repeatedly throughout the session. “As prime minister, I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than 30 June,” she pledged. She is banking on the fact that almost no one in parliament wants to spend taxpayers’ money on electing new MEPs, only to recall them from Brussels a few months later. The EU is also resolutely opposed to such an outcome.

... but nothing will pacify the hard Brexiteers on her benches

The response was savage, with Labour MPs shouting at May to “resign” every time she stood up to speak. But the scale of the challenge she is facing became clear when Peter Bone got up and pointed out that she had repeatedly promised to take the UK out of the EU by 29 March. He told her: “If you continue to apply for an extension to Article 50, you will be betraying the British people. If you don’t, you will be honouring their instruction. Prime minister, it is entirely down to you. History will judge you at this moment. Which will it be?”

A visibly shaken May reiterated her position that a delay would go on no further than 30 June, but this does nothing to assuage the group of 20 or so hard Brexiteers on the government benches. Another of their number, Bill Cash got up shortly afterwards and called on her to allow a no deal Brexit on 29 March if her deal is voted down a third time.

May is still not prepared to back a no deal Brexit

A third hard Brexiteer, Richard Drax, asked May what guarantees she can give that if there is no deal by the end of June, the UK will leave on that date regardless.

In response, May said that the Article 50 extension “does not take no deal off the table”—but stopped well short of endorsing such an outcome if nothing else is agreed by the end of June. She is staking her premiership on some kind of resolution being reached within the next three months. 

Labour is trying to piece together a majority for a soft Brexit deal

In his first question, Jeremy Corbyn referred to the meetings he’s had with Labour and Tory backers of a soft Brexit, such as Nick Boles and Lucy Powell, as well the leaders of the SNP, Liberal Democrats and Greens.

He went on to ask May to meet him and discuss their proposals; to drop her red lines and compromise; to set out a clear purpose for the Article 50 extension; or otherwise, to “give the people a chance” to reject the deal and vote on a change of government.

It’s demonstrative of Labour’s attempts to build a consensus around a softer Brexit deal. The party is then expected to call for a second referendum between that new Brexit proposal and Remain. 

Eleni Courea writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2018.