Brexit weekly briefing: Tory support plummets as Halloween cliff-edge looms

Jon Henley Europe correspondent


Welcome to the Guardian’s weekly Brexit briefing, trying to make sense of the nonsensical since June 2016. If you would like to receive this as a weekly email, please sign up here. And catch our monthly Brexit Means podcast here.

After all that excitement, the briefing is taking a break and will be back on 30 April.

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And: breathe. Two days before Britain could have been forced to leave the EU without a deal, the EU27 agreed that it could remain a member until 31 October, with the option to leave earlier if Theresa May can secure Commons support for her deal.

After six hours, leaders endorsed a “flextension” with a Halloween cliff-edge to keep pressure on the Commons and a June summit that will review the UK’s behaviour as a member state, after France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, expressed concerns about Britain’s capacity to undermine the European project.

Back in London, May sent exhausted MPs home for a 10-day Easter break, urging them to “reflect on the decisions that will have to be made swiftly on our return”. She stressed she would pursue cross-party talks aimed at finding a Brexit consensus and shrugged off calls for her resignation from backbenchers angry at its delay.

Related: Iain Duncan Smith urges Theresa May to quit next month

The extension means Britain will have to hold European parliamentary elections unless MPs ratify the thrice-rejected withdrawal agreement by 22 May. This has angered some Tory MPs, who threatened to boycott the election campaign and expressed fears for party activists’ safety.

As the government continued some no-deal planning but stood down 6,000 civil servants engaged in it, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, insisted the delay had not increased the prospect of a second referendum and said he still expected Britain to leave the EU.

David Lidington, the prime minister’s de facto deputy, said the government and Labour must reach a compromise around a customs union if a deal was to be reached, while sources close to the talks said they would not advance much further unless May softened her red lines.

As a new opinion poll showed Tory support plummeting to a five-year low, a former Conservative cabinet minister, Stephen Dorrell, defected to the independent Change UK group, and ex-leader Iain Duncan Smith urged May to step down before the EU elections. Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, said any Tory leadership contest must wait until a Brexit deal had been agreed.

Meanwhile former Ukip leader Nigel Farage launched his new Brexit party to great fanfare, promising it would not be taking money from Arron Banks but would be fielding as the first of its European election candidates Annunziata Rees-Mogg, the sister of hardline Brexiter Jacob.

What next?

Several scenarios remain open for May. Labour and the Conservatives could reach cross-party agreement likely to achieve a Commons majority, although it is unclear whether leave-supporting cabinet ministers would accept the necessary compromises.

If no agreement is reached, May has said she hopes to persuade the opposition to sign up to a process of parliamentary votes – but there, too, it is unclear whether a majority would emerge for any particular option.

The PM continues to believe her deal is the best way forward and could yet bring it back to the Commons, perhaps as one option among a series of indicative votes. With the Conservatives polling poorly, however, an election is seen as unlikely, and May will be unwilling to opt for a second referendum or to resign.

My colleague Jessica Elgot put together an exceptionally useful timeline of the key dates between now and the end of the Brexit extension on 31 October, and here is a guide to what the EU27 offer means for politics, business, citizens and the EU.

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In the Guardian, former European commissioner and World Trade Organization boss Pascal Lamy says staying in a customs union after Brexit won’t resolve everything:

Clearly, staying in a customs union would not be enough to solve the Irish border question. To take just one commonly cited example: if the UK remains in the customs union but imports chlorinated poultry from the US, there has to be a border, because the EU does not accept chlorinated poultry. This is a rule of the single market. Being in a customs union might be better than not being in a customs union, but it would come with very real downsides too. It is important that these are also considered. The UK now has limited time to make a more informed judgement about what happens next. Whatever it decides, it should do so with its eyes wide open. Otherwise, we could all soon find ourselves back on the cliff edge.

And Aditya Chakrabortty argues that, while the Tories once had a radical fringe, Brexit means it now encompasses the whole party:

The Conservative party is becoming the natural party of extremists. It is the new home for hardliners, catastrophists and those wishing to take up permanent residence in la-la land … It is the home of the radical right. That defines the Brexit project; it is also the dying embers of Thatcherism. And so a long and honourable tradition in British politics dies in front of us, in plain sight. Look at the men and women vying to replace May and they look little different from the Tories you used to know. Their suits are as traditionally roomy, the haircuts just as artless and the complexion as reliably white. But the party they wish to head is now a haven for conspiracy theorists, cranks and career cowards.

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Political scientist Matthew Goodwin lays out the damage the ongoing Brexit omnishambles is doing to the Tory party’s polling numbers: