Robert Peston

Theresa May has picked the day on which Brexit will live or die

Theresa May has picked the day on which Brexit will live or die
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It is playing out just as Olly Robbins - the civil servant negotiating Brexit for the PM - told his mates it would in that Brussels bar, as overheard by my ITV colleague Angus Walker.

Because the PM has just said that she will not put a reworked Brexit deal to MPs for a vote till 12 March.

Well actually she said “we will ensure that happens by 12 March” - which probably means on 12 March.

And that in turn means MPs will face what may be their last chance to decide whether the UK leaves the EU with a deal desperately close to the wire, 17 days before the fateful moment of no return, Brexit day on 29 March.

May was speaking to journalists in the traditional airplane “huddle”, as she travelled with Robbins and her ambassador to the EU Tim Barrow for informal Brexit talks with EU leaders in Egypt (of all places), where a summit between the EU and the League of Arab States is taking place.

The PM has chosen 12 March for two reasons.

First the date is before the day scheduled by the Cooper Letwin plan for a commons vote on legislation to delay Brexit.

So in theory, MPs would be voting on her deal knowing that if they reject it, they could force her to return to Brussels to beg EU leaders to delay the moment we leave the EU.

Now this will be seen by some Brexiters as the prime minister adopting the Machiavelli playbook.

Because the PM will in essence be saying to her Brexiter critics in the ERG “back my deal or risk seeing Brexit postponed, perhaps forever”.

She will be defining the choice as her Brexit or a delayed Brexit that could morph into no Brexit - which is what Robbins also swaggered about in that Brussels bar.

Her hope is only a few Tory Brexiters would ultimately take the risk of Brexit never happening and that most would at the last vote even for her reviled Withdrawal Agreement.

Of course for this helpful moment of truth to materialise for May, MPs would have to do what the PM claims she does not want them to do, which is to vote for the Cooper Letwin amendment on Wednesday that would then put legislation to delay Brexit to Parliament.

Hilariously, the PM does not actually want to delay Brexit - but she would like MPs to prepare the ground for a delay to Brexit, so that she can use this as a rod to beat the ERG.

All of which creates big dilemmas for Labour and other opposition parties when deciding on whether to back the Cooper Letwin amendment this week - in that in doing so they would improve the chances of the PM ultimately securing parliamentary backing for her deal, which is a deal they hate.

In other words the PM has set up Wednesday’s vote on Cooper Letwin as of massive historic importance.

Because of course if Cooper Letwin flops, the rejection of her reworked deal on 12 March would see no-deal Brexit as the default option, rather than Brexit delay or no Brexit.

And that brings me to the second reason why 12 March is the last felicitous date for her: it is the eve of the Chancellor’s spring statement. That statement would take on a whole new significance if her deal was voted down and we faced the economic shock of a no-deal Brexit - and Philip Hammond would presumably use it to point towards an emergency budget shortly after, to cushion the expected blow to our prosperity from that earthquake of a démarche.

So for an orderly negotiated Brexit, 12 March is the ides - the day it lives or dies, one way or another.

P.S. A senior member of the government tells me the PM is sincere in not wanting Tory MPs to vote for Cooper Letwin.

But he adds that the PM is working on an alternative plan to prove to the Brexiters of the ERG that they don’t get a no-deal Brexit if they kill her deal - since it is the very prospect of building what they see as the heaven of no deal in our green and pleasant land that motivates some of them to eviscerate her plan.

My source implies she will tell MPs, and us, her plan to rule out no deal on Tuesday. But given the multiplicity of times she has refused to countenance even a short delay to Brexit this feels a bit like a unicorn in May’s clothing.

Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his Facebook page

Written byRobert Peston

Robert Peston is a British journalist, presenter, and founder of the education charity Speakers for Schools. He is the Political Editor of ITV News and host of the weekly political discussion show Peston.

Topics in this articlePoliticsbrexituk politics