Week in Review: Suddenly, we kind of know what's going on

This morning, the world was full of certainty. It flipped just like that.

Yesterday evening we were awash in the same old uncontrollable variables, drowning in them, not knowing whether we'd fall out on no-deal next week, or if the EU would accept a change from Westminster, or what on earth Theresa May would do if it came to the cliff edge. And today, our clothes have dried out, we're on land, the sun has come out, and we can see several things quite clearly.

Everything's relative of course. We're still in a chaotic muddle of national horror. But it's a bit better than it was before.

The first thing we know is the timetable. After late-night talks yesterday, the EU has offered a flexible extension. If May somehow passes her deal, Article 50 is extended until 22 May, the day before the European elections. If not, it is extended until April 12th, the last date at which Britain can pass legislation for taking part in those elections.

As ever, the elections are the singular point in the future through which all the alternate timelines converge. You cannot stay an EU member state, even in Article 50, without taking part. But you can if you do. So if Britain comes up with some kind of plan and agrees to take part in the vote, it can extend to the end of the year and possibly longer.

This was as good an offer as we were likely to get from the EU. It actually showed a remarkable degree of patience. It was one last opportunity for MPs to find some nerve and take control.

But it was also an act of self-preservation. They weren't going to get landed with the blame for no-deal. They compromised where possible and did not where it wasn't. Now the ball is back in our court.

As a side point, it is quite dispiriting to see how effectively, sensibly and fairly these 27 different countries can work together, to tight time frames, when we cannot even get that degree of performance out of our Cabinet. But that is another matter, for another time.

The timetable is now set. Unless something is done by April 12th, we fall out the EU with no-deal. This date cannot be moved. It is hard as a rock. There will be no more extensions.

We know something else too: the prime minister is a busted flush. There is no secret plan going on in her head. There are no hidden depths, no alternate strategies. She is completely absent.

This should've been obvious for ages, but her deadening manner has a weird effect on the brain. It somehow suggests there is a master plan behind the surface. She gives so little away, you presume there is something there to conceal. But there isn't. There's nothing. She is the packaging for a product which does not exist.

Consider the last few weeks. She  pursued a work-down-the-clock strategy immediately followed by a humiliating request for more time. Just let that sink in for one moment. Her behaviour makes no sense on its own terms.

This week, she alienated the MPs she needs to pass her deal, in a bid to appeal to a public who she will not allow to vote on it. That is simply nuts. It makes no sense.

The same was true behind closed doors. Last night she gave EU leaders a 90-minute speech - those poor people - on her extension request. "It was 90 minutes of nothing," one EU source told the Guardian. "She didn’t even give clarity if she is organising a vote. Asked three times what she would do if she lost the vote, she couldn't say. It was fucking awful. Dreadful. Evasive even by her standards." Another said: "She was not convincing. It was not clear if she had a plan B; it was not clear if she had a plan at all."

There is, on a basic objective level, no point listening to the words that come out the prime minister's mouth. On Wednesday, MPs were the enemies of the people. Yesterday, they had "difficult jobs to do". Last week, MPs were going to be given indicative votes. This week, those votes had already been rejected. Last week, she put forward a motion on a long or short extension. This week she said she would only ask for a short one. Nothing she says means anything. You can't believe a word of it, good or bad.

So that's the second certainty: May has nothing else to offer. The government is dead. It has no plans and no idea what to do.

Put these two certainties together and you get a third: The EU have passed the ball back and provided the timetable. The government is dead and cannot catch it. So it follows that there is only one way out this mess: parliament.

It's easy to be cynical. They have had plenty of other opportunities to grasp this moment, even in such stark circumstances and with a prime minister so transparently not up to the job. But it is also wrong, on the basis of the evidence.

On Monday, Oliver Letwin and Hilary Benn will put forward an amendment for MPs to take control of the parliamentary timetable. This same amendment was defeated by only two votes last time. That is plainly winnable. And after the changes we've seen since last week - May's duplicitousness, her attack on MPs, and the clear offer provided by Europe - you would expect it to pass this time.

There is then, finally, a positive structure in place for how to proceed. It doesn't solve everything. We still need to find a majority for an alternative. But with MPs formally in charge, no-deal fades as a prospect, and the deadening hand of the government is finally removed from the wheel. Now we just need to hope they take it, because if they don't the only certainty left is that this country is about to take a severe beating.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Black Thursday: Britain humiliated on global stage as it begs EU for more time

We're not in the room when they decide what happens to us. First Theresa May will make a short speech. Then she leaves and the leaders of 27 other countries make a decision. We wait outside. That's how Britain finds out what happens to it. It's taken just three years - three years of nationalism and political puritanism - to reduce the country to this status.

May's previous speeches have often managed to turn otherwise sympathetic European leaders against her. They don't appear to be any better behind closed doors than they are in front of cameras. In both instances they lack charisma, or intellectual content, or even a hint of personal responsibility. She cannot think creatively about problems. She cannot lay out a convincing case for how to proceed with them. All she can do is blame other people - the EU, opposition parties, the House of Lords, or the institution of parliament itself - for her own failings. Expecting her to live up to the historical moment is like asking an old Casio calculator to log on to the internet.

As it happens, the EU leaders will probably reject the offer of a June extension and fix it to the month of May. It doesn't matter. The prime minister is unlikely to get her Brexit deal through next week, so it's largely academic. The crucial moment will come next week, if it is defeated, as we find out whether they will meet again and provide a longer extension. We expect the answer to be yes, but we are no longer in control of our fate. Other countries decide it for us.

This is the core fact of today: our fate in the hands of others. It is very real and genuinely profound. When else were we brought so low? Which other moment in our modern lifetime ever saw us so humiliated? Suez? That was nothing. A bad-tempered chat with the Americans which made it clear we couldn't run the world anymore. Denis Healey asking the IMF for an emergency loan? Black Wednesday? These were drops in the ocean next to what is happening to us here. We are living through history - and not the good kind. We're living the kind that even in 20 or 30 years' time, people will say: 'Well this is bad, but it's not as bad as Brexit.'

The causes of today's events are many and varied. The government wasted time it did not have. MPs were unable to accept the practical consequences of a theoretical course of action they were intent on pursuing. There was insufficient preparation. There was a preference for echo chamber reassurance instead of cold, hard calculation. We fiddled and bickered as the fire took hold.

Remainers want to blame everything on Brexit as a concept. Leavers want to blame how it was pursued. But the reality is that both ends and means have been terrible.

Brexit involves leaving a membership-based regulatory super-power, with huge trading strength, which functions according to the strict and unyielding implementation of law. You are always going to have less control outside than you do in. If Brexit happens, that'll be the case for all sorts of decisions, from the coding on driverless cars to best practice in medical trials. We'll do the same as they do, just to keep life ticking away as easily as possible. The only thing that will have changed is that we won't be in the room making the decisions anymore. Today is just a particularly dramatic, system-wide application of the basic principle which is set to govern our future as a nation: self-imposed exile from power.

But even if you did decide to pursue this project, there are good ways to do it and bad ways. The good way is to come up with a set of deliverable goals and a realistic timetable. The government did not do that. The goals it set were largely impossible - such as maintaining the exact same benefits as single market membership while leaving it - and the timetable was established on the basis of domestic political concerns rather than a disinterested assessment of what was required. This is what happens when you fixate on pleasuring the most hysterical and right-wing elements of your party instead of thinking about the good of your country.

Cooler heads warned about this moment for years: when the result came in, when Article 50 was triggered, when the government refused to be honest about the obstacles in front of it, when May wasted time on a pointless election or ran down the clock in the last few weeks. This is precisely the moment they feared: A proud country, reduced to begging. Brexit is an outrage to the status of Britain. It is an act of national mutilation.

But it is also a reminder, in these final pivotal moments of the Article 50 process, of what's at stake. The power, reputation and pride of the country is on the line. The primary argument against Brexit has always been a patriotic one. And today shows why that is. You can run from that truth. You can hide from it. But there's no place left anymore. It is plain for all to see. The bleak, drab, pitiless reality of what this project entails is now visible to the world. It can still be stopped, and it must be.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Article 50 bombshell: May's cowardice is driving us over the cliff edge

There's only two things you can rely on with Theresa May: She lies and she buckles. If there were such a thing as 'Mayology, it would be a strategic approach which somehow aimed to mislead and capitulate until victory had been achieved. What a way to run a country, even at the best of times. And these are certainly not the best of times.

This morning, No.10 confirmed to journalists that it is only going to ask for a short extension to Article 50, probably with a request to extend to July 1st.

This means the prime minister has misled parliament, once again. Last week she put forward a motion saying the government would seek an extension of Article 50 and that two types were available. One, if her deal was passed by this week, was a short extension. The other, if it hadn't been, was a long extension.

The wording was sneaky. It stated "that the government will seek to agree with the EU an extension". But the description of the long extension was different to that of the short extension. If MPs agreed a deal, No.10 would "seek to agree" a short extension. But if they didn't, it merely noted that "it is highly likely that the European Council at its meeting the following day would require a clear purpose for any extension". You can see the wriggle room there quite clearly.

However, not all statements were so mercurial. The factual note accompanying the motion, issued for MPs by the Brexit department before parliament voted, stated plainly that the government "seeks parliament's approval to request an extension". It then said "there are two possible types". One was the short extension. The other was the long extension. Today, the government is claiming there are no two possible types - there is only one, the short extension. This is a fundamental change from what was described.

The same is true of statements to the Commons by the minister for the Cabinet Office, David Liddington. During last week's debate, he said: "If the House has not come together around a deal by Thursday next week, the only viable extension would be a long one. That is the choice that we face and the responsibility that we must now shoulder." The House has not come together around a deal. But suddenly it is not the choice they face. It is not the responsibility they must shoulder.

His speech gets more damning the more you read He went on:

"In the absence of a deal, seeking such a short and, critically, one-off extension would be downright reckless and completely at odds with the position that this House adopted only last night, making a no-deal scenario far more, rather than less, likely."

So by its own words, the government is now pursuing a course of action which it recognises goes against its statements to MPs and a vote of the House of Commons against no-deal.

You can, if you want, get your magnifying glass out, press your face up close and try to find the wriggle room there. But what a dismal way to spend a life, trying to find excuses for a deceptive government. The reality is this: No.10 misled the Commons. No reasonable person would ever believe that that motion, with that document and that ministerial statement, would translate into the extension request that the prime minister is telling journalists she'll make today. 

Why is the government changing its tune? Because the Brexit hardliners are threatening revolt. And every time they threaten revolt, she buckles, no matter the consequences. No matter even if it sabotages her entire plan of action. No matter that it threatens the country with disaster. She is simply incapable of leadership.

Caving now effectively kills her own ability to pass her deal. Her whole plan, which showed flickers of success last week, was to get Brexiter Tories onside by comparing it with no-Brexit. But now she has capitulated completely. She is taking a long extension off the table.

The no-deal fanatics have March 29th in sight. They are close to the line. Even if there is a short extension, the legal structures are in their favour. Britain needs to take action by April 11th to participate in the European elections. If it does not, the deadline of the short extension become immoveable. May will fight participation with everything she can. Labour probably doesn't have the bravery to challenge her. And then we're set for no-deal.

The ERG can now smell it, their deranged nirvana of pain. They have lost any motivation to back her deal. Buckling to them now is like sacrificing a queen to save a pawn. She's given up her strategy to preserve a tactic.

She is the least-resistance prime minister. We got saddled with a leader who will always bend to what the most maniac voices in her party demand, just when the consequences of doing so are at their most dangerous. 

It may very well be too late now, but the only way out is for MPs to take control. They failed to do this last week, by just two votes. This is the consequence. The promises the government makes are worthless. They disappear as soon as they are made. They cannot be trusted. Parliament must take over.

If MPs seize control of the timetable, and show a structure on holding indicative votes for a way forward, it might just be in time to convince the EU there is still a way out of this mess. If not, they are clearly close to triggering the no-deal arrangements, either this month or in the summer. We are staring no-deal in the face.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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