So what happens now?
It’s time for us all to click refresh on this perennial Brexit question. Thursday’s late-night summit agreement to push back the cliff edge to April 12 changes the picture. But how much?
First of all, there are the calculations of the key groups in the House of Commons that need to swing behind May’s deal in order for it pass next week.
For the Brexiteer Tories, the prospect of no deal — in their eyes preferable to May’s deal — is still very much on the table. Yes, the House of Commons could block such an outcome, but that has always been the case and it hasn’t stopped them voting down May’s deal in the past.
For the Democratic Unionist Party, for whom only the terms of the Northern Ireland backstop matter, nothing has changed.
For Labour MPs with Leave-voting constituencies, the prospect of a softer Brexit endorsed by their own frontbench remains on the table, so they still have no incentive to back May’s deal.
Therefore it looks very likely the deal will be voted down again when May brings it back to the House of Commons next week (presuming Speaker John Bercow rules that last night’s agreement, which included formal EU27 endorsement for last week’s “assurances” on the backstop, renders the deal sufficiently different to be voted on a third time).
That means the May 22 exit date, which comes into force only if the deal is passed this week, is largely academic.
April 12 is where the action is.
By that date the House of Commons must either find a majority behind an alternative Brexit or decide that it needs more time and therefore hold a vote authorizing the U.K. to take part in the European election. May’s authority to direct events will, after a third defeat, be gone; especially if MPs on Monday support a backbench plan to take control of the Commons timetable on Wednesday.
MPs would have essentially two weeks to either find a way to leave on April 12, or extend. To achieve the former seems a tall order. Yes, the seeds of a customs union/single market consensus are being sown by the Labour leadership and soft Brexit Tories like Oliver Letwin and Nick Boles, who have held productive meetings in recent days.
But this could struggle to win majority support if ardent backers of a second referendum — of whom there are at least 85 — withhold support unless any Brexit agreement is put to the people in a confirmatory vote.
And should Jeremy Corbyn and the soft Brexit Tories bow to pressure for a second referendum to get these 85 or so onside, they could lose the support of a swathe of Labour and moderate Conservative MPs with strongly Leave-voting constituencies who will not countenance anything that could ultimately lead to Brexit being blocked.
It’s a Catch-22. Given the complications, a firm majority for an alternative Brexit deal before April 12 looks, if not impossible, extremely difficult. Which means one thing: extension.
If the long extension follows the formula set out by the European Commission in a briefing note earlier this week, it would be “significantly longer;” until the end of 2019 at least.
At this point, can May — already under intense pressure from her party — carry on as prime minister? A majority of her MPs (188) voted against extension, and she is on the record saying that the U.K. taking part in European election would be “bitter and divisive” and that she personally is “not prepared” to delay Brexit beyond June 30.
Nothing is certain, but it seems likely the long extension could be the end of May’s premiership. She could try some final throws of the dice, like a fourth meaningful vote before April 12, or a snap election. But these could be her last days.
We’re now deep into hypotheticals, but if May does resign it seems likely that a Brexiteer would emerge triumphant from the subsequent Tory leadership contest, which is decided in the end by Conservative members, who lean heavily to the right on Europe.
In the continuing absence of a consensus in the House of Commons for an alternative way forward, would the new Brexiteer prime minister then come to Brussels, demand the removal of the backstop, be rebuffed, and then pledge to take U.K. out of the EU with no deal in December?
Once again with Brexit, there are simply too many moving parts to make firm predictions. But with the political room for maneuver that a long extension would allow, many things now seem possible.