Top storiesAnother eventful week, but we’re no further forward. Which, with the EU having demanded a decision from Britain one way or another by 12 April – less than a fortnight away – is just the tiniest bit alarming.
So what happened? After backing an amendment allowing indicative votes in a bid to to find parliament’s preferred Brexit solution, MPs rejected all eight options before them last Wednesday (though one, committing the government to negotiate a UK-wide customs union with the EU in any Brexit deal, nearly made it).
True to form, the government took this as an invitation to bring Theresa May’s twice-defeated deal back to the Commons, albeit in slightly different form: to get round John Bercow’s ban on another vote on the same matter, this was just the withdrawal agreement, shorn of its accompanying political declaration.
It made no difference. Despite the prime minister’s offer to resign before the next phase of Brexit if her MPs voted for the deal (opening up the prospect of a hardline Brexiter leading the talks on the UK’s future relationship with the EU), parliament rejected it a third time, by 344 votes to 286.
The EU responded rapidly, with the European council president, Donald Tusk, calling an emergency summit for 10 April and giving the British government until then to find a solution, or it would crash out of the bloc two days later. The EU27 also began setting its terms for talks with the UK on avoiding economic meltdown after a no-deal Brexit.
As parliament prepared for a second round of indicative votes on Monday, May’s divided cabinet appeared on the verge of meltdown as ministers clashed over whether to back plans for a possible lengthy delay and softer Brexit based on some form of customs union.
The justice secretary, David Gauke, said the prime minister would have to “look closely” at a customs union if MPs voted for it; Liz Truss, the chief secretary to the Treasury, described the idea as “incredibly problematic”. The EU did not hide its preferred option, saying if Britain opted for a customs union it could be out by 22 May.
To add to the excitement, Labour said it was considering calling another vote of no confidence in the government. And the Democratic Unionist party again swore there was no way it would support May’s deal in any future meaningful vote, making it highly unlikely it would pass.
Then, in a second round of indicative votes in the Commons on Monday, MPs once again failed to coalesce behind any one alternative to the prime minister’s rejected Brexit deal, rejecting a common market, a customs union and a second referendum.
MPs backing a soft Brexit were furious at second-referendum campaigners, blaming colleagues demanding a people’s vote for parliament’s failure to reach a consensus. And the Conservative MP Nick Boles dramatically announced his departure from the party over its refusal to compromise.
What next?The prime minister has summoned her warring cabinet to Downing Street for a five-hour showdown during which it will have to find a way forward.
Ministers must decide whether to shift course towards a closer future relationship with the EU in an attempt to build a majority; head for a no-deal Brexit on 12 April; or give May’s thrice-rejected deal a final shot this week.
The first option would put May in conflict with a significant group of ministers who would prefer no deal, and risk splitting the Tory party. The second would see her lose a string of different ministers – some of whom might even be ready to back a Labour motion of no confidence.
One Downing Street adviser said a snap election fronted by May was being “tested” and that it was viewed by some in No 10 as “the least worst option”.
If the deal does return, it is likely to be tabled with an an amendment submitted last week by the Labour MPs Gareth Snell and Lisa Nandy allowing parliament a greater say in the next stage of the Brexit negotiations.
Then the last chance of avoiding a no-deal exit would be Eurosceptic MPs finally dropping their resistance to the plan rather than risking an early election, a second referendum or a softer Brexit.
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Top commentIn the Guardian, Charles Grant writes of the despair in Brussels at the “incompetence, ignorance and irresponsibility” of the UK political class over Brexit:The EU expects no deal because it does not trust British politicians not to screw up … Key officials despair at the inability of many leading British commentators and politicians to learn about how the EU works or what it wants from the negotiations. Remainers should not assume everyone in the EU wants another British referendum. Many senior figures worry that if the UK prevaricates or stays it will distract the EU from other pressing challenges, contaminate European politics with its weird Eurosceptic attitudes and block further integration. Donald Tusk, the European council president, argues that doors should be left open to the UK, lest it reconsider Brexit. The Dutch, Germans, Irish, Poles and Swedes lean in that direction. But many other governments, and senior figures in the commission, are keen to excise the British cancer from the European body politic.
Source: The Guardian