Theresa May’s pledge that she’ll resign if there’s a long extension is no promise at all

The Prime Minister has a long history of Brexit promises that turn out to be untrue. 

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Theresa May has staked her premiership on taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union, seeking an extension to the Article 50 process going on that goes on no later than 30 June, and heavily hinting to MPs that she will resign if the exit talks are extended into July. Or has she?

The reality is that the Prime Minister has outright told MPs she will do an awful lot of things that she has not done, and has comfortably said a number of things that are untrue. She won the support of Conservative MPs in marginal seats by promising not to hold an election – a broken promise that cost some of her supporters their jobs.  

But in this case, what May is promising is akin to her pledging to remain a carbon-based life form: it’s not so much a pledge as a reflection of political reality. The path to a parliamentary majority for an extension past 30 June is tricky to see.

The House rejected an open-ended transition, but there are still enough MPs who oppose a second referendum and fear that an open-ended transition will a) lead to an electoral backlash and/or b) facilitate a fresh referendum, because if the EU27 offers an extension beyond 30 June it would struggle to pass the House of Commons. In practice, I suspect that many of the MPs currently saying “no, never” to a long transition will pick that option when faced with a long transition or no deal, but they do not want one and would not pre-emptively force May into one.

In any case, an extension is not solely within the gift of British MPs. It has to be agreed by all 27 member states of the European Union. Its length – and conditions – are not certain or guaranteed. The one thing that is clear is that it is not going to run until 30 June. The Commission’s legal advice to member states is either that the transition needs to end on 23 May, when there are fresh elections to the European Parliament, or run until at least the end of 2019. So May is ultimately making a pledge she cannot reliably honour, to MPs who can in any case reject it.

As for May’s own future, thanks to her survival in last year’s confidence vote, the rules of the Conservative leadership process mean that she cannot be removed until December of this year, but it is certain that if she attempts to remain in place past that point she will be ousted. The only question for her is whether or not she secures an orderly exit or a disorderly one.

What May is really doing is making it seem as if she is freely giving something up that is outside of her control. She doesn’t have a majority and she survives as Conservative leader only due to the Tory party rulebook. Pledges – let alone hints of pledges – from her about what she’ll do next should be treated with extreme scepticism given her record. In this case, the only reason to believe her is that what she is promising is not hers to give.

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.