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Article 50 extension isn't going to solve anything

What is remarkable about where we stand is not what has changed but how much has remained the same.

Ever since Mrs May triggered Article 50 with no long term plan (supported, remember, by the Labour and Conservative Parties) it has been obvious to anybody who understood the process that we would by this point have three choices: to accept a deal from the UK Government, crash out with no-deal, or simply revoke it.

The underlying choice is rigid and will not shift until one option has been picked.

Sunday Herald header

First published in The Sunday Herald, 14 March 2019

So what has changed? For much of the last two years the terms of the deal were not clear. Now they are and no amount of last minute Strasbourg bells and whistles can disguise it.

MPs standing up, one after the other, to explain why they would vote against Mrs May's deal was striking in not just its brutal disloyalty but also because those MPs were united only in condemning her deal, not what they actually want instead.

That being the case, in the absence of anything else for them to coalesce around, I actually do not think May's deal is dead yet. The capacity for a last-minute change of heart by her hardcore Brexiters is still there if they ever think that both no-deal and May's deal are being taken away.

No-deal itself is still the legal default but there is no political desire in either Brussels or London for it. This unity is reassuring though comes with a caveat. The EU will not throw Ireland under the bus and it seems the Commons will not accept a deal unless the EU does. As time ticks by the odds of no-deal therefore increase and preparations must increase. The Scottish Government’s work here must be applauded though I hope, and still think, that it is not the most likely outcome.

That leaves us with the revocation of Article 50.

Because of the work of Jo Maugham QC and Scottish politicians from across the spectrum including myself we know this option exists from the mouth of the European Court of Justice itself. Frankly, to my mind it is now the best course.

But what of extension and referendum, I hear you ask? Well yes, it is clear there is a desire to stave off disaster in the Commons and maybe on Thursday they will vote to request an extension.

It is even possible the EU will grant it, despite the not-unreasonable question swirling around the corridors of Strasbourg this week: “What the hell will the UK do with an extension if we grant it?”

But an extension is a process story, not an end point.

On this Mrs May is right, extension does not of itself solve anything. The process to revocation may well be via a referendum, which is the SNP position.

But is there a majority for that and where in any referendum campaign would the Tories and Labour be? It seems a stretch to say there will be much in the way of party unity.

A lot can happen in 24 hours but amongst the bluster, always remember the fundamentals.

Months ago Tony Connelly of RTE said that there are series of unlikely outcomes, one of which has to happen.

That is still the case.