A British Minister has said that a no-deal Brexit was now “very unlikely,” after MPs by a majority of one passed an emergency legislation that instructs Theresa May to seek an extension to Article 50, and avoid a no-deal Brexit.
The Bill, which was opposed by the government, received support from 313 MPs with 312 voting against it and was put forward by Labour MP Yvette Cooper and Conservative MP Oliver Letwin in an attempt to rally MPs across the political spectrum around a road ahead. It comes as May and the leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn embarked on a second day of talks to try to find a road ahead.
The Bill will still have to pass through the House of Lords before it comes into force. While Britain’s Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, insisted that a no-deal Brexit was highly unlikely now, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay warned that the legislation “could increase the risk of an accidental no-deal exit.”
The legislation’s significance lies partly in the power it gives Parliament in determining the length of any delay to Brexit. The day after it becomes law the Prime Minister would have to put a motion to the House of Commons to seek an extension to Article 50, which would be amendable by Parliament, thereby giving MPs control over how long or short a period it would be for.
The Prime Minister would then be obliged to request the extension from the European Council. Were Europe to propose an alternative date, then the process would revert back to Parliament again.
“The House has tonight voted again to make clear the real concern that there would be about a chaotic and damaging no-deal and to support the Prime Minister’s commitment to ensure that we do not end up with no deal on 12 April,” said Cooper as the bill scraped through at just after 11pm local time on Wednesday night.
The push by Parliament to attempt to stave off a no-deal Brexit came as May said she would seek a short extension beyond April 12, though has insisted she wants the UK to be able to leave the EU before May 22 – the day before European Parliamentary elections are due to take place. However, members of the government have also acknowledged that this might not be possible.
“There is no guarantee the UK would not participate in European Parliamentary elections if the house refuses to support a deal,” Barclay told the Commons on Thursday morning.
The road forward
While the UK may be prepared to seek a longer extension, there is scepticism in the EU around the road forward, with some warning that giving Britain more time could just involve kicking the can further down the road, and place new risks on Europe particularly if a politician like Boris Johnson — who has been pushing the UK to take a tougher line with the EU — were to succeed May.
May has already said she will step down before the next stage of negotiations. “We cannot risk giving the keys of the EU’s future to a Boris Johnson, or a Michael Gove, the architects of this Brexit disaster. A long extension would do exactly that,” warned the European Parliament’s intermediary on Brexit, Guy Verhofstadt.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, in Paris earlier this week, said that to get any extension the UK would have to demonstrate a “clear purpose and a clear plan,’ while French President Macron warned that the EU could not be held “hostage” to the vagaries of the Brexit process in the UK.
Whether May can rally enough support for her Withdrawal deal to pass through Parliament before April 12, the current “cliff-edge” for Brexit, remains to be seen. The talks between the government and the Labour party are focussing not on the legal treaty text itself but on the accompanying “political declaration” which sets out ambitions for the future relationship.
Ambitions of Labour
It is through this that the Labour party hopes to pursue its ambitions for Brexit, which include keeping the UK in a customs union with the EU, while also guaranteeing that EU standards on the environment, workers and consumer rights will be maintained.
While the customs union solution — which involves tariff free trade on goods but not services — would avoid the question of the controversial Irish backstop — which is at the heart of Conservative and Democratic Unionist Party (of Northern Ireland) objections to the deal, it has angered Conservative MPs who believe it wouldn’t offer the UK the freedom to pursue trade deals with the rest of the world in the way they had hoped.