But at the end of a dramatic week, which saw three long nights of confusing and chaotic votes in the House of Commons, things are starting to look a little different.
We now know that on Thursday of next week (March 21), Prime Minister Theresa May will ask the European Union to extend the Article 50 Brexit deadline. For how long depends on whether or not her Brexit divorce deal is approved by her own lawmakers before that date.
As things stand, her deal looks no closer to passing a vote in parliament. On Thursday, 188 members of her own party voted against the government’s motion to delay Brexit.
Only two things of late have carried a majority among lawmakers: opposing a no-deal Brexit and delaying Brexit, which both sound distinctly un-Brexity. And neither is entirely within the United Kingdom’s control.
But as we drift closer to the big day when the UK is slated to leave (March 29), the Commons is giving us a better idea of what it doesn’t want. It doesn’t want May’s deal, a no deal or to scrap Brexit altogether. It doesn’t even want a second referendum, despite the noise made about putting the vote back to the public by some in the political class.
An amendment to hold a second vote that would have “remaining in the EU” on the ballot paper was crushed on Thursday by 334 votes 85. The Labour Party’s decision to abstain, despite only a few weeks ago confirming that it supported a second public vote, was behind the poor turnout.
While the result doesn’t make a second referendum impossible, it does raise serious questions as to whether there will ever be the political will for one. And for what it’s worth, the EU is not keen on the idea.
Other things MPs decided they didn’t want on Thursday include taking time to seek cross-party support for alternative plans and having a third vote on May’s deal — amendments giving MPs more control over Brexit and killing off May’s deal were respectively defeated and pulled.
So it looks like Brexit is going to have to be delayed.
But to what end? May is running out of time for any meaningful changes to be made to the political declaration accompanying her deal. And based on MPs’ objections to her deal to date, it’s unclear what could be added in order to turn over such a huge loss.
Any new deal would require a willingness on the part of the EU to negotiate again, which is far from certain. Why? Because it would face exactly the same problems that May has faced: there is not majority for anything in the UK and the EU is not in the business of wasting any more time and political capital on policies of failure.
Things have changed a little in Brussels, also. While once upon a time, extending Article 50, delaying Brexit and even keeping options for the UK to reverse decision were firmly on the table, it’s fair to say that affection for the Brits is in shorter supply these days.
The attitude to the UK varies from country to country, but it’s generally held that the longest extension that the EU would be willing to consider, if May’s deal passes, is about 6-8 weeks.
Obviously, should May’s deal completely fail next week and new options need to be explored, it will take a lot longer than 6-8 weeks to sort this out. And while some in Brussels don’t mind the idea of extending for up to and over a year, remember that it only takes one member state to veto an extension. So throwing things up in the air and starting from scratch comes with some pretty major risks.
May will travel to Brussels on March 21 and request that the Article 50 deadline is extended. In coming days, we will find out if that request will be for a short extension that allows for the implementation of May’s deal, or for an unspecified length of time as the UK is forced back to square one. And of course, in all of this, the default of a no deal hangs over everyone’s head. Never in this process has the UK’s destiny seemed so at the mercy of Brussels.
The temptation to say that nothing changes is usually a reference to the fact that Brexit seldom seems to move forward. It’s pretty clear that this week, Brexit took a notable step backwards.