A momentous phase in British and European history was scheduled to have been choreographed at 11 p.m. on Friday night. The headlines would have been different this Saturday morn. And as the United Kingdom grapples with a turmoil of ideas and the European Union is firm on the terms of (dis)engagement, the deadline of 29 March ~ the date on which Brexit was supposed to happen ~ has been missed again.
The affirmative vote in the referendum three years ago has, at any rate for now, been reduced to irrelevance and it is unlikely that yet another expression of the people’s will will turn the tide even at this late hour.
Close to three years after the Leave vote, the refusal of Parliament to honour the message of the referendum is indubitably a betrayal, most particularly for the ardent Leavers. At another remove, the missing of the deadline has been a relief of sorts for the Remainers given the reassuring message that MPs will not countenance a chaotic no-deal Brexit.
In the net, 10 Downing Street has lost the battle against Westminster and the Prime Minister must be acutely aware that her setbacks are largely on account of divisions within the ruling Conservative party. Figuratively, it is a measure of the dense fog in London’s salubrious spring that there is a certain logic in Mrs May testing Parliament’s aversion to her deal one more time. But there is no sign that she has found sufficient support.
Her offer to resign in advance of the next phase of Brexit negotiations has not won over the most hardline Eurosceptics in her party or the DUP. It has, however, created a disincentive for moderate, pro-European MPs to rally behind a deal that any victor in a Tory leadership contest could disavow.
The motion being offered to MPs does not qualify as a meaningful vote in accordance with the laws that formalise Brexit. It covers the withdrawal agreement ~ the terms of divorce from the EU ~ as distinct from the political declaration on the longer-term future relationship.
Any signal that a Commons majority is available for just the withdrawal agreement would at least extend Article 50. Of course, a deadline of 22 May is available for finalising the existing deal. Otherwise the options are what they call a “cliff-edge departure” on 12 April or pleading for a much longer extension.
It should not take the passing of a symbolic deadline to signal that the Brexit process, once jealously guarded as the exclusive property of the Prime Minister and Tory hardliners, has ended. Arguably, however, if Mrs May is defeated again, the message will be loud and clear in the echo chambers of London and Brussels ~ 29 March is the end of her Brexit journey.
This is the distressing consummation of the murky infighting within the Tories. Ten Downing Street may or may not get a new resident quite yet. The only certainty is that historians will record the denouement as a tragic mistake.