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In a statement in the House of Commons yesterday, the Prime Minister Theresa May defended her decision to agree to an extension of Article 50 to 31 October. She told MPs she had won assurances that the UK could leave earlier if it passed a deal, saying, “For example, if we were to pass a deal by 22 May, we would not have to take part in European elections and, when the EU has also ratified, we would be able to leave at 11 pm on 31 May. In short, the date of our departure from the EU, and our participation in the European parliamentary elections, remains a decision for this House.” May urged MPs to use next week’s Easter recess to “reflect on the decisions that will have to be made swiftly on our return.”
May also told MPs she had reassured EU leaders that the UK would be “responsible and constructive” during any extension. This comes as the Guardian reports that May advised EU leaders to ignore threats from Conservative backbenchers to disrupt the EU from within during a long delay. A senior EU official told the paper May had “made the point that the UK was a serious country and we should not get distracted by some non-members of the government that seemed to be trying to create the opposite impression.” The Guardian also reports that May agreed with EU leaders that she will not attend an upcoming EU leaders’ summit in Sibiu, Romania, on the future of Europe.
Meanwhile, addressing the ongoing cross-party talks with the Labour Party, May said, “I am not prepared just to accept Labour’s policies; the Labour Party is not prepared just to accept our policies… this takes compromise on both sides.” She added that “there is actually more agreement [with Labour] in relation to a customs union than is often given credit for.”
This comes as Attorney General Geoffrey Cox yesterday told the House of Commons that in cross-party talks to resolve the Brexit impasse, the Government would be willing to “to any suggestions that are made, whether it be about a second referendum or any other matter, to see if we can find common ground in the interest of the country to leave the European Union as swiftly as possible.” The Scottish Secretary David Mundell said, “The Government is certainly willing to discuss a customs union [in its talks with Labour], but a customs union would require to command a majority of support in Parliament.” However, a Downing Street official said later that talks with Labour would not continue “for the sake of it.”
Separately, several Conservative MPs have called on the Prime Minister to name her departure date following her acceptance of a further Article 50 extension. Former Brexit Secretary David Davis, said that “the pressure on her to go will increase dramatically,” while the backbench MP Anne Marie Morris said the extension would give the party “time to change leader.” The veteran Eurosceptic MP Bill Cash also asked the Prime Minister if she would resign in the House of Commons.
Open Europe’s David Shiels told RTE News’ Prime Time programme yesterday, “We’re still in the same limbo and the three options remain the same: No Deal Brexit, revoking Article 50, leaving the EU with a tweaked version of Prime Minister’s deal…The balance between those seems to shift and we are still in a period of great uncertainty in British politics.”
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The Deputy Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Nigel Dodds, told the Prime Minister in the Commons yesterday that the extension decision showed the EU had “backed down” when “faced with the unpalatable choice of a No Deal.” He urged the Prime Minister to “learn the lesson of that” and secure changes to the Withdrawal Agreement. Dodds also warned that it would be “unacceptable” for the Government to extend the current Parliamentary session beyond this summer. The confidence-and-supply partnership between the Government and the DUP is due to be reviewed at the end of this Parliamentary session.
This comes as the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Arlene Foster, reiterated her concerns about the Irish backstop in a meeting with EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Speaking in Brussels yesterday, she accused the EU of ignoring the views of unionists in favour of those of Irish nationalists, arguing that the UK would move “inexorably towards a no-deal scenario” if changes to the backstop were not made.
Elsewhere, the Times reports that the former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, held private talks on Wednesday with members of the DUP, including leader Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds. One source told the paper that prospective Conservative leadership candidates were keen to “pay homage” to the DUP in order to improve their leadership credentials.
The Government has announced that it will stand down a group of 6,000 civil servants who had been working on operational contingency plans for a No Deal Brexit. Some members of the group had been seconded from other areas of the civil service, while an estimated 4,500 were recruited for the specific purpose of No Deal planning. The cost of maintaining the group of civil servants is estimated to have been £1.5 billion. Junior Brexit minister James Cleverly said, “The extension means that we are not leaving tomorrow with no deal, this instruction reflects that. Government departments will still make necessary preparations until we actually vote for a deal.”
The Chair of the Brexit select committee, Hilary Benn, said in response, “It was important to plan for all contingencies, but this is the huge cost of the prime minister repeatedly saying: ‘My deal or no deal’ when she knew that leaving without a deal was not in the national interest. This is one example of how Brexit is proving to be very costly for our country.”
Elsewhere, Highways England announced yesterday that the contraflow system on the M20 in Kent, part of Operation Brock, will also be deactivated. Operation Brock is a package of measures aimed at alleviating potential disruption to traffic in Kent in the event of No Deal.
Separately, Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney said yesterday that the six-month extension to Article 50 would make a No Deal Brexit less disruptive. Carney said, “In the way that things were set up in the run up to March 29 and the run up to last night, no deal would have been an accident and not a choice. It’s different to decide to move to [World Trade Organisation] WTO terms in an orderly fashion as well-prepared as possible, if we can debate the advisability of doing that.”
This comes as a United Nations study showed that 20 African nations could lose a combined $420 million in exports in the event of a No Deal Brexit, with Morocco, Ghana, and Tunisia standing to lose the most. However, the same study showed that South Africa could gain a $3 billion export boost in a No Deal scenario.
The Director General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Carolyn Fairbairn, yesterday called for a national consultation involving a number of stakeholders on an alternative Brexit plan, saying that the Government “could ask the question ‘what kind of Brexit do we want?’ We should have done it two years ago, why don’t we do it now?” Speaking at the Institute for Government, Fairbairn added that while the new Brexit delay would offer “brief relief” for businesses concerned about No Deal, it would quickly lead to “frustration” and “exasperation” over the fact that little progress has been made.
Elsewhere, the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, has said that a long extension to Article 50 will lead to slower economic growth for the UK. Speaking to the BBC, Lagarde said that in the event of “prolonged uncertainty,” then “the impact on confidence would continue… Whether you are talking about investors, whether you are talking about decisions as to where to expand, where to set up, how to set up a supply chain, people are going to wonder what comes next, and how will it settle.”
Writing for the Times Red Box, Open Europe’s Henry Newman argues, “Although Westminster loves to praise Brussels’s strategic brilliance, this Article 50 extension is the anti-Goldilocks’ choice. Not short enough to force MPs to make an actual decision in the face of a real deadline. Not long enough to allow the politics in the UK fundamentally to change. The Brexit impasse seems set to continue on and on.” He adds, “Meanwhile the public — on all sides of the debate and none — rightly despair. We pay our politicians public money to decide, not dither. Both main parties promised to deliver the referendum result and whipped their MPs to trigger Article 50. And yet rather than facing the real choices some MPs have instead taken us on a magical tour of fantastical beasts, while never quite finding them.”
Elsewhere, Newman is also quoted in The Guardian saying, “MPs continue to avoid the actual choices. All the calls for a softer Brexit – customs union this or common market that – are diversions. The only path to each is based on the exact same withdrawal agreement, which includes the backstop. All that can be changed is the non-binding political declaration.”
Meanwhile, in a new blog, Open Europe overviews the reactions of the European press to the UK and EU agreeing another Article 50 extension. While most EU leaders have branded this ‘flexible’ extension as a sensible compromise and a solution to avoid a No Deal scenario, they also expect the UK to use this time wisely in order to reach agreement in the House of Commons. However, the European press is not as optimistic about the prospects of any progress before 31 October. Beyond the Halloween references, the general feeling is one of ‘Brexit fatigue’ and weariness about the UK’s departure taking time from other topics.