“As prime minister,” Theresa May said in March, “I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than 30 June.”
But three weeks is a very long time in politics these days.
The EU is expected today to offer the PM an extension to the Article 50 process of up to a year.
Why is the PM asking for a delay?
May has said she wants the short delay to give her time to agree a Brexit deal with Labour and avoid a no-deal exit. But she also has no choice. Parliament passed a bill last week which forces her to request an Article 50 extension.
Will the EU say yes?
It is widely expected the remaining 27 EU leaders will agree to an extension when they meet at an emergency summit in Brussels this evening.
While there is frustration at the gridlock in Westminster, the EU would still prefer the UK left with a deal than without one. But – and it is a big but – the EU appears set to offer a much longer extension of up to one year rather than the brief delay favoured by the PM.
Why a long delay?
Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, has advised EU leaders that given the deep divisions in the Commons they should have “little reason to believe” the UK will be able to pass a deal before the end of June.
He warned this could lead to a rolling series of emergency summits to agree further short delays which would destabilise the bloc and raise the risk of an accidental no-deal exit.
Instead, he has suggested a “flexible” extension which would last as long as one year but allow the UK to leave sooner if the British government managed to get a deal through parliament.
What does a long delay mean?
The most immediate effect will be the legal requirement for the UK to take part in elections to the European Parliament on May 23. The PM has has said this would be “unacceptable” given the result of the referendum three years ago. But, again, she might have no choice.
It is widely expected the elections will be bloodbath for the Conservatives. Ukip and Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party will be hoping to gobble up the eurosceptic vote. One Tory MP has even suggested she could vote for Farage’s new outfit.
On the other side, the pro-EU Lib Dems and The Independent Group will be hoping to capitalise on the momentum behind demands for a second referendum.
There are also conditions attached to a long delay.
Brussels was spooked by threats a British government under a new Brexiteer PM such as Boris Johnson could start deliberately messing with the EU from the inside. “If we are stuck in we must use the remaining powers we have to be difficult,” Jacob Rees-Mogg tweeted this week. While Mark Francois warned the UK would act as a “trojan horse” and as “perfidious Albion on speed”.
To guard against that the UK will have to agree to continue what is called “sincere cooperation” within the bloc if it wants an extension.
Could there still be a no-deal exit?
Yes. The only way to leave with a deal is for the Commons to agree one. And the EU might eventually run out of patience and stop granting extensions.
And of course if the EU27 do not agree to an extension this evening, Britain will leave without a deal at 11pm on Friday.
How long will Theresa May survive?
Under Tory party rules, May cannot be removed as leader until December. Last year’s failed coup gave her a 12-month period of safety. She has promised to stand down once she gets a Brexit deal through the Commons - but god knows when this could happen.
The PM could find it politically impossible to last beyond the summer however. A wipeout in the local elections on May 2 could be the final straw. Having secured an extension she could decide to throw in the towel. The race to succeed her is already underway and a new leader and PM could be in place by the party’s conference in October.