With the UK due to exit the EU in just over in 16 days time after the government’s policy once again crashed in front of it by a massive margin, the University’s of Kent’s Professor Feargal Cochrane says: ‘Two questions seem worth asking now - why did the government policy fail again last night and what happens next?

‘While some might see the ‘Irish Backstop’ as the key problem in all of this – it needs to be remembered that this is the result of the UK’s own policy, and one that they levered out of the EU and were co-architects of.

‘The backstop is an attempt to protect the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the peace process in Ireland. Ironically this is something that the EU seems more exercised about than the British government, which is responsible for governing the region. The Backstop is the UK’s problem to solve – not Ireland’s or even Northern Ireland’s, where the majority of people voted to remain in the EU in 2016 and polling suggests this majority view has not diminished.

‘On the second question of what happens next, the immediate process is relatively clear, but the outcomes are as obscure as ever. Today there will be a vote in the House of Commons to avoid a no deal Brexit on 29 March and then a vote on Thursday is scheduled on the issue of requesting an extension of Article 50 – though it is currently unclear what length of an extension will be asked for –or what the rationale will be to justify it. Also, today’s vote on eliminating a No Deal outcome is a misnomer as this will only relate to the 29thMarch rather than No deal beyond that.

‘There is now a clear instruction from the EU to the UK. There will be no further negotiations, or discussions on the Withdrawal Agreement. No reopening, no revisions, no further tweaking of it.

‘If the UK wants an extension of Article 50 to prevent it sliding out of the EU on 29thMarch, then it will have to explain what it wants (how long an extension) and why it wants it (what it will be used to achieve). The EU is likely to grant a short extension until May 23rdbut with conditions attached, including financial requirements.

‘One of the reasons is that this allows the EU and its 27 member-states to get themselves ready for a no deal outcome and put the necessary measures in place in readiness for that situation. It will also allow the EU to prevent the UK from contaminating the next election process to the European Parliament. A longer extension of a year or more, is likely to come with a much higher political tariff from the EU, such as a second referendum on UK membership including a remain option. Any extension request will be considered by the EU next Thursday, 21 March (9 days before a no-deal outcome).

‘So in terms of where we are – an extension of some sort is now extremely likely, a no deal outcome is still very possible. A General Election is a possibility but highly improbable, as the government would fear losing too many seats and seeing the party disintegrate further over Brexit.

‘A reasonably good bet now would be a short extension of Article 50 and a move towards the Customs Union and a much softer form of Brexit. This is likely to be the best means of finding the numbers in parliament and would mitigate (though not eliminate) the Irish backstop issue. Signalling such a intention is also likely to be welcomed by the EU. Of course a Brexit that looks so similar to remaining within the EU while not being able to influence its rules, may have a lot of people asking –well what was the point of Brexit in the first place?’

  • By Feargal Cochrane is vice- chair of the Political Studies Association, director of the Conflict Analysis Research Centre and Deputy Head of the School of Politics and International Relations at Kent University. His current research is examining the impact of Brexit on the peace process in Northern Ireland and its devolved institutions.