MPs will have their second meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement by March 12 at the latest, Theresa May has said. Addressing the Westminster press pack en route to an EU summit in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt, the prime minister belatedly acknowledged that there would be no vote on a revised deal this week.
Given the lack of any substantive progress in securing a compromise from the EU on the Irish backstop, the delay is both inevitable and unsurprising. MPs will instead vote on another amendable motion on what the government should or should not do next. The main action will come on Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin’s amendment, which if passed would legislate for an Article 50 extension in the event that parliament had not approved a deal by March 13.
It is for that reason that the prime minister’s new March 12 deadline is significant. Last month, the first iteration of the Cooper amendment was defeated after failing to muster enough Tory support to overcome abstentions and votes against from Labour MPs. But with no-deal looming ever larger, the expectation in Westminster is that there will be more Conservative rebels this time. They could include Remain-leaning junior ministers like Tobias Ellwood and Richard Harrington. In Cabinet, Amber Rudd, Greg Clarke and David Gauke have taken a similar stance.
With rebellion looming, the political incentive to follow the timetable set by Cooper is twofold. The message to those considering resigning or otherwise rebelling in a bid to prevent a no-deal exit on March 29 is that the prime minister won’t extend her game of brinksmanship to the EU Council summit in the last week of March, as some ministers have suggested she would. If it fails to convince them, the prime minister will have lost face but gained a new threat to wield at Eurosceptic rebels on the eve of Cooper’s extension: back my Brexit, or risk none at all.