Theresa May’s extension request is a risky attempt to blame the EU for her own decisions

The Prime Minister is hoping to present a long extension as something done to her, rather than by her. Her plan may backfire. 

NS

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Theresa May has formally asked the EU for another extension to the Article 50 process, to end on 30 June 2019. She cited the need for more time for indicative votes and further negotiations with the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, and the other political parties.

She has also conceded that the extension will mean that the United Kingdom will have to participate in elections to the European Parliament, despite the fact that, if all goes to plan, the United Kingdom’s winning MEPs will never take their seats. And she has asked for the extension to come to a premature end should the withdrawal agreement be ratified.

Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, has recommended an extension running to the end of March 2020, with the possibility for an early end. Ultimately, however, any extension is in the gift of the 27 other member states of the EU, and they can either reject it or attach whatever conditions they so decide.

What’s really happening here is that Theresa May is covering her back for domestic political purposes. Under the terms of the Article 50 process, once the departing member state and the European Union reach an accord, the Article 50 process ends. Had parliament ratified May’s withdrawal agreement at the end of December, the two negotiating teams would not be kicking their heels, looking at their watches and learning how to make filo pastry while waiting for the Article 50 process to end.

What May wants is to be able to present herself – and by extension the Conservative government as a whole – as the victims, rather than the agents of a long extension and the accompanying European elections, while being able to present the possibility that the extension will end earlier than advertised as a coup for the British government.

But May’s approach may backfire. Firstly, if the findings of BritainThinks’ focus groups on Brexit are to be believed, what is hurting the two major political parties isn’t that they are primarily seen as either wanting to stop Brexit or wanting to do it. That is driving anger among a committed hard core on both sides, true, but the majority of voter dismay is because the parties are playing political games rather than resolving Brexit one way or the other.

Secondly, that anyone with half a brain and a passing familiarity with how the European treaties work can figure out this ruse means that it will not insulate her from anger on the Conservative side either. 

More importantly, it could be that her approach – and the dysfunctional politics of the governing party which makes it a necessity – will finally frustrate enough members of the EU27 that her request for a further extension is denied.  

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.