Both of Britain’s major parties, under pressure from their own members, have significantly shifted their stances on Brexit in the past few days. The end result is still unclear, but the upshot is that a chaotic “no-deal” Brexit at the end of March is now less likely.
Prime Minister Theresa May said Tuesday that if the House of Commons does not approve a new Brexit deal by March 13, a vote would be held on whether to reject a “no-deal” Brexit. Parliament overwhelmingly rejected May’s proposed deal in January, so if no further action is taken, Britain will leave the EU on March 29 without any agreement on future economic relations with the EU. Although some Brexit proponents favor that scenario, economists warn it would be massively disruptive to British businesses and consumers.
If the no-deal Brexit is rejected, then Parliament will vote the following day, March 14, on whether to ask the EU for an extension. May did not say whether her government would support an extension under these circumstances—she did say Britain would “ultimately make a success of a no deal” if it had to—nor did she say how long an extension would be (probably only about three months, since Britain wants to be out of the EU before a new European Parliament is seated in July).
There’s also still uncertainty about how the government, even if given more time, plans to solve the maddening problem of removing Britain from a customs union with the EU while avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Still, this is a major shift: Until recently, May refused to even entertain the possibility of an extension.
May’s shift came a day after Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn said his party would support a new referendum on whether to leave the EU if his party fails to win approval for its own proposal, which includes a permanent customs union with Europe. (It is very likely to fail.) Corbyn, not a particularly enthusiastic backer of the EU to begin with, has been reluctant to back a new referendum, despite growing calls for one within his party.
Those calls became louder last week when eight Labour MPs, all of whom back a new EU referendum, quit to form the new Independent Group within Parliament. In addition to his approach to Brexit, the defectors also blame Corbyn for fostering a climate of anti-Semitism within the party. They have since been joined by three Conservative MPs angry over May’s “disastrous handling” of Brexit.
The defection of these moderates no doubt put pressure both party leaders to switch their positions. But neither decision has brought Britain any closer to a resolution to this crisis. Some commentators suggested Tuesday that a no-deal Brexit could actually be more likely now, since Parliament probably won’t suddenly reach consensus if given just a few more months, and it’s less likely May will be able to get a second extension from Brussels. The clock is still ticking, but perhaps for a bit longer now.
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