Richard North, 23/05/2019  

In and amongst the welter of trivia, it has been a refreshing change to have our prime minister address issues relating to Brexit, which she did with her speech on Tuesday. And she was at it again yesterday, with her promised statement to parliament, delivered to an uncharacteristically empty chamber.

"If we are to deliver Brexit in this parliament", Mrs May said, "we will have to pass a withdrawal agreement Bill. We will not do so without holding votes on the issues that have divided us the most". "We can pretend otherwise and carry on arguing and getting nowhere", she continued, "but in the end our job in this House is to take decisions, not to duck them".

She would put those decisions to this House, she said, "because that is my duty and because it is the only way that we can deliver Brexit". Thus, she said: "Let us demonstrate what this House can achieve. Let us come together, honour the referendum, deliver what we promised the British people, and build a successful future for our whole country".

But it made no difference – nothing she could have said would have made a difference. Neither the Commons, nor the media – nor even the nation, it seems – wants to talk about Brexit any more (a situation that has prevailed for some time).

The only agenda in town, and certainly in the Westminster bubble, is how long Mrs May will last as prime minister. Speculation reached such a peak yesterday that some pundits were convinced that she was on the brink of resignation.

By late evening, with no resignation in sight, the money was on her doing the deed on Monday, once the Euro-election results are known. Even then, The Times reckons that she will announce her departure tomorrow, after meeting with the chairman of the 1922 Committee.

And so this dreary charade plays out enlivened briefly by an intervention from Jean-Claude Juncker who has been speaking to CNN in an exclusive interview.

So often it is said that the spectator sees more of the game, and that insight seems to be the gift of the Commission president. "What I don't like in the British debate", he tells CNN, "is it seems more important to replace the Prime Minister than to find an agreement among themselves," adding that for the EU, it's not about the "identity of the next prime minister, it's about the Withdrawal Agreement".

This is the man, incidentally who, as the prime minister of Luxembourg in 2007, observed to his fellow national leaders in respect of eurozone economic policy: "We all know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we've done it".

Now, he talks admiringly about the determination of Mrs May, stating: "This is a woman who knows how to do things but she is unable to succeed in doing things." And in an interesting human aside, adds: "I like her very much, she is a tough person".

Tough or not, it is pretty clear to all that she is not going to succeed in getting parliament to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. If that is going to happen – if at all, it's going to be under a different leader. But there are many other possibilities, entirely dependent on who next wears the crown, and how both parliament and the EU leaders react to the new UK prime minister.

For the moment, though, we don't even know the timescale. Theoretically, Mrs May can't be removed from office by her own party, and it might take a little while to change the rules – and even then the 1922 Committee has been reluctant to take the plunge.

The resignation of Andrea Leadsom might be a prelude to other members of the Cabinet walking out, but even that will not necessarily force the issue. If she was so minded, Mrs May could simply appoint replacements, using members of the House of Lords to fill the gaps, as needed.

Messy though that could be, it nevertheless means that Mrs May still has some leverage – which she could use to broker an orderly transition, when she meets Sir Graham Brady today. This could mean stretching out her tenure to the Tory conference at the end of September. Even if that calculus could change in a nanosecond, but the moment and for the next few minutes, and possibly a few more minutes after that, it remains an option.

At the other extreme, Mrs May could be gone before the day is out and the Party might allow the "men in grey suits" to anoint a new leader, to avoid a time consuming and uncertain selection process. But that would require all but one of the leadership contenders voluntarily to stand down, leaving only one candidate on the slate. Bluntly, I really don't see that happening.

There is, of course, the possibility that Mrs May resigns anyway, leaving David Lidington, her de facto deputy, in charge. Without a mandate for anything though, and precious little authority, all he could do is preside over the leadership contest and organise the handover when it happens.

That leaves uncertainties compounding uncertainties, added to which there is nothing to indicate that Mrs May's successor will fare any better than she did. The parliamentary arithmetic will remain largely unchanged, although the Tories could be facing a by-election if Mrs May decides to opt for a seat in the Lords.

Perversely, that puts us in the hands of the "colleagues" in Brussels. The irony is becoming increasingly certain – that much will depend on whether the European Council is prepared to grant yet another extension to the Article 50 process.

Here, Juncker has some more interesting comments to make in his CNN interview. He wants to see the Brexit process come to an end, declaring: "We have to stop this process because it's harming the general atmosphere in Europe. It's harming growth perspectives worldwide".

He does not favour a second referendum, but would prefer the UK to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. "I would like to say yes to a second referendum, but the result might not be any different", he says. "We are observers in a British stadium - it's up for them to decide".

Nevertheless, he believes the Brexit uncertainty is harming not only the EU, but also the UK itself. "I hope they will agree among themselves, and they will leave (the EU) by the end of October ... I think it's their patriotic duty to get an agreement", he tells CNN.

Despite his frustration over the political manoeuvring in London, he still suggests that another delay to the Brexit deadline could be on the cards. "I am getting fed up because we are (just) waiting for the next extension," he says – as broad a clue as you can get. However, as 31 October approaches, Juncker will be on his way out. The president-elect will already have been named and – in the normal course of events – approved by the European Parliament.

Notwithstanding that, the decision on an extension isn't for the Commission president to make, although he will be able to influence the decision. But the new man may be less forthright than his predecessor, and the European Council may be minded to take its own path. And while the presumption is that an extension will be given, only a fool would take it for granted.

There is the assumption, of course, that the UK will apply for an extension. But a bellicose leaver in post as prime minister could decide to let the clock run down without intervening. There is very little that parliament could do to stop this happening – even a motion of no confidence might not work, as time could run out while the procedures were still in progress.

On the other hand, a new prime minister – if so minded – could invoke Crown prerogative and revoke the Article 50 notification, telling parliament only after the event. The subsequent statement to the Commons might be quite entertaining – and somewhat more raucous than the average PMQs – but this remains a theoretical possibility.

As a way of blunting the outrage in the country at large, a new leader could propose a "confirmatory" referendum, turning the tables on Labour into the bargain.

The thing is here that nothing can be considered as "off the table". Over the last three years, so much has happened that none of us predicted that we can hardly argue that we will be able to predict what is coming. The new norm has to be the unexpected.

Entirely to be expected, though, Juncker used his opportunity with CNN to lash out at "stupid nationalists", complaining that, "These populist, nationalists, stupid nationalists, they are in love with their own countries". When asked why he thought that anti-EU forces were more successful in mobilising their base than "pro-Europeans", Juncker replied: "It's always easier to mobilise negative forces than to mobilise positive forces".

Whether that is true or not, there are certainly a lot of "negative forces" around. And, as Mrs May is finding, they have already been mobilised.

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