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By JACK BLANCHARD AND ANNABELLE DICKSON
Good Friday morning. This is Jack Blanchard writing from Brussels, where the European Council summit is entering its second day, and Annabelle Dickson back in London.
And guess what? Brexit Day is now three weeks away … again.
DRIVING THE DAY
FORTNIGHT: BATTLE ROYALE. Britain has been granted an extra fortnight to find a Brexit solution after a marathon eight-hour summit in Brussels. Late last night EU27 leaders agreed to extend Britain’s EU departure date by two weeks to Friday, April 12 — the legal deadline by which Britain must decide whether to take part in the forthcoming EU election. If Theresa May is able to get her deal through the Commons next week, Brexit Day will be shifted back further to May 22, to give her time to pass the necessary legislation. But if she cannot, Britain will have just those extra two weeks to either come up with a new departure plan — incorporating a long Article 50 extension and the EU election — or to prepare for a no-deal outcome.
TL;DR: April 12 is the new March 29. For now, at least.
Game on: The so-called flextension plan sets up a titanic power struggle in Westminster over the next few weeks as Britain’s long-term future is hammered out. The action will begin Monday afternoon when backbench MPs begin their attempt to seize control of the Brexit process, initially by creating space in the parliamentary timetable for indicative votes on the best way forward. In theory the extra fortnight’s grace period granted by Brussels creates the room for parliament to assert its authority and come up with a new way forward. But it also means Brexiteer hardliners need only hold out for three more weeks to see Britain leave the EU without a deal.
Try, try and try again: Speaking at a press conference in Brussels shortly after midnight, Theresa May said her focus remains on getting her Brexit deal through parliament next week. She will fly home early this morning — with the EU summit still ongoing — to renew efforts to win round rebel Tories and wavering Labour MPs ahead of a third meaningful vote. “What the decision today underlines is the importance of the House of Commons passing a Brexit deal next week, so that we can bring an end to the uncertainty and leave in a smooth and orderly manner,” she said.
Good luck with that: The problem for May is that as things stand, MV3 is headed for another heavy defeat. The PM’s assertion in the Commons on Wednesday that she is “not prepared to delay Brexit” for an extended period has emboldened Tory Euroskeptics to just keep voting against the deal in the hope of forcing a no-deal outcome. And her ill-judged Downing Street attack on parliament itself a few hours later in turn upset the potential Labour and Tory switchers May needs to get the deal over the line. The PM still has a few days to turn things around — but right now, the deal is going down in flames.
It gets worse: ITV’s Paul Brand reports the rift between No. 10 and the whips office — which opened up after last week’s Remainer rebellion in the Commons — has deepened following May’s Downing Street speech. Brand reports loyal Chief Whip Julian Smith is furious No. 10 undid much of the hard work his team have put in with wavering MPs. “In the tea rooms and offices of parliament, the chief whip has been openly admitting that he found last night’s statement ‘appalling,’” Brand writes. “She just won’t listen to us,” he quotes Smith as saying.
Take a step back: In less than 24 hours on Wednesday, the PM managed to alienate both sides of the Brexit coalition she is trying to put together, and the main foot soldiers — the party whips — whose job it is to deliver the vote. “It’s hard to think of a more inept combination,” one Cabinet minister tells the FT’s George Parker. “It was cataclysmic.” Another tells the Times: “Yesterday must go down as the most inept performance of a Downing Street of all time.”
Sorry seems to be the hardest word: Tellingly, the PM was in full reverse-ferret mode last night and came close to apologizing to MPs for her Downing Street speech. “I expressed my frustrations, and I know that MPs are frustrated too — they have difficult jobs to do,” May said at her press conference. She went on: “There are passionately held views on all sides. I am very grateful to those MPs who have supported the deal, to those who have come around to support the deal; and to all those MPs I have been meeting across the house.”
Flip-flop klaxon: Even more importantly, May also appeared to row back on her dramatic assertion that she will not pursue a long Article 50 extension under any circumstances. Asked repeatedly to rule out delaying Brexit beyond April 12 if parliament votes to do so, the PM declined to do so. “We need to work with the house to decide how to proceed if we don’t get the deal through,” she said. “I think what tonight’s decision from the Council has done is frame for people very clearly the choices available to them.” Watch the clip.
About those choices: Helpfully, European Council President Donald Tusk last night spelled out Britain’s four remaining options in very simple terms. By April 12, he said, the U.K. must choose between passing the PM’s Brexit deal; pursuing no deal; revoking Article 50; or accepting a long extension. And when pressed on this by reporters, the PM was prepared to rule out only one of those options. “I do not think we should be revoking Article 50,” she said. Her aides said afterwards that parliament would have to “choose between the other three” — so confirming a long extension is back on the table.
All-important caveat: The prime minister is to-ing and fro-ing so much at the moment that it’s very hard to take her at her word. She rarely says what she really thinks and her public position keeps shifting, with strategy seemingly drawn up on the hoof. The Guardian and the FT both filed well-sourced stories on Thursday evening quoting numerous aides and ministers who concluded the PM was ready to back a no deal. Yet after last night’s press conference, both look out of date. So how long the latest softening of position will last, or where the PM will be by the start of next week, is frankly anyone’s guess.
But one thing’s for sure: This is starting to feel like the endgame, both for Brexit and for this prime minister. Whatever is agreed by April 12, it’s hard to imagine May staying in power for too much longer. The Telegraph splashes on a report that all-important backbench leader Graham Brady visited No. 10 on Monday to tell her that dozens of Tory MPs are clamoring for her to go. The paper also details a series of other confrontations between May and backbench MPs.
And there’s more: In his weekly Telegraph column, the Spectator’s well-connected editor, Fraser Nelson, writes: “Ministers who have spoken to her in the last few days have come away with the impression that she has started her endgame. That she has accepted that, while three or four Brexit options remain, none of them are made better by her staying on as prime minister.” He concludes she should offer to quit next week to convince Tory MPs to pass the deal. “To offer her resignation now is, perhaps, her most powerful card,” Nelson writes.
**For a professional guide to the 2019 EU election, the Global Public Affairs Club (GPAC), a network of C-level professionals, has prepared the 2019 EU Election Executive Program — an event hosted by POLITICO journalist Ryan Heath on April 11-12 in Brussels, presented by FTI Consulting. Contact us today at [email protected] (P.S. If you’re a POLITICO Pro subscriber, you’ll get 15 percent off).**
LAST NIGHT AT THE SUMMIT
TWO WEEKS? TOO WEAK? It all follows a dramatic night in Brussels, when EU leaders tore up the summit timetable and rewrote the Brexit extension plan drafted by Donald Tusk. Theresa May’s pitch for a three-month delay to June 30 was dismissed out of hand following what EU27 officials said was another unimpressive performance. May was grilled by EU leaders for more than 90 minutes, and faced an especially tough time from French President Emmanuel Macron. “Are you prepared for a no deal?” he asked her bluntly. Macron is clearly playing bad cop for Brussels in the current negotiation, and relishing every minute.
Maybot strikes again: Several EU27 officials said the PM was unable to explain why she had chosen June 30 as her date of departure, when the European Commission had made clear May 22 was its own cut-off. And she dodged repeated questions about what she planned to do if the deal is voted down again. One official told POLITICO she was “vague.” The BBC’s Katya Adler heard May “didn’t add anything new.” The Guardian is told it was “90 minutes of nothing.” And an EU prime minister tells the Times: “The only thing that came through with clarity was her lack of a plan.” While these hostile briefings must be taken with a pinch of salt, experienced May-watchers will recognize a certain ring of truth.
On the plus side: There was no real animosity in the room, and EU officials said the tone of May’s speech was well-judged in comparison to previous diplomatic clashes last year. “The atmosphere was much better than I expected,” Tusk said afterwards. “And much better than, for example, in December … Our discussion was really constructive. All of us aware how difficult how the situation is.” Watch the clip.
But on the down side: One senior EU official told POLITICO that after the PM had left the room, Emmanuel Macron turned to the other leaders and said that before hearing May’s pitch he thought the chances of her getting the deal through parliament next week were only 10 percent. “After listening to her, I now think 5 percent,” Macron said. Donald Tusk grimaced and told Macron this sounded too optimistic. Ouch.
Taking back control: EU leaders thus disregarded May’s pitch for a three-month extension, and decided to draw up their own plan to try to get some sort of Brexit deal agreed. It seems a decision was taken to put faith in the U.K. parliament to find a compromise, believing the looming threat of either a no-deal Brexit or an ugly EU election campaign will push Labour as well as Tory MPs to strike a deal. “She didn’t have a plan, so they needed to come up with one for her,” one EU official told the Sun’s Nick Gutteridge. “We cannot keep babysitting,” another senior official told POLITICO.
All kicking off: For the first time in this process EU27 unity did not hold, with proper disputes around the table about how best to proceed. Macron maintained his hardline approach, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch PM Mark Rutte were far more conciliatory toward Britain. Some leaders turned on Tusk for failing to prepare the ground properly, as his draft extension plan was written and rewritten. “So many dates, it’s like Tinder,” one diplomat told POLITICO. The planned three-hour session overran into dinner, and the rest of the night’s discussion had to be canceled.
Pic du jour: A photo for the ages, as senior EU27 officials — including Michel Barnier and his deputy Sabine Weyand — carve up Britain’s future outside the summit room last night. U.K. officials, naturally, were not present.
And while Britain’s future was being decided: The prime minister was sitting helplessly upstairs in a windowless room, waiting to hear what was agreed. Tusk did nip out half way through to keep her updated, but otherwise May simply had to sit it out. The Sun’s Tom Newton Dunn reports that leaders did at least send up the three-course dinner she was missing — green lentil terrine with langoustine, followed by roast duckling à l’orange with parsnip mousseline — on a silver platter. Sadly her aides had to make do with takeaway pizza as they watched the drama unfold on Twitter.
Final word: Goes to Donald Tusk, who last month warned of a “special place in hell” for the Brexiteers who led Britain out of Europe without a plan. Last night he was asked if there was space too for the British MPs who keep voting down the deal. “According to our pope, hell is still empty,” Tusk said. “It means there are a lot of spaces.”
SO WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
RACE TO MV3: Theresa May will now spend the weekend trying to build a coalition to vote through her deal, targeting Tory Euroskeptics, Labour waverers and the DUP. On Question Time last night, DUP Chief Whip Jeffrey Donaldson said the party still had “major concerns” about the deal, but sounded positive about finding a solution. He reiterated they were “seeking legal assurances the government will not allow that situation to pertain where there is a trade border created between Northern Ireland and Great Britain,” but added: “If we can get those assurances … then yes, if they are clear and legal, then we will support an agreement.”
When Tezza meets Jezza: May will also meet with Jeremy Corbyn for further cross-party talks Monday, the Labour leader tells the Mirror’s Pippa Crerar.
Then it’s all eyes on … Thursday? Aides would not confirm which day next week the vote will be held, with Monday off the table but all other options still open. Playbook suspects No. 10 may now leave it until later in the week, to see if parliament’s efforts to take control of the process help pressure Tory MPs to fall into line. But no confirmation as yet.
Speaking of which: The usual cross-party group of backbenchers led by Tory MP Oliver Letwin and Labour MP Yvette Cooper put forward their amendment last night to trigger a series of indicative votes on the best way forward. Read it on the order paper here (pages 12-13). The plan looks pretty similar to one put forward by Hilary Benn last week, though process experts reckon it is drafted sufficiently differently that Commons Speaker John Bercow will not dismiss it as a repeat vote. If passed by the Commons Monday, it sets aside time on Wednesday for a series of motions relating to Britain’s EU withdrawal.
So is it going to pass? You’d expect so. The Benn amendment was defeated by just two votes, and you’d think plenty more Tory MPs will get on board this time round knowing they really are almost out of time. One of the signatories to the new amendment is former Cabinet Minister Caroline Spelman, who voted against Benn last time round. In theory, her support alone would be enough to make it a tie … so giving Bercow himself the casting vote. Just imagine.
In short: It’s going to be another hell of a week.
ELSEWHERE IN BREXIT
PLANET NO DEAL: The BBC reports privy councillors will be summoned to the Cabinet Office at 2 p.m. today for a briefing on no-deal planning. It comes after the ministry of defense briefed out its own latest no-deal Brexit plans, involving a nuclear bunker beneath the MoD and 3,500 troops on standby. Sky writes it up here.
And there’s more: The Guardian has the latest no-deal warnings from Kent, where teachers are being told they may have to suspend classes and look after stranded children whose parents are caught in gridlock. And the Financial Times reports DEFRA ministers are for the first time being given a daily situation report on potential food and water shortages.
Blame the civil services: Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry tells Chopper’s Brexit Podcast the government “machinery” is standing in the way of Brexit. “Every sinew of the state as far as I can tell is straining to stop Brexit,” the minister says, “and that is why people are so frustrated.”
Also frustrated: More than 2.2 million people who have now signed a petition calling for the government to revoke Article 50. Sign-ups have been so fast the government’s website keeps crashing. The BBC has more.
Pier pressure: Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd’s letter to constituents about Hastings Pier is sending Brexit-watchers wild on Twitter.
Had it up to here: But the Daily Star concludes the nation has had enough of Brexit, offering up an iconic front page today for our times. It urges the country to stand together and scream “we’ve had enough of Brexit,” and puts “unpolitical editor” Antony Thrower in charge of a campaign to give the nation a rest for one whole day on March 29. Good luck with that.
Boris war chest: Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has added another £15,000 from the pro-Brexit JCB to his donation pile, taking the tally to £140,000 in money or other support since late last year, according to the Guardian. But coming up the inside, Brexiteer rival Dominic Raab has amassed £50,000 in cash and other donations this month alone.
Gove is back: The Telegraph’s Camilla Tominey hears support for Environment Secretary Michael Gove is gaining ground. “A lot of the newer MPs have swung in behind him following the no-confidence speech. It made them realize what a superior parliamentary performer he is to Saj,” she is told.
LIFE BEYOND BREXIT
PARLIAMENT: The House of Commons will sit for private members’ bills today. Welsh MP Glyn Davies’ Overseas Electors Bill, which would give British expats the right to vote in U.K. parliamentary elections, is first up.
IN THE DOCK: Tory MP Chris Davies will be in court after being charged with two offenses of forgery and one of providing false or misleading information for allowance claims. The BBC wrote up the charges last month.
FAREWELL: The funeral of Labour MP Paul Flynn, who died last month, will be held at St Woolos Cathedral in Newport, Wales, at 11 a.m. today.
LOCKED UP: The Times also reports on new figures showing more than 2,000 people with autism or a learning disability are still locked in psychiatric wards, despite a pledge by the U.K. government in 2015 to move hundreds into the community.
PUNCTUALITY: Trains which arrive more than 60 seconds late will be named and shamed on a new website. The My Train Journey site won’t allow the same room for manoeuver as current Network Rail data, which only deems a train delayed if it’s more than five minutes late on a short journey or 10 minutes late on a long journey. The Daily Telegraph has a write up.
WHITE PAPER DELAY: Playbook hears the government’s online harms white paper has been delayed (again). Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright had promised to set out how the U.K. government would address online harms before the end of winter (it was the first day of spring this week). The launch, which had been pencilled in for Monday, has been pushed back by No. 10 to an as yet unspecified date.
Good Morning Britain: Tory MP Dominic Grieve and Labour MP Caroline Flint on Brexit (7.20 a.m.)
BBC Breakfast: Lib Dem MP Christine Jardine (7.20 a.m.) … Labour MP Lucy Powell on Brexit (8.10 a.m.).
LBC Radio: Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts … Former UKIP now SDP MEP Patrick O’Flynn (7.05 a.m.) … The Rail Delivery Group’s Robert Nisbet (7.40 a.m.) … Tory Brexiteer Bill Cash … Liberal Democrat MP Ed Davey (8.05 a.m.)
TalkRADIO: Tory Brexiteer Bernard Jenkin (7 a.m.) … Tory Brexiteer Nigel Evans (8 a.m.) … Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake (8.20 a.m).
All Out Politics (Sky News, 9 a.m.): Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage (9 a.m.) … Italy’s former Europe Minister Sandro Gozi (9.15 a.m.) … Tory MEP Daniel Dalton, Lib Dem MEP Catherine Bearder and Labour MEP Richard Corbett (9.30 a.m.) … The European Policy Centre’s Jacki Davis and the FT’s Brussels bureau chief Alex Barker (10.15 a.m.) … Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts, Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake and German MEP Jo Leinen (10.30 a.m.) … Sweden’s Ambassador to the U.K. Torbjörn Sohlström (10.45 a.m.) … Catherine Barnard, professor of European law at Cambridge University (10.50 a.m.).
Politics Live (BBC2, 12.15 p.m.): The Daily Telegraph’s Camilla Tominey … Guido Fawkes’ Tom Harwood … The Guardian’s Jess Elgot … Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran … Comedian and feminist writer Deborah Frances-White.
Any Questions? (BBC Radio 4, 8 p.m.): From St Peter’s School in Bournemouth. Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott … SNP Westminster Leader Ian Blackford … Tory MP Vicky Ford … Former newspaper editor Charles Moore.
Reviewing the papers tonight: BBC News Channel (10.45 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): Former No. 10 spinner Giles Kenningham and the Daily Mirror’s Nicola Bartlett … Sky News (10.40 p.m. & 11.30 p.m.): Daily Mirror columnist Susie Boniface and the FT’s Sebastian Payne.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: Battle plans drawn up for no deal.
Daily Mail: May calls EU’s bluff on no deal.
Daily Mirror: Missing Libby’s body found In river.
Daily Star: Give us a break-xit!
Financial Times: May faces “national emergency” as EU haggles over Brexit guillotine.
HuffPost U.K.: Can EU kick it? Yes we can.
i: EU delays Brexit until 12th April.
The Independent: Taking back control?
Metro: No-deal Brexit bunker At MoD.
The Daily Telegraph: Clock runs down on May as Tories tell her time’s up.
The Guardian: May’s appeal falls flat as EU seizes control of Brexit date.
The Sun Paedo Prem star banned from seeing his kid.
The Times: One last chance — EU gives May three weeks to win her Brexit vote.
TODAY’S NEWS MAGS
The Economist: The Determinators — Europe takes on the tech giants.
THANK POD IT’S FRIDAY
EU Confidential: This week’s podcast reflects on three years since the March 22 Brussels terrorist attacks on the city’s Zaventem airport and Maalbeek metro station. It features Flemish Culture Minister Sven Gatz, whose new book “Molenbeek/Maalbeek: A Brussels Tale” delves into the stories of seven fictional individuals on March 22, 2016.
News from EU Confidential: We will be recording a special edition at Politics Podcast Live in London on April 7. Playbook readers can use promo code “POLITICO10” to get 10 percent off the ticket price.
Chopper’s Brexit Podcast: The Daily Telegraph’s Christopher Hope hosts Communities Minister Jake Berry, the DUP’s Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson, Mark Littlewood, the director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, Martin Baxter, the founder of Electoral Calculus and Peter Foster, the Daily Telegraph’s Europe editor.
Political Thinking: The BBC’s Nick Robinson speaks to Business Secretary Greg Clark.
Women with Balls: The Spectator’s Katy Balls speaks to Sky News’ Kay Burley.
Commons People: The HuffPost team talked to Conservative MP Rob Halfon and parliamentary procedure guru Nikki da Costa.
Iain Dale Book Club: Former diplomat Robin Renwick talks about his book “Not Quite A Diplomat: A Memoir,” reflecting on his career in the foreign service.
The Spectator Podcast: Former Science Minister Sam Gyimah talks to the Spectator team.
BEYOND THE M25
TACKLING TERROR CONTENT: POLITICO’s Laura Kayali assesses the challenges the EU faces in tackling terrorism content online. Enacting Europe’s draft law to stop violent propaganda like the Christchurch footage from proliferating online is proving trickier than first thought, she reports.
DONALD-STYLE DIPLOMACY: President Donald Trump announced last night that the United States will formally recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights. POLITICO’s Rebecca Morin has more.
YOUR WEEKEND IN POLITICS
MARCHING FOR REMAIN: Billed as one of the biggest protests the U.K. has ever seen, second referendum campaigners will march from Park Lane to Parliament Square tomorrow. Action from noon. The New European — who else? — has a rundown of everything you need to know. The Times points out that while SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon heads the list of speakers published by the People’s Vote campaign, it will be Labour backbenchers representing their own party — Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, and the Tottenham MP David Lammy.
MARCHING TO LEAVE: Meanwhile what is left of the March to Leave hits Nottinghamshire tomorrow. The group will walk from Mansfield to Beeston and then head on to Cropston in Leicestershire on Sunday. Patrick Kidd has written a lovely sketch of the march in the Times today. He met one woman who was hiding her face because she works with so many Remainers, and 28-year-old Alexander Edmonds, who has finished a PhD in archaeology at a German university and was strolling along in corduroy trousers, tweed jacket and beret, occasionally puffing on a wooden pipe.
SUNDAY SHOWS LOOK-AHEAD: Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt and Shadow Brexit Minister Jenny Chapman will be joining Carolyn Quinn on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour on Sunday night.
Westminster weather:☁️☁️☁️ Cloudy day with a bit of a breeze. Highs of 15C.
Travel: Severe delays on the District line.
Coming soon: The Edvard Munch: Love and Angst exhibition opens in London on April 11 and will feature a rare lithograph of the Scream. The Evening Standard has marked the occasion with a cartoon tweeted here by the editor.
Get it off your chest: Time Out reports on a massive Brexit public opinion project by artist Joe Sweeney. The “+44 … Leave a Message for Europe” project allows people to put their thoughts, feelings and opinions about Britain’s EU departure into a permanent archive.
Celebrating no Brexit: Time Out also has a rundown of scheduled March 29 drinks parties to celebrate/lament what was meat to be the big day. Goodness knows if they’re all now getting postponed.
Happy Birthday to: Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins … Former Brexit Minister David Jones … Commons education committee Chairman Robert Halfon … Labour peer and former Defense Secretary Des Browne … Tory peer and former Education Minister John Nash.
And celebrating over the weekend: Labour List Editor Sienna Rogers … Sutton Coldfield MP Andrew Mitchell … Cotswolds MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown … Guardian Media Editor Jim Waterson … Former European Commission President José Manuel Barroso … Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: Our editor Zoya Sheftalovich, and our producer Jeanette Minns.
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