Theresa May, struggling to find a plan B, may delay Brexit until July – her toxic option

FILE PHOTO: Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves Downing Street, London, Britain, January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Hannah McKay/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May leaves Downing Street, London, Britain, January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Hannah McKay/File Photo

Deep divisions in the Cabinet are being exposed

i|AIWA! NO!|Theresa May’s plans to forge a Brexit Plan B that she can take to the Commons on Monday were dealt a serious blow after one of her closest European allies warned the existing deal could not be “tweaked”. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte cast serious doubts over whether Mrs May would be able to change the existing withdrawal agreement to present it to MPs next week.

Mrs May will spend the weekend trying to patch together a fresh deal to present to MPs on Monday. Such is her difficulty in finding a compromise that satisfies enough MPs to get a deal through Parliament, that Government sources have suggested she could announce an extension to Article 50 at least until July. It is an option she regards as toxic but may yet be forced to agree to.

Brexit date looming Elsewhere, speculation has been mounting within Whitehall and the Commons that the Government is preparing for a snap election as a means of breaking the deadlock.

Mrs May has been holding a series of talks with European leaders, including Mr Rutte who said: “I don’t see how the current deal can be tweaked. She is really expecting Brexit to go ahead on 29 March.”

International Development Penny Mordaunt warned no-deal must be kept on the table (Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

International Development Penny Mordaunt warned no-deal must be kept on the table (Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

Mrs May travelled to Chequers, her country residence in Buckinghamshire, on Friday after speaking to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, and Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission. Downing Street sources said she had no talks planned with other EU leaders over the weekend, but senior sources told i that an emergency Cabinet or conference call could be arranged for Monday. It follows conversations she held with more than half of her Cabinet team through a series of group and one-to-one meetings to spell out her next steps ahead of Monday’s statement.

International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt warned before heading into her own audience with the Prime Minister that a no deal Brexit must be kept on the table. “It’s only when no-deal is better than a bad deal is believed by the EU that we’ll maximise our chances of a deal,” she said on Twitter.

Chancellor Philip Hammond believed a no deal Brexit would be scrapped (Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

Deep divisions, little change Chancellor Philip Hammond (right) believed a no deal Brexit would be scrapped (Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

It exposes the deep divisions in the Cabinet, following comments by Chancellor Philip Hammond that he believed a no deal Brexit would be scrapped. Senior MPs from opposition parties met Mrs May and her de facto deputy David Lidington to discuss possible options to change her Brexit plans, such as delaying Article 50 and putting the deal to the public in a second referendum. But many were left deeply sceptical that any significant changes would be forthcoming. Green MP Caroline Lucas told i she left her meeting with the Prime Minister with a sense that very little would change. “I asked what areas she would be willing to give ground on, and she just said that wasn’t the purpose of the meetings,” Ms Lucas said.

“She is hoping that during these talks a dazzling light will be shone that will show her how to tweak her deal that will bring round MPs,” she added. “That approach might have worked if had been just a dozen MPs who had voted down her deal but not 230.” 


Theresa May Brexit Plan B: What Are Her Options If She Loses Vote?

A demonstrator calls for Theresa May to resign. Picture: PA

A demonstrator calls for Theresa May to resign. Picture: PA

|AIWA! NO!|What will Theresa May’s Plan B be if she loses next week’s meaningful vote as expected? LBC’s Political Editor Theo Usherwood assesses her options.

Yesterday’s defeat means that if the Prime Minister does lose, she must return to Parliament to set out her Plan B within three working days.

What will that Plan B look like? Here is what she might do next.

1) Kick the can down the road one last time

Theresa May will no doubt speak to Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s vote. If – as expected – she loses, her job will be to persuade them both that she could win second time round if they are forthcoming with more substantial concessions.

The offer would have to be much better than what we have seen over Christmas, but the EU has plenty of other things to worry about other than Brexit. The growing feeling in Brussels is that a deal needs to be done. That would give the PM one last chance to get something better, and bring the vote back to Parliament towards the end of January, or the beginning of February.

Likelihood rating: 4/5

2) A second referendum

Mrs May would need to immediately ask the EU for an extension to Article 50. She has of course repeatedly ruled out a second referendum. The argument from Number 10 is that the British people has already had its say and we voted to leave.

The obvious strategy would be to put three options on the ballot paper: Remain, May’s deal, No Deal. That risks enraging leavers as it splits their vote in two.

But a second poll doesn’t necessarily have to reverse the 2016 result. Mrs May could propose the question: My Deal or No Deal? That would put the onus on Jeremy Corbyn to order his MPs to vote for the inevitable amendment to add Remain to the ballot paper. A high risk strategy for a Prime Minister most do not think actually countenances leaving without a deal.

Likelihood rating: 2/5 (May deal v No Deal: 1/5)

Could Theresa May call a People's Vote
Could Theresa May call a People’s Vote. Picture: PA

3) Call a snap general election

Last month’s no confidence vote was politically costly because Mrs May had to promise she would not fight the next general election in 2022. The date is important: the Prime Minister leaving open the option that she could call a snap general election and fight it.

On the plus side, it is the only way to break the deadlock in the House of Commons. We are where we are because as things stand at the moment there isn’t a majority for anything.

On the downside, it is hard to imagine senior Tories within the party allowing Mrs May to fight a snap election, especially after what happened last time. Given the internal turmoil within the Conservative party at the moment, it is also hard to see how Mrs May could campaign with a coherent message to win over voters. Needless to say, this is the ideal route for Jeremy Corbyn. Just like the previous option, Mrs May would need to extend Article 50.

Likelihood rating: 2/5

4) Sit tight and wind the clock down

Similar to option one, this course of action relies on Downing Street buying, with the help of prevarication in Brussels, as much time as possible. A tough ask but Downing Street’s consistent argument to Remainers has been that they should vote for the PM’s deal or face a No Deal Brexit because that is the default option. The closer we get to Brexit D-Day – March 29 – the more powerful this argument becomes.

The only problem is the Government has to pass six pieces of Brexit legislation (excluding the Withdrawal Agreement and Implementation Bill) by 29th March, on everything from immigration to fisheries. Given what happened with Yvette Cooper’s amendment on Tuesday to the Finance Bill, those pieces of legislation would be cut to shreds by Tory Remainers and Labour in an effort to grind the machinery of Whitehall to a halt.

The problem for the Prime Minister is that she will lose increasing amounts of control the closer she gets to  D-Day. And then there is the strong chance Remainers in the Government will knock on the door and tell her to go, or face mass resignations.    

Likelihood rating: 3/5 

5) Cancel Brexit

It is worth including but it is not going to happen, not least because it wouldn’t get through Parliament. Jeremy Corbyn wouldn’t support it and it would end in a bloodbath for the Conservatives at the next election.

Likelihood rating: 0/5 

6) Hold a series of indicative votes

The problem at the moment is that MPs cannot decide between themselves as to what to do. Mrs May could announce next week that she will hold a series of indicative votes in an effort to build a consensus.

There have already been discussions with Labour MPs in leave constituencies – the likes of John Mann and Caroline Flint – but given the splits within her own party, Mrs May will probably need Jeremy Corbyn to whip his MPs to support her next move.

A softer Brexit pushed through by Labour MPs will damage the Tory brand and cause uproar amongst leavers within her own party. And for a Labour leadership focused on a general election, it is not particularly desirable to let the PM off the hook. But then the Labour leader won’t exactly relish a second referendum and the implications for his unity within his own party. 

Likelihood rating: 3/5

A demonstrator calls for Theresa May to resign
A demonstrator calls for Theresa May to resign. Picture: PA

7) Resign

This is the last thing the Prime Minister is going to do. Theresa May had wanted the chance to implement her own domestic agenda to resolve the burning injustices she saw in society when she walked in to Number 10 in July 2016. That won’t happen now.

Brexit is her mission, and it is one she is determined to fulfil. But there has been speculation in recent days that her most senior aides are looking for a way out once the first stage of Brexit is over. If this happens, Mrs May would then have to revive her office with fresh staff and impetus to complete the lengthy and tortuous trade negotiations, not to mention deliver on her reforms to the social care system and education. A seemingly impossible ask.

Likelihood rating: 0/5 before Brexit, 4/5 after Brexit

The EU has a simple message on the Brexit deal: Like it or lump it

Jean-Claude Juncker has described the prime minister as “nebulous and imprecise” as she tries to seek assurances on the backstop.

Mr Juncker has called Theresa May a woman of 'great courage'
Image:Mr Juncker has called Theresa May a woman of ‘great courage’

‘You called me nebulous!’: Theresa May angrily confronts Jean-Claude Juncker

Sky News
Brexit blow for Theresa May as EU leaders say there will be no renegotiation

Sky NewsBrexit blow for Theresa May as EU leaders say there will be no renegotiation

Dominic Waghorn, Diplomatic editor, Sky News|AIWA! NO!|There was plenty of distracting detail in this summit.

A spat about the word “nebulous” and a tense Juncker-May encounter played out for the cameras.

But in terms of substance? This summit added up to one simple message from the EU: The deal is the deal.

It is what it is.

Like it or lump it and accept the consequences.

May came here hoping to be thrown a bone – some diplomatic slack she could take home with her to persuade MPs to drag her deal across the line.

Video:Watch: May and Juncker face off in Brussels

There was, according to some reports, a draft conclusion agreed between the EU and the UK giving the PM some politically comforting words.

They would have included a promise to carry on working towards assurances on the agreement.

And there would be an acknowledgement that no one believes the use of the Irish border backstop is a “desirable outcome”.

But those lines, innocuous as they were, were ripped out, according to some reports because the Dutch, French and Belgians feared they would only encourage the Brexiteers to ask for more.

Video:May on ‘robust’ discussion with Juncker

Others claim the final conclusions were hardened because the prime minister did an appalling job persuading European leaders she had a plan to get them all out of the unholy mess they are all now in.

But whatever the details, the outcome of this summit remains the same.

The withdrawal agreement will not be renegotiated.

Work will go on towards seeking assurances about the backstop, but it will be cosmetic.

By day’s end there were warm words from Mr Juncker and the President of the European Council Donald Tusk.

At the closing press conference they paid tribute to the prime minister’s courage and said they remained at her disposal.

But they were sugaring the pill.

Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker at the summit in Brussels
Image:Mrs May and Jean-Claude Juncker at the summit in Brussels

Mrs May goes home with nothing substantial to show for her mad dash around Europe.

At some point soon probably next month, she may have to say: “I have run out of options, here is the deal, hold your noses and vote for it, or risk losing everything.”

That jeopardy will not be the same for everyone.

For Brexiteers the risk will be events moving towards a second referendum and Brexit never happening.Force leaders to debate on TVMore than 120,000 people have signed the petition – have you?

The rest will fear the clock running out and a “no-deal” Brexit happening by default.

EU leaders have used this summit deliberately to raise those stakes.

One source told The Times: “We want all parties and factions in the British parliament to feel the bleak mid-winter.”

In other words, Brussels is deliberately blowing a chill wind through Westminster hoping it will concentrate the minds of MPs and get them behind the deal or else.

Plenty for our politicians to mull over this Christmas.