The Government has revised plans for a vote next Thursday and is now contemplating holding it earlier in the week but “everything is fluid,” one source said.
Plans are being made for an emergency sitting on Friday 29th March to respond to whatever the EU Council says on Thursday 28th about what is on offer to a country that the EU expects will have failed to sign off on the negotiated withdrawal agreement next week.
One Cabinet Minister tells me his central expectation now is that the vote fails and the EU, in the interests of giving itself a breather before “no deal” and not in expectation of any progress towards a deal in Westminster, grants a temporary extension to April (when the European Parliament elections arrangements need to be locked in stone). The logic runs that they’d be doing that in the hope that some management of the difficulties of “no deal” can be advanced in the interim. A new cliff edge is born but the look on this Cabinet minister’s face suggested he thought it was the final one.
The chances of no deal are now “real and rising,” the Cabinet minister said.
It’s emerged that Theresa May’s own curtain raiser for her TV appearance last night was a meeting with 17 hand-picked Tory MPs, the same group she’d met a week before.
They gathered after seven in her office in the Commons. They were all MPs who’d originally opposed the deal and then said they were coming to her side. The Chief Whip and her PPS were in attendance listening too as around half the MPs signalled that the PMs time was probably pretty much up. It was done with varying degrees of candour, one attendee said, but there was no mistaking the message.
The PM gave them no idea what would happen if her deal fell next week, two MPs reported. “She visibly shrank,” one MP said, as the meeting went on. She then left to give her TV address to the nation. That, two MPs at the meeting say, turned some converts into potential rebels again.
One Cabinet Minister says “she will lose by a bigger margin next week than she lost last week as things stand.” This particular Cabinet Minister said he learnt of the contents of Mrs May’s letter to Donald Tusk requesting an extension “from Twitter, like everyone else.” The Cabinet minister suggested “she doesn’t have a stick at all now” to goad pro-Brexit rebels into supporting her deal having abandoned what became known as the Olly Robbins strategy, threatening a long extension as the only alternative to her deal and a short extension.
There is the possibility that MPs could use the day after any defeat to demand that the government request a longer extension from the EU. But would there be a majority for such a demand? The Labour leadership is terrified of getting the wrong side of opinion in some pro-Brexit areas of the country. One Tory Cabinet minister who is himself terrified of a no deal Brexit said he couldn’t nonetheless vote for a long extension because he would be “burnt in effigy” forever across Tory Britain.
Even if Parliament did vote to demand that the government ask for a long extension, EU figures are understandably sceptical about what that extension could be sure to deliver given the fragility of Theresa May’s position and the fluid unpredictability of the UK in what is shaping up to its greatest peace-time political crisis of modern times.