An address to the nation, a letter to the President of the European. Council — and just over a week before, by law, we leave the EU. Let’s take these three facts in turn and consider what they mean.
The Prime Minister’s address was intended to frame everything else by placing it in the context of a power struggle between herself, Parliament and the people. Having failed to persuade Parliament, her pitch was to the people.
Theresa May apologised (in advance) for delaying Brexit, but blamed Parliament for having twice rejected her deal and then refused to vote on it a third time due to “political games” and “arcane procedural rows”. “You the public have had enough,” she declared, adding: “I am on your side. It is now for MPs to decide.” Mrs May is banking on the public taking her side against their elected representatives.
So far, so clear. But now we come to the letter to Donald Tusk. It begins with a brief history of how we got here. It then makes a series of promises and requests. First, the Prime Minister undertakes to bring her deal back to the House of Commons. She asks the European Council, which meets today, to approve the supplementary documents agreed between her and “President” Juncker. She also undertakes, “in the light of the outcome of the European Council”, to go back to the Commons “put forward a motion as soon as possible under Section 13 of the Withdrawal Act 2018 and make the argument for the orderly withdrawal and future strong partnership the UK economy, its citizens’ security and the continent’s future, demands.”
Mrs May asserts that, if this motion is passed, the deal will be ratified by Parliament. On that basis, she proceeds to ask the EU to approve “an extension to the Article 50 period…until 30 June 2019”. She is clear that this short extension is purely to enable her deal to be enacted in British law — not, for example, to pave the way for a second referendum.
We should note how conditional everything in this text actually is. It all depends on the EU Council agreeing to postpone Brexit — a big ask — and that in turn depends on our partners accepting the Prime Minister’s assurances that the Commons will, given time, tamely fall into line.
But why should the European Union — here embodied by the 27 leaders of the member states, not merely Tusk and Juncker — believe Mrs May? After all, they too will be aware of how Parliament has defied her so far, with even some of her own ministers treating her with open contempt. And they too will be aware of her televised address, going over the heads of MPs and calculated to enrage them. So why should the EU grant the request of a Prime Minister who appears to have lost control of her own Government?
This brings us to the third fact, the week remaining before March 29th. What do we know will happen, what are the known unknowns — and what are the unknown unknowns? We know that Mrs May is in Brussels today, an isolated debtor who has run out of credit, hoping that the Europeans won’t attach any additional conditions to the extension. She looks more like a prisoner pleading for a stay of execution than the leader of a great nation. The British people, for whose support against Parliament she has just appealed, will not be impressed by seeing their Prime Minister grovelling to foreign powers. Is it the fault of others that she must behave as a supplicant — or her own?
So much has to happen this week if the law is not to take its course and we are not to leave the EU next Friday. Operation Yellowhammer, the code name for contingency planning for no deal, has now been taken over by Cobra. This would cover emergency measures at ports and airports to keep supplies moving. A second plan, Operation Kingfisher, would inject a huge fiscal stimulus into the economy to forestall a recession.
Last night Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, the arch-Remainer Jonathan Powell, said on Newsnight that any government that left the EU without a deal would last “a few weeks” because the system simply couldn’t cope. We must hope and pray that Powell, who compared the likely chaos to the fuel crisis of 2000, is wrong and that the thousands of civil servants now preparing for a no deal Brexit are doing their jobs properly.
Nobody knows what will happen in the next 24 hours, let alone the next week. I have set out what we know. We also know that both the EU and Parliament may refuse to follow the Prime Minister’s script. But we must also leave open the possibility of entirely unforeseen events intervening over the coming days.
Mrs May has roused the sleeping giant of the British people. Who could blame them for taking to the streets? This Saturday there will be a huge march in London demanding a second referendum. On past performance, nothing untoward will happen. But there could be counter-demonstrations by those who are angry about the delay to Brexit. There is, unfortunately, still truth in the old cliché that a week is a long time in politics.