Richard North, 14/01/2019  

Relying on that trusted journalistic device, the anonymous EU official, the Guardian is telling us that the EU is expecting Tuesday's vote to fail and is thus preparing to delay Brexit until at least July.

According to this narrative, the EU is expecting a request from Mrs May to extend the two-year Article 50 period and will convene a special European Council to consider the matter.

We are then told that the extension period offered will depend on the reason given for the delay. Initially, a "technical" extension until July might be the first step, set to give Mrs May breathing space "to revise and ratify the current deal once Downing Street has a clear idea as to what will command a majority in the Commons".

Then we get the fabled "senior EU sources" who say that a further, lengthier extension could be offered at a later date should a general election or second referendum be called, notwithstanding that the May elections for the European Parliament would create complications.

All this, though, is unsupported speculation and only one variation of the many different strains that are swirling around Westminster, keeping the hacks entertained while they wait for the vote of the century.

However, while no one can know what Mrs May's intentions might be in the event of parliament refusing to ratify the withdrawal deal, there is a certain amount of logic in the EU being prepared to consider an Article 50 extension. Despite what the likes of Jean Marc Puissesseau have said most recently, it is very clear that the continentals (and the Irish) are not ready for a no-deal Brexit, and they could always use the extra time.

That is not to say that the European Parliament would necessarily be keen on the idea. The very last thing they want is a new contingent of Ukip MEPs showing up, and they thought they had got rid of Farage for good.

But since the parliament doesn't really get going until late August, after the elections, a July cut-off might be tolerable. Any longer might have MEPs throwing a strop, themselves threatening to refuse to ratify the withdrawal treaty and thus precipitating a "no deal" departure when the Article 50 end point is finally reached.

In the meantime, Mrs May is swanning up to Stoke-on-Trent today to deliver a speech to the bemused workers of some factory or another. There, she will warn that parliament is more likely to block Brexit than to allow the UK to crash out of the EU without a deal.

That is the meme that seems to be circulating, relying on the premise that there will be an attempt made to repeal the Withdrawal Act, thus removing the formal reference to the departure date from the statute book.

Why, as some think, this could block the UK from leaving the EU is hard to imagine. The UK's departure, as we reminded readers yesterday, is mandated by EU law, to which UK law is subordinate. It is seriously worrying that so many MPs still seem to have so little understanding of EU mechanisms that they believe that their actions can have any direct (or even indirect) impact on Brexit.

Nevertheless, it seems that the pitch that Mrs May wants to sell the nation is one of do or die: her way or no way at all. This perhaps is more scary than the idea of a no-deal which is just what the "ultras" want and a goodly proportion of the population is yearning for.

There is a possibility here that Mrs May is on her way to sidelining the ERG once again, having already neutralised their threat to her premiership. If the "ultras" so desperately want this to be a contest between her deal and no deal, in the expectation that the no-deal is the winning hand.

Certainly, they are still pushing their nostrums for all they are worth, the latest iteration being a tawdry, multi-author pamphlet asserting that: "No Deal is the Best Deal for Britain".

Predictably, their usual techniques are at play, with copious use of the same lies on which they have been relying for so long. For instance, we see repeated the false claim about sanitary and phytosanitary inspections "at facilities physically separate from ports to avoid congestion".

The example of Rotterdam is cited, where the distance of the Border Inspection Post has increased from the original claim of "up to 20 km from the docks themselves" to a more convenient "40 km away at Rotterdam". And, while EU law mandates that 50 percent of consignments comprising foods of animal origin should be physically inspected, the ERG asserts that less than ten percent of such shipments are actually inspected.

Despite their lies (or, perhaps, because of them), they have the support of a dozen former cabinet ministers, including Johnson, David Davis and Dominic Raab. These are urging Tory MPs to vote down Mrs May's deal and leave the EU on WTO terms.

Unsurprisingly, they are not getting it all their own way. According to the Telegraph, "pro-EU MPs" are planning to raise the stakes by publishing draft legislation to force a second referendum, the intention being – as it always has been - to reverse the result of the 2016 vote.

This is a cross-party group of MPs, with Dominic Grieve prominent amongst them, which apparently wants Mrs May to give parliament "a greater say" in deciding how Britain leaves the EU. With Lib-Dem leader Sir Vince Cable and Lord Lisvane, the former clerk of the House of Commons, supporting them, they want Mrs May to respond to her failure to them rather than the "ultras".

The outcome of their endeavours, they hope, is another referendum where voters are given the choice between Mrs May's deal or staying in the EU. That would put us back in the realm of seeking an Article 50 extension, the purpose being to give the time to hold the referendum.

So, we are descending into a complex realm where we have a three-way punt: Mrs May's negotiated withdrawal agreement, a no-deal withdrawal on "WTO terms" and an option of returning to the fold via a referendum.

Somewhere in all that is also the "Norway group" which is pushing for a "Norway-style" solution of its own making, which actually solves nothing and has nowhere to go. This was the one solution that could have had a chance in intelligent hands, if introduced at the right time. But it has been so compromised by weak minds that it is no longer a viable proposition.

At the start of the Brexit process, way back in June 2016, I could not have begun to imagine that we would end up more than 30 months later with not one choice but three, and with no majority for any of them. And with none of the three anywhere close to optimum, we might be better off throwing dice to determine the outcome. Certainly, we've given up any expectations of our MPs making a coherent decision.

Nor, I fear, does it look likely that the issue will be resolved with the vote on Tuesday. This looks to be just an opening gambit, from which as yet unidentified plays could emerge.

Unfortunately, not enough MPs seem to realise that we are playing with fire. As Pete remarks, the only really coherent choice is for Mrs May's deal, "like it or lump it", and it is the measure of how far our politics have deteriorated that our MPs will turn it down.

It is another measure that, when I wrote Flexcit, I devoted minimal space to the WTO option because I thought I didn't need to. It was so self-evidently flawed that I thought that no sensible person could even think of opting for it. Yet here we have a bunch of Tories pushing for it, floating their arguments on a raft of lies.

What is appropriate in all this though is that, for all the posturing and prancing, the EU will probably have the last word – but not the EU of today. It will be the EU of 2003 which dreamt up the European Constitution that morphed into the Lisbon Treaty containing Article 50. It ensured that the price of indecision would be written into that Article, with the automatic departure from the EU in the event that the withdrawal agreement is not ratified.

Thus, whatever the aspirations of the protagonists, when the vote goes the way expected on Tuesday, one certainty we will be able to confront is that we are now closer to a no-deal withdrawal.

Relying on another referendum is a huge gamble that could lead us to the same destination, so the one thing that should happen is the parliamentary ratification of the withdrawal agreement – the one thing that we can be sure that won't happen.

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