Richard North, 25/02/2019  

You can't necessarily assume that Mrs May knows what she's doing – there have been no signs of that so far. But, at least, we now know what she intends to do.

As widely forecast, she's ducking the vote on Wednesday and is now setting the date for the second attempt at ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement for the 12 March – a mere 17 days before Brexit. This is now being regarded as the last chance for MPs to decide whether the UK leaves the EU with a deal.

Presumably – seeing that there's so much talk of it in the air, that will also give Mrs May the opportunity to request an Article 50 extension at the European Council on 21-22 March.

Then, depending on who you want to believe, there are several possible scenarios. In the event that the MPs don't ratify the deal, Mrs May will (or will be forced) to seek a delay to Brexit for two months. The former will be "in a bid to avoid resignations by ministers determined to support a backbench bid to take no deal off the table this week".

In the event that parliament does ratify the deal, however, Mrs May could still be calling on the European Council to delay Brexit for a similar period but in this case because she needs the time in order to enact the implementing legislation.

On the other hand, we could be looking at an entirely new twist involving the 21-month transition period being abandoned and replaced with an Article 50 extension that takes us to the end of 2020.

This idea, according the Guardian is gaining traction as the EU's default position in the event that MPs continue to reject the Withdrawal Agreement, with the extra time allowing the UK and the EU to negotiate their future relationship with the aim of making the contentious Irish backstop redundant.

Brussels, we are told, doesn't want a situation where it agrees a short extension, only to have to revisit the issue in the summer when the government again fails to win the support of parliament.

One of those wonderful anonymous EU diplomats picks up the thread, saying that, "If leaders see any purpose in extending, which is not a certainty given the situation in the UK, they will not do a rolling cliff-edge but go long to ensure a decent period to solve the outstanding issues or batten down the hatches".

This, of course, would mean that the UK continued to be a full member of the European Union and would thus stay on board for the multi-annual financial framework discussions, taking part in determining the budget for the next seven years.

Although Martin Selmayr, the European Commission's powerful secretary-general, is said to be keen on the idea, it would have to gain the support of all 27 Member States and the backing of Mrs May, her cabinet and the UK parliament.

With that, it seems unlikely that, even if Mrs May and her cabinet went for it, parliament would buy it – or, at least, the ERG faction. This might seem like kicking the can too far down the road, leading to fears that it is a back-door mechanism to keep us in the EU.

Nevertheless, there is exasperation in Brussels with Mrs May's handling of Brexit. A "senior insider" puts the chance of the UK crashing out without a deal at "more than 50 percent", while "informed sources" say there is dismay that senior government figures are focused on seeking domestic political advantage and appear wilfully blind to the opposition to reopening the withdrawal agreement.

Even then, there is no guarantee, or anything close, that a 21-month extension would solve the outstanding issues. Not only is there no domestic consensus over the withdrawal agreement but there is no common position on what kind of trading relationship we want with the EU.

Furthermore, it has long been acknowledged that the 21-month transitional period allowed barely enough time to negotiate a longer-term trade deal, hence the provision for an extension. Should the transitional period be transmuted into continued membership, the need for an extension would not disappear. We could end up still being members for another five years.

All this, though, seems to be somewhat academic. Mrs May is still pursuing her quest for legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, despite being told countless times that the EU is not prepared to re-open negotiations. And with that in mind, the UK negotiating team is due back in Brussels tomorrow, determined to achieve the impossible.

This creates an air of unreality, which is reinforced by the multifarious plots and schemes being hatched in Westminster, each one seemingly more detached from the real world than the last. And while the London media may find the ongoing soap opera enthralling, beyond the M25, there is a growing belief that our elected representatives have retreated to another planet – along with the media which takes such delight in reporting their shenanigans.

Talk of resignations and sundry other preoccupations of the bubble simply have no resonance amongst the wider population which is becoming increasingly impatient with what they see as parlour games.

That much applies to the self-referential Independent Group which, inside the bubble is being hailed as a new beginning but actually comes over as more of the same, a repetition of the tired political paradigm which has so spectacularly failed to come to grips with Brexit.

It comes to something, therefore, when the government is actively considering a "hardship fund" to help people weather the effects of a no-deal Brexit, as well as protections for parts of the country "geographically vulnerable" to food shortages and the sourcing of alternative food for schools, prisons and hospitals.

Thus the damaging potential of a no-deal exit can be seen, yet there doesn't seem to be the political will to do something about it. We are lurching into the abyss, eyes wide shut, with no serious attempts being made to stave off the disaster.

What makes this possibly worse is that other Member States seem unperturbed by the prospect of a no-deal. In Germany, for instance, Brexit does not even rate the top ten of business priorities.

On top of that, Irish preparations for a no-deal are incomplete, with less than half of the customs officers planned to be hired to fill extra Brexit posts in place. Businesses, from earlier reports, seem even less prepared.

Where, however, uncertainty dominates, it is unsurprising that people are not focusing on the issues. It is so very difficult to make plans when there is no really firm base on which to make them. By the 12 March, though, things must surely change. If the Commons refuses to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement by then, those businesses which have not implemented their contingency plans will doubtless be taking stock.

And with that, not any of us could have guessed that our political establishment could so mishandle the Brexit process that we could be in such a position. It seems that the adults have taken a holiday and left the children in charge.

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