Under pressure from France’s president Macron, the Brexit delay to 31 October is shorter than Donald Tusk, the EU’s president, and many government heads thought desirable – though still considerably longer than Theresa May consistently said was acceptable.
Its impact may well be to turn the Tories into the no-deal Brexit party and Labour into the referendum party, via a change of Tory leader and even a general election. Here’s how and why.
What was agreed late last night poses an immediate and important question for MPs and ministers, because there is an explicit opportunity for the UK to avoid participating in the EU election by leaving without a deal on 1 June.
This is how the EU council conclusions put it:
“If the UK is still a Member of the EU on 23-26 May 2019 and if it has not ratified the Withdrawal Agreement by 22 May 2019, it must hold the elections to the European Parliament in accordance with Union law. If the United Kingdom fails to live up to this obligation, the withdrawal will take place on 1 June 2019”.
For those Tory Brexiters who would prefer that the UK leaves without a deal, this represents a tantalising prospect; they might even see it as the most generous offer the EU has made to date.
It also puts the PM in a difficult spot – given that she has said she could not “as Prime Minister” consider a Brexit delay beyond 30 June.
May will use the deadline to put pressure on MPs to agree the Withdrawal Agreement and the associated legislation by 22 May, so that in practice the UK would Brexit on 1 June with a deal, in a managed and controlled way.
But she knows – as Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell confirmed on my show last night – that talks with Labour on a compromise Brexit deal are not going well enough for her to have any confidence her deal can be approved in time.