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27 February 2019

Is a no-deal Brexit off the cards, or simply postponed?

Whenever Article 50 ends, parliament will still face the same choice: a negotiated exit, a no-deal exit, or no Brexit.

By Stephen Bush

Is no deal off the menu? That’s the promise that Theresa May has made to head off defeat in today’s Brexit votes; vowing that should the meaningful vote fail to secure a parliamentary majority on 12 March, MPs will be given a vote on whether to endorse a no-deal Brexit on 13 March and a vote on whether to seek an extension to the Article 50 process on 14 March.

It’s always possible that if ministers give the wrong answers in the House today that the government could yet be defeated and have the decision taken out of its hands, but given that Yvette Cooper’s original amendment had to come from fairly far back to win, it would require an astonishing failure of political management on the government’s part to lose today. (So let’s call it an even chance.)

The big problem for MPs is that the vote they will be given on 14 March will be a vote to defer the cliff-edge rather than to eliminate it. Whether the end of the Article 50 process is 29 March, 30 June or December 2020, when the current budget period ends, parliament will still face the same choice: a negotiated exit, a no-deal exit, or no Brexit, whether facilitated by another referendum or by a vote of MPs.

Does moving the cliff-edge to 30 June change the calculation? A lot is being made of the fact that on 1 July, the new European Parliament will meet for the first time, and it will be difficult, legally speaking, for the UK to continue to be a member if it hasn’t participated in those contests. There is no appetite within the government to hold European elections on 23 May and precious little in Labour, either. 

But the reality is that just as legal ways were found for states to join the European Union between elections to the parliament without throwing the legal basis into doubt, there will be ways to finesse a longer extension. The real problem is political: the extreme difficulty of finding a parliamentary majority for a long extension.

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That leaves MPs with the same choice on 30 June as they have now, with the only question being if some event or development can shift the political landscape enough to provide one side or another with a majority in parliament to avert no deal, the one legally binding Brexit outcome that MPs have thus far been able to manage to vote for.