Margaret Thatcher became famously associated with the phrase “There is no alternative” in arguments for the necessity of free-market reforms. An update of the phrase for Thatcher’s successor, Theresa May, might go something like “There is no alternative (unless this doesn’t work out, in which case we’ll come up with something else.)”
Last week, Parliament voted for May to ask the EU for an extension of the Article 50 process under which Britain is currently due to leave the European Union on March 29, whether or not it has a deal for future economic relations with the bloc. May’s government had previously said the deadline could not be extended but reversed itself after Parliament twice rejected the deal she had negotiated with EU leaders then also rejected a “no-deal” Brexit. But May attached conditions to the extension motion: She would put up her controversial deal for a third vote this week. If it was approved this time, she would ask for just a short three-month extension to finalize the details. If it wasn’t, she would ask for a longer delay.
Except that isn’t what happened at all. On Monday, the speaker of Parliament, John Bercow, refused to allow a third vote on May’s deal unless substantial changes were made to it, citing a precedent dating back to the 17th century that a defeated motion can’t be brought back for a vote in the same parliamentary session. (The second motion was apparently different enough from the first to satisfy him.)
Given this setback, you might suspect that May would ask for a long extension—which is what she said she’d do if her deal was not approved—but instead she asked for only a three-month delay, blaming Bercow for the fact that the deal wasn’t approved this week and expressing confidence that she can get it done next week. European Council President Donald Tusk announced Wednesday that an extension was possible, but the EU would approve it only after Parliament approves May’s withdrawal agreement. So essentially, the prime minister and the EU are working together to strongarm Parliament into approving their deal, hoping the looming threat of a no-deal Brexit (the deadline is next Friday!) can bring enough MPs around.
It might. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leading Brexiteer in May’s Conservative Party, has suggested he might back her deal on a third vote. The deadline will also put some pressure on May’s coalition partners in the Democratic Union Party. The Northern Irish DUP hates May’s deal, which would leave Britain in a customs union with Europe for the time being, but the party really doesn’t want a no-deal Brexit that, it’s feared, could lead to the imposition of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.
Then again, is it really just May’s deal or no deal? May and Tusk clearly want MPs to think so, but Tusk’s statement did not definitively rule out a longer-than-three-month extension, as the Spectator’s James Forsyth notes. Tusk also suggested he might call an emergency meeting of the European Council next week if the deal fails in Parliament. This makes it difficult for MPs to know what exactly will happen if they don’t approve May’s deal next week. There might be an alternative, we just don’t know what it is.