Supporters of UKIP and the Leave campaign react to Parliament’s vote to delay Brexit on March 14, 2019.
Photo: Guy Smallman/Getty Images
The U.K. Parliament on Thursday voted 413 to 202 in favor of asking the European Union to delay the March 29 Brexit deadline, so that they can have more time to break their current deadlock over whether to take the deal Prime Minister Theresa May struck with E.U. negotiators, come up with an acceptable alternative of their own, hold a second referendum, or leave with no deal, consequences be damned.
The vote immediately drew mocking comparisons to a disorganized student begging their teacher for an extension on a paper, but this is a bit unfair to disorganized students. Anyone who has asked for an extension knows that they are firmly time limited, you generally only get one, and most importantly, you still have to turn the paper in at the end. What Parliament is asking is considerably more demanding of their professor’s patience: The motion passed stipulates that if they can somehow agree on a deal by next Wednesday, they will request an extension of about three months, whereas if they can’t, they will request a longer extension, the length of which is currently unspecified.
A long delay would seriously displease many voters, especially Conservative voters and those who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum. According to a snap poll conducted by YouGov, 43 percent of all voters wanted MPs to vote against a delay and 38 percent wanted them to vote for it. As to whether they’d prefer a short or long delay, 47 percent favored a short delay versus 33 percent who wanted a long one. To both questions, about 20 percent said they didn’t know. Among Brexit supporters and the Tory base, however, the numbers are much starker: 72 percent of Conservatives and 75 percent of Leave voters told YouGov they wanted Parliament to vote down a delay; both groups also strongly preferred a short delay to a long one.
May’s strategy for the coming two weeks is roughly the same as it has been for the past two months, which is to get hard-line Conservative MPs and their Northern Irish allies in the Democratic Unionist Party good and scared of not delivering Brexit at all, so that they change their minds, hold their noses, and vote up her negotiated deal. Her game of chicken may yet pay off; another snap poll of Tories found that support for her deal had doubled from 19 percent on March 6, before the deal was revised to ostensibly provide stronger guarantees that the little-beloved Irish border backstop wouldn’t become permanent, to just under 40 percent last night.
That’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but May will take what she can get at this point, even if it means muscling through a deal with a minority of Conservative MPs. Some members of the party’s hard-line pro-Brexit faction have indicated that they are considering backing her deal to avoid having to cancel Brexit entirely, which they fear much more than a no-deal crashout scenario. The fact remains that the deal May’s team agreed to with Brussels is the only one on the table; it’s really her deal or no deal, and that reality might be finally sinking in.
On the other hand, passing May’s deal would also require the cooperation of the opposition, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn says it is no longer viable. He’s again calling for another vote “not as political point-scoring but as a realistic option to break the deadlock.” Parliament voted 334 to 85 on Thursday against a second referendum, with some Labour MPs splitting with their leadership to oppose it, and “People’s Vote” advocates saying the time was not yet right for such a vote. The chances of a second referendum still look slim, but the proposal could garner enough support to prevent Parliament from agreeing on anything else.
That it has come to this is still a humiliation for the prime minister. Ever since she first raised the prospect of letting Parliament vote on a delay, Leavers have lambasted her for breaking her repeated promises that Brexit would happen on schedule. The Betfair political betting market now gives a 26 percent chance to there being no Brexit before 2022, if at all, while the expected odds of a withdrawal in the second quarter of this year are falling. For May, in terms of disappointing her base and undermining the general public’s faith in their governing institutions, the political damage is already done.
Any request for a delay must be approved unanimously by all 27 E.U. member states. European Council president Donald Tusk is now urging his European colleagues to give the U.K. essentially as much time as it needs — at least another year and probably more — to reach a national consensus on whether and how to go through with Brexit. However, a long extension isn’t much more popular among European leaders than it is among British voters: European Parliament elections are coming up in May, and they don’t want the U.K. to seat MEPs and then leave the bloc. A spokesman for the European Commission said on Thursday that the Council would consider the request, “giving priority to the need to ensure the functioning of the E.U. institutions and taking into account the reasons for and duration of a possible extension.” In other words: Britain had better have a good excuse and keep in mind that Europe has its own matters to deal with.
The E.U. leaders will in all likelihood agree to let the U.K. delay Brexit at least for a few months, but if they don’t, it will probably be because they don’t think it will make any difference. British politics has been deadlocked over the same set of irreconcilable differences for two years now; why should anyone expect that another half a Friedman Unit will change that? Whether it’s three months or three years, an extension could easily amount to yet another pointless kick of the can from a legislature that really needs a kick in the can. “Brexit, and our Brexit prime minister, took a long look at the end of the road, and decided the only way out was to find more road behind it,” quipped Tom Peck, political sketch writer at the Independent.
What chronically ails the House of Commons these days is that they can only seem to agree in the negative: They don’t want to approve May’s deal, they don’t want “Norway-plus,” they don’t want no-deal, they don’t want a second referendum, they don’t want to take control of the process, they don’t want to disband the government, and so forth. MPs find themselves in a kind of legislative zugzwang, afraid to make a decision because every choice in front of them has huge practical and political downsides. They’d much rather not decide at all. In this regard, the Parliament resembles not so much a college student in need of an extension as a different sort of insufferable teenager: the one who hates everything and doesn’t want to do anything, especially not their chores or their homework, and who criticizes the way mom does their laundry but refuses to do it themselves.
Unfortunately, if Parliament chooses not to choose, the decision will eventually be made for them one way or another. If Brexit ends up being delayed indefinitely, voters will revolt and sitting MPs will likely suffer big losses in the next election. This may be the scenario Corbyn is holding out for, in the hope that this reckoning would hit the Tories hardest. However, Corbyn is not very well-liked, Labour has also fractured over Brexit, and there’s no reason to believe that disaffected pro-Leave constituencies would elect Labour MPs rather than far-right nationalists promising to make Britain great again.
The vote to delay also does not, by any means, take a crashout off the table. British businesses are still bracing for disaster on the 29th; the Confederation of British Industry welcomed this week’s votes to reject no-deal and to delay, but fears they may only represent “a stay of execution” for the U.K. economy. If Parliament fails to act decisively in the coming weeks, or if the E.U. exhausts its last nerve and refuses to grant the extension, crashing out of the E.U is the default outcome. Far from being forestalled, the warnings that the U.K might end up “sleepwalking” into a no-deal Brexit are still in great danger of coming true.