Choices are now starting to crystallise in the Brexit debate.
After another day’s amendments, procedure, brinkmanship, and concession, there was just one resignation – that of the ministerial aide Alberto Costa, obliged to resign after putting forward his own amendment, ultimately accepted by the Government.
It could have been far worse today. But by accepting the essential thrust of the Cooper-Letwin amendments, the government has also been spared the embarrassment of having the control of parliamentary business taken from its control.
So MPs have the power to rule out no deal. Every MP will now be obliged to positively vote for or against this outcome, and not hide behind passive acceptance of no deal being the default option.
And whereas they may claim that their own government’s warnings about an economic hit, border disruption, green cards, driving permits and travel in no-deal impact papers are “Project Fear”, these MPs will be accountable should they happen to be true.
The real question about a possible, plausible, in fact currently highly likely extension to the Article 50 process is how, why, and how long.
After a tumultuous three days where decisions were forced by threats of resignation and the realities of splits and defection, Westminster faces a different set of Brexit choices – there are now plausible routes to delay, and a new referendum, but also the increased credibility of both those outcomes could yet motivate rebellious Tory Brexiters to cash in their chips and accept the PM’s deal.
The legal way to get an extension is through a ministerial power to change exit date in domestic law which was amended to the EU Withdrawal Bill in late 2017 by sir Oliver Letwin.
This can only be used in order to match a new exit date with one already negotiated with the European Union under the provisions of Article 50. It would therefore have to be agreed unanimously by the EU27.
So the words of French President Emmanuel Macron that the British could only change the date “if justified by a new choice of the British” and that he would “in no way accept an extension without a clear objective” do matter.
The PM therefore would have to choose to ask MPs for a short technical extension till the end of June. Or contemplate a change of plan or a referendum for any longer period.
In her argument for this option she suggested that the former could be accomplished without holding European Parliament elections in late May and if they had not happened that would then create a “sharper” no-deal cliff edge at the end of June, because the UK could not participate in the EU having not participated in the elections.
But the legal position on avoiding the elections for a short extension is also not certain, and subject to already planned legal challenges.
The real question here is – what will the EU ask for if the UK asks for an extension. And perhaps the big move on this day of votes was really the comprehensive rejection of Labour’s “alternative plan” for a comprehensive customs union.
Far fewer voted for this plan than last month. It triggered a statement from the Labour leader about backing a public vote. It is now firmly on the table, even if the numbers in Parliament are not there.
Nor are they there for any sort of negotiable deal. Nor are they there for no deal. A referendum would fit the bill, as would an election, as might a desire to negotiate a Norway style-deal.
But key voices in the EU suggest that merely running out of time on cajoling MPs to back this deal will not be sufficient.
Meanwhile businesses now have to contemplate planning for a cliff edge at the end of next month, and car companies have spent millions shuttering facilities for between a week and a month in April as a no-deal mitigation, and potentially having to do the same at the end of June.
The government’s no-deal papers show very little effect in encouraging individuals to sign up to driving permits necessary in no deal. A third of critical projects are not on track. Just 40,000 of 240,000 businesses that trade with the EU and need to register with customs for a no-deal situation have done so.
The smart money must be, now that the option clearly exists, that the can will be kicked again.