It was unthinkable, but a Brexit red line has been crossed

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Lined up down the centre of Whitehall, the cars and the drivers were waiting like all of us for the cabinet to decide something definitive about Brexit.

“Are we heading for a customs union?” I asked the International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, and not for the first time.

“No,” he said before furtively heading in to the Cabinet Office.

house of commons
Image: The law passed by Parliament obliges Theresa May to seek a further Article 50 extension

Grabbing David Gauke on the way in, I asked one of the ex-Remainer ringleaders in cabinet if the so-called “Gaukeward squad” was prepared to compromise.

:: MPs race new law through parliament forcing Theresa May to delay Brexit again

“The Gaukeward squad, or at least I, have a meeting to go to,” he said.

Amber Rudd told me afterwards it was not the sort of meeting where deals with Labour were being discussed.

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However, one could not help but feel the power drain away from this cabinet in almost every direction.

By the evening the House of Commons had finally done what had appeared fantastical and impossible a month ago.

Backbenchers had successfully passed an Act of Parliament in defiance of the sitting government.

The Cooper-Letwin bill had become an act, passing through its final Lords stages, with amendments agreed by the Commons even as 80 or so Brexiters objected, and had received Royal Assent at just after 11pm.

Parliament now obliges in law the PM to seek a further Article 50 extension.

A minister will bring a motion later, that could be amended, seeking an extension until the end of June.

Four days until Britain legally leaves the EU

The PM still has some flexibility to agree her own extension date with the EU27 at the emergency summit in Brussels on Wednesday.

She heads to Berlin and Paris ostensibly to ask for this 30 June extension.

Number 10 is concerned that the antics of some Eurosceptics seeking to sow distrust among EU leaders about whether the UK would act with “sincere cooperation” in any longer extension, have had an impact.

But as questionable is whether the government has made an unarguable case on extension.

The PM will argue that the process with the Opposition deserves extra time, and that the deal, her deal can still pass.

The Opposition though chose to get out its message in the late afternoon.

Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May
Image: There has so far been no breakthrough in talks between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that though the government were now unlike last week, willing to open up the wording of the political declaration, the government would not shift any of its red lines.

Labour appears to be giving sufficient support to the talks process to allow the PM to tell EU leaders that there is an ongoing process, and enough to try to avoid blame if they were to break down.

But the mood music suggested there was little more here.

In Dublin, the Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar hosted the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, with the pair playing good cop and bad cop on extensions and no deal.

Ireland reiterated its backing for an extension, as Mr Varadkar had suggested to me as far back as the December EU summit.

Mr Barnier warned that in a no-deal Brexit, the EU would not talk to the UK about a trade deal until Ireland, citizens rights and the financial settlement were agreed.

Theresa May
‘We must deliver Brexit’

And in Westminster, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald told me that if – as the UK government suggested – no-deal was to lead to direct rule in Northern Ireland, that it would also lead to an Irish unification poll.

And yet amid all that talk, and parliamentary revolution there was one quite fundamental change in the law that escaped many of the main players.

At 11am, David Lidington lodged a Day of Poll Order, using the powers in repealed laws that had not yet been commenced, and set a date for the European Parliamentary elections of 23 May 2019.

The government spin machine worked in overdrive to say they were not inevitable.

And yet CCHQ head of candidates emailed his database to say the elections “will happen” and that was “due to the current situation”.

It is now the law.

Candidates will be registered, electoral rolls updated with EU citizens, primary schools hired.

The only way of stopping them is to pass the EU withdrawal deal, or at the behest of a veto on extension from an EU27 nation bringing about a no-deal.

Unthinkable a month ago. Unlikely a week ago. It is now the law.

A red line crossed. And it might not be the last one before the end of the week.

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