The Brexit battle lines just got a lot clearer.
After two days of significant policy U-turns by both of the UK’s main parties, and a series of votes in the House of Commons on Wednesday, things have changed quite considerably.
The most immediate and significant outcome of these votes is that the opposition Labour Party, assuming it doesn’t break its word, now officially supports a second public vote on Brexit, after MPs rejected its alternative plan.
Wednesday was supposed to be the next big Brexit moment: Lawmakers were hoping for a second so-called meaningful vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal. But on Sunday, that vote was delayed until March 12.
This triggered Labour’s announcement on Monday that it would support a second referendum, were its alternative plan rejected. In turn, that led to a big policy shift by Theresa May on Tuesday when she told the House of Commons that, should her deal fail on March 12, Members of Parliament would be given the opportunity to vote in favor of a no deal on Marcy 13, and (stay with us) should that also fail, a vote to request a delay to Brexit would follow on March 14.
While Labour is in no position to call a second vote, the longer May goes without her deal being approved by parliament, it can put the government under enormous political pressure. And while the hurdles to a second referendum are numerous, the fact that Labour supports it (and the government is so weak) makes its prospects a little too real for hardline Brexiteers’ taste.
And it’s these Brexiteers, who hate May’s deal for being too soft and for conceding too much to Brussels, that can help her get it across the line – if enough carrots are dangled in front of them.
The Brexit battlefield has shifted since the first meaningful vote on January 29 from May’s deal or no deal to May’s deal or Brexit being delayed – or maybe even stopped altogether, should the political reality sufficiently change.
While no deal is officially still possible, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there’s no majority for it in Parliament, and, moreover, lawmakers are willing to take action to prevent it. May’s decision to raise the prospect of a Brexit delay a huge victory for that tribe, which should terrify the hardliners.
It’s not insignificant that Olly Robbins, May’s chief Brexit negotiator, was overheard in a Brussels bar recently saying that the prospect of a Brexit delay might focus the minds of certain Brexiteers.
Elsewhere in not insignificant news, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative MP who chairs the influential pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG), suggested on Wednesday that he was starting to see a world in which he could support May’s deal. The ERG is not a traditional caucus, but more, as the Financial Times’ Sebastian Payne smartly puts it, a broad church, where people go to worship at the altar of Brexit. The fact that its High Priest is making noises warming to May’s deal should be taken seriously.
So the plan to scare hardliners might be working and the Brexiteer dream of a clean break from Europe could be dying?
Sort of. However, there are two important caveats. First, voting for May’s deal means that the battle for the future of the UK really kicks off, as the UK and EU open negotiations on future relationship between the two. This fight is likely to be bloodier than the one we have seen to date.
Second, should the Brexiteers want to further push their luck, a Brexit delay simply extends the status quo, meaning that the new deadline still requires a deal to be agreed or a default no Brexit.
It’s all getting a bit real in London, and as the Brexit deadline looms ever closer, it’s hard to see how any of the warring Brexit tribes will be satisfied with the ultimate outcome.