How likely is Theresa May’s “short extension” and what would it mean for Brexit?

The EU27 are themselves torn over how best to approach the transition question.

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Theresa May will write to the European Commission seeking an extension – but only a short one, following a cabinet revolt about the potential consequences for the Conservative Party in the event of a prolonged transition.

The prospect of an extended transition worries the majority of Conservative MPs, with some fearing the electoral consequences and others that it will lead to Brexit being blocked. But there is in all likelihood a majority in parliament for it, so that MPs can take control of the Brexit process and negotiate the terms for Britain's exit, rather than letting the executive do it.

But the length of any transition exposed isn't within the gift of the cabinet or even parliament; it is subject to veto from any of the other 27 nations of the European Union. A household cannot merely negotiate with itself about whether or not to go into its overdraft – it has to negotiate that facility with a bank. And while it is not in the interests of a bank for any one of its customers to go bust – just as it is not in the interests of the rest of the EU27 to have a no-deal Brexit – the consequences of bankruptcy (or indeed of a no-deal Brexit) are much more sharply felt by the party seeking the overdraft.  

The EU27 are themselves torn over how best to approach the transition question. They know the period agreed has to be long enough for something to change at Westminster, but they note that MPs have been unwilling to seize and wield power for themselves, and that a fresh election may not settle the issue either. So what to do? As fas as diverting as the row within the cabinet, the Conservative Party, and parliament is concerned, it will ultimately come down to whether there is a majority to be found in the House of Commons for a take-it-or-leave-it offer from the EU27, or, if not, if there is a majority to be found for May's deal to prevent it.

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.