The rollercoaster week for British politics continued on Thursday, as a motion in Parliament enabling the government to seek an extension to the Brexit process has turned into an opportunity for MPs to seek alternatives, including a second referendum, and Parliament wresting control of the Brexit process from the government.
It came after the government suffered another significant and surprising defeat on Wednesday as MPs voted to reject a no-deal Brexit at any time, overriding the government’s initial motion that ruled out no-deal but only on March 29 and left open the possibility of it taking place at a later stage.
Speaker John Bercow has selected four amendments to the new government motion due to be voted on on Thursday evening, including one calling for a second referendum, with the choice of remaining in the EU as one of the options.
Another one — supported by the Labour Front bench — calls for the government to push for an extension to Article 50 even if the current withdrawal agreement (twice rejected by the House) is not agreed to in order to provide parliamentary time to find a “different approach.”
Another amendment calls for an extension and for Parliament to take over control of the timing of debates on March 20, and for the House to find a “way forward that commands a majority”. Controversially, an amendment that would rule out a referendum and backed by the right-wing European Research Group was not selected by the speaker.
The government’s motion on Thursday says the government will try to seek an extension from the EU to the Brexit process but places conditions on that extension. If Parliament passes the twice-rejected withdrawal agreement by the end of next week, then a “one off” extension period would be requested for the period till June 30.
If it isn’t passed, then it would be “highly likely” a longer extension would be needed requiring the U.K. to take part in European parliamentary elections in May this year.
Critics of the government believe the motion is an attempt by the government to pressure Brexiteers who have twice voted down her withdrawal agreement to cave in and back her deal next week to avoid the risk of a long delay or losing Brexit altogether.
The government has said it would only give MPs a series of indicative votes on alternative solutions if the agreement is rejected again next week.
However, Wednesday’s votes revealed the extent to which MPs and even Cabinet members were willing to defy the government. Several abstained during the key amendment on which the government was defeated on Wednesday, suggesting the extent to which authority has slipped from its hands.
There were gasps in the House of Commons chamber on Wednesday evening as the amendment by Caroline Spelman — a Conservative MP — scraped through by a margin of 4 (312 votes to 308). In a dramatic turn of events shortly before the vote, Ms. Spelman herself attempted to withdraw the amendment — which the government was ordering its MPs to vote against — but Mr. Bercow declined to do this automatically, insisting it could still be voted on if one of its other backers continue to press it. In a subsequent vote on the amended motion, MPs once again backed ruling out no deal by 321 to 278 votes.
However, an increasingly frustrated EU has expressed its scepticism about the value and meaning of these votes. For now, under current legislation, the default is for Britain to leave the EU without a deal on that date, unless a deal is struck, Article 50 is revoked or an extension is agreed by both sides. The EU has made clear that it will only agree to an extension if there is “credible” justification for it, and not simply for the political impasse in Parliament to continue. In addition some Brexit supporters — such as Nigel Farage — have been lobbying EU countries to veto any attempt by Britain to push for an extension.
European Council President Donald Tusk indicated he would seek support within the remaining EU 27 countries were the U.K. to seek a long extension to “rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it.”