Sunday 24 February 2019 11:58 pm

With time running out for Theresa May’s deal, are we heading for a Brexit delay?

MPs will once again march through the voting lobbies in parliament on Wednesday to give their views on Brexit.

The motion put forward by Theresa May will only be an endorsement for her to carry on negotiating with Brussels in a bid to get legally binding changes to the Irish backstop plan.

However, there is another vote which will be of much more interest.

Could Yvette Cooper delay Brexit?

An amendment proposed by Labour’s Yvette Cooper would set the ball rolling on Brexit being delayed beyond 29 March in order to stop a ‘no deal’ outcome.

The amendment, which the Labour party has said it will back, would secure parliamentary time for a Bill to be put before MPs requiring the government to seek an extension to the Article 50 process if it hasn’t got a deal agreed by 13 March.

If the PM has not been able to get a withdrawal agreement through parliament by that date, she will have to request specific authority from the Commons to push ahead with ‘no deal’.

The Government Holds Cross Party Meetings To Break Brexit Deadlock
Yvette Cooper’s amendment would set the ball rolling on Brexit being delayed (Source: Getty)

If that authority is rejected – which it more than likely will be – May must bring forward another motion setting out for how long she wants to extend Article 50.

The main problem with this plan is time. Even if the Bill got through the Commons, it still needs to get signed off by the Lords.

Nikki Da Costa, May’s former legislative chief in Downing Street, believes it is “touch and go” as to whether Cooper’s plan will in place in time to stop a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

She told City AM: “The earliest it could get to the Lords is 4 March, unless they do it on the Friday.

“They will need to do all the stages in one sitting, although one sitting doesn’t mean one day.

“For Second Reading you could try to limit the debate, but then you get into the amendments… and every amendment has to be considered.”

In other words, Brexit-backing peers who want to thwart the Bill’s progress could put down a large number of amendments to run down the clock.

Would the EU agree to an extension?

Even if May asks for an extension – either by choice or because she is forced to by MPs – there is no guarantee the EU will agree to the move.

Any extension needs be agreed by all 27 member states, and there are two scenarios where such a move would be backed: to give the UK time to validate a deal and get through all the relevant legislation, or for a very limited time to try to salvage an agreement.

Anand Menon, director of Brexit think-tank The UK in a Changing Europe, told City A.M. the first option is most likely to be activated.

He said: “I think it will be really hard to try to wave through the Withdrawal Act Bill. It’s a massive piece of constitutional work to say the least. I don’t see how you do that.”

If May asks for a longer extension, some serious politicking could come into play, Menon suggested.

Time is quickly running out for a deal to be reached ahead of the UK’s set exit day (Source: Louis Ashworth)

“This is when people like Salvini, Orban and Macron might get involved,” he said. “They might use it as leverage to get something from the EU in return for backing an extension.”

Maddy Thimont Jack, a researcher at the Institute for Government, believes any such bargaining might be avoided, however, as a ‘no deal’ Brexit has risks beyond the trading relationship.

“A ‘no deal’ on security is a big deal for most member states,” she said.

There is no way for Brussels to extend the talks without the consent of all 27 member states, leading many people to view the European Summit in Brussels on March 21-22 as the crunch date for such a move.

However, Thimont Jack said the decision could be taken right up to the 11pm deadline on 29 March.

“It could be done by the permanent representatives of the EU,” she said.

How long would the extension be?

The likely end date for any extension would be 1 July. This is because on 2 July the new iteration of the European parliament sits for the first time, with elections having taken place between May 23-26.

If the talks are extended beyond 1 July, the UK would legally need to send representatives to sit in the European parliament, or face a legal challenge by its own citizens.

However, Thimont Jack believes May could still get away with not having European parliament elections.

MPs Vote On Amendments To Brexit Plan
The UK could face a legal challenge from its own citizens if it remains in the EU past July without appointing MEPs (Source: Getty)

“The UK could just appoint representatives. There are a few different ways to get around it,” she said.

The forgotten parliament

While the focus has been on May getting any agreement through the UK parliament, MEPs also have to rubber-stamp the deal.

According to analysis by the House of Commons Library: “The final sitting of the outgoing EP [European Parliament] before the elections is scheduled for 18 April. This creates a further complication given that the EP’s consent is required for the Withdrawal Agreement. The original intention within the EP was to wait until the House of Commons approved the agreement before holding its own vote. However, the possibility of holding an EP vote irrespective of progress in the UK is now being mooted.”

If the deal needs be signed off between the European parliament dissolving on 18 April and the new one forming on 2 July, MEPs – who have perhaps already been voted out – can be recalled to vote on the agreement.

So what will happen?

Just as Brexit has divided voters and both of the UK’s main political parties, the complexities surrounding the process continue to divide constitutional and legal experts. Time is running out, but there could still be another twist in this tale.