Theresa May is on the retreat - from any attempt to promise and carry through no deal, from seeking changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, from not organizing European Parliament elections, even from the attempted reinstatement of the 22 May date that was the outcome of the marathon Cabinet of 2 April. Her letter to Donald Tusk of 5 April repeated the request for 30 June that was turned down last time. May’s letter also conceded that the withdrawal agreement could not be changed and that European Parliament elections would be organised. The ‘technical’ talks between the two UK parties seem inherently inconclusive and dilatory, like much of the UK-EU negotiations. May’s fireside chat from Chequers on 7 April – a social media item, not a TV broadcast – showed that after three years behind a podium she is more effective on a sofa. The weakness of her position – any deal, not necessarily hers, or no Brexit, with the time and money promoting her deal or planning no-deal now written off – was stark.
Any proposition that passes by one vote out of 625 must seem a providential outcome, and the third reading of Yvette Cooper’s European Union (Withdrawal) Bill 2019 on 3 April gave a notable political reinforcement to May’s earlier embrace of an extension. But in another twist the House of Lords essentially filibustered the Bill on 4 April (by opponents of it repeatedly moving amendments that were defeated) and delayed its progress until the front benches agreed to allow a Second Reading vote (which was unopposed) and to complete its passage on 8 April.
In the event, May got her extension request in first (in the terms of the motion presented to the Commons under the Cooper Act, to ‘a period ending on 30 June 201’). By another front bench deal obtained an amendment in the Lords during committee stage that allows her to agree an alternative extension date without referral back to the Commons first, provided it is not earlier than 22 May. 71 Conservatives disagreed with this amendment, including Jacob Rees-Mogg and Iain Duncan Smith returning to the brexiteer fold.
Equally, the loss of further indicative votes on 8 April on the Speaker’s casting vote after a 301-310 tie halts that sideshow, with the problem of defining a customs union now carried over to the Conservative-Labour talks. May’s a fallback position in her Downing Street statement of 2 April that that the two parties would ‘agree a number of options for the Future Relationship that we could put to the House in a series of votes to determine which course to pursue’ might allow indicative votes to resurface but so far not a single one of them has gained a majority of those voting, let alone of all MPs.
Donald Tusk’s suggestion to the EU27 is that that they offer terminable ‘flextension’ to 31 March 2020. Last time the EU27 did not agree with Tusk’s recommendation and wanted a shorter date and a UK plan. The EU27 will have to decide in Brussels whether to live with the UK proposal that an extension could be terminated by UK ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement even during the Euro-election campaign or at any point before the new MEPs take their seats. The simplest counter-position would be to insist that EU ratification be done by the newly-elected European Parliament (convening on 2 July) and not the present one (whose last plenary meeting is on 18 April). May’s visits to Paris and Berlin on 9 April show where the power is, and indeed the source of the most dispassionate intelligence on how long the UK will need to sort this one out.