Although the government has consistently tried to rule out any extension to the date upon which the United Kingdom exits the European Union, a private members bill was introduced by Nick Boles MP to require the Prime Minister to seek such an extension if the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration are not approved. A similar Bill seems likely to be shortly introduced by Yvette Cooper MP.
Delay and Revocation
It is paradoxical that the United Kingdom has the unilateral power to revoke the Brexit process altogether, but, if it seeks delay, it must obtain the agreement of the 27 other member states. It seems likely that such an extension would be agreed to if it were for the purpose of a second referendum or a general election. It seems unlikely that it would be granted for purposes of making preparations to facilitate a no deal Brexit, which would entail a ‘hard’ border in Ireland, which is one of the central goals of the EU27 to avoid. It is therefore almost certainly insufficient to obtain an extension to legally require the PM to ask for one. She would have to ask for a particular purpose.
Time Doesn’t Help
Delay will not change the arithmetic in the Commons. As we saw on 16 January, there is no majority in favour of a General Election. There is also an even smaller number currently in favour of a Referendum. The deadlock would remain the same. We will have managed to delay taking a decision, but not added any further options.
Further, by delaying the exit date, the United Kingdom does not extend the transition period after that date. The UK only obtains the transition period if it agrees to the Withdrawal Agreement. The end of the transition period is not, as often stated, “two years”. It is not a rolling period. It comes to an end on 31 December 2020. This end date is fixed by EU budgeting requirements (ie they need to know the point at which the UK stops paying). This could be extended to 31 December 2021 or 31 December 2022, but the UK will have to pay into the EU’s budget throughput that time, and will be essentially a non-voting member of the EU (an uncomfortable position).
The transition period is crucial because it is during this time that the UK will negotiate the future relationship. The terms of the Withdrawal Agreement have taken nearly two years to settle, and are far more straightforward. An extension wastes time as it eats into the transition period. Without a clear objective in mind it should be opposed.
Change the Default to Something Else?
I have suggested changing the default in the absence of approval of the Withdrawal Agreement from no deal Brexit to revocation of Article 50. This would not lead to Remain being the result. All options, even no deal Brexit, would still be possible alternatives for the legislature to approve.
May currently has two paths to attempt to persuade MPs to approve a Withdrawal Agreement. The first is to induce MPs to back her with the threat of something worse. Here the obvious worse thing is no deal Brexit. The procedural hurdles for parties other than the government to introduce and pass legislation to stop this are so dauntingly high that this tactic may still succeed. It does not, however, seem to me to be a democratically acceptable way to behave.
The other was the path I assumed that she would take.
The Labour Party has no substantive reason for opposing the Withdrawal Agreement (as opposed to the Political Declaration). Although Mr Corbyn’s amendment on Monday criticised the backstop as “ neither politically nor economically sustainable” Sir Keir Starmer interviewed on Sunday admitted that any backstop, which simply guarantees that there is no border in Ireland, is a requisite of any deal. What Labour’s current position on the Withdrawal Agreement is is unclear.
So, in a sensible world, the (non-negotiable) Withdrawal Agreement itself should be agreed. The Political Declatation on the future relationship is a mere statement of intent and is all up for grabs. Mrs May ought to offer Parliament a series of rolling votes on what it seeks in the negotiations that are to come on the future relationship ( a Customs Union? Freedom of Movement? And so on.). She should then treat these votes as binding and proceed to negotiate on that basis.
It now seems however that she will not do that whilst the threat of a no deal Brexit remains possible. She wishes to have her Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration approved together.
This would however be a hollow victory. Of course if Parliament had approved her preferred version of the Political Declaration this would have given her a mandate to pursue it. Approval obtained at the point of a gun is not a mandate at all.
So, those Parliamentarians who do not wish to be blackmailed and wish to avoid a no deal Brexit, which must include reluctant Conservaitve Brexiteers with the same views as Mr James Kirkup and Mr Daniel Finklestein, should back a change of default. This does not lead ultimately to Remain, but changes the path by which Brexit must be secured by the government. Compel the European Research Group to compromise.
Change to a Referendum?
Instead of changing the default to revoke, it might be possible to change the default to a referendum. This would however require the form of the referendum to be specified. It would require far more complex legislation than my simple draft.
For myself, I consider this a worse option. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that another referendum would be a re-run of the last. We cannot maintain that it would instead be a referendum on ‘the terms’ as most of those remain to be agreed.
The best path is to change the default to revoke, thereby compelling those who desire Brexit to compromise with the 48% who did not.