There are two documents at the heart of the Brexit debacle: One is 585 pages, dense and legally binding.
The other is 26 pages, aspirational and not legally binding.
The long one is the withdrawal agreement and it is the divorce deal. It tackles three key areas – citizens (what happens to them after Brexit?), money (how much does the UK owe the club it’s leaving?) and the Irish border (what happens to that after Brexit, given that it becomes an EU border?).
The short one is the political declaration and it deals with the future relationship the UK wants with the EU after Brexit.
For simplicity here, I’ll call them “the long one” and “the short one”.
The long one is, as I said, legally binding. It’s the EU’s method of legally tying up loose ends created by Brexit.
It was negotiated by both sides over two years and agreed by the 27 remaining EU countries and by the UK.
It contains the “demon” known as the backstop. “Remind me what that is again?”, I hear you ask.
It’s an insurance clause designed to ensure that the border between Ireland (in the EU) and Northern Ireland (exiting the EU) remains open and free of infrastructure in all circumstances. This is to ensure the integrity of the EU’s single market while also honouring the principles of the Good Friday peace agreement.
To achieve its aim, the backstop, if activated (in the absence of UK/EU free trade deal), locks the UK in a customs union with the EU until alternative arrangements, which meet the same ends as the backstop (no border) are found.
Brexiteers hate the backstop because, far from allowing the UK to “take back control”, it locks the UK to the EU until alternative arrangements (which they say are available now) are realised.
The short document is not legally binding. It is a set of aspirations for the sort of relationship the UK and the EU want to have post-Brexit.
At the moment the short document is styled towards Theresa May’s form of Brexit. It doesn’t aspire to a so-called soft Brexit which would see the UK in a form of customs union and/or single market.
It is in keeping with Mrs May’s pledge to stop free movement of people and allow the UK to pursue its own trade deals.
The short and long document together – the deal – have been voted on twice in so-called meaningful votes. They were voted down both times.
Mrs May has allowed the clock to tick down and been able to present the choice as her deal versus no Brexit or a very delayed Brexit (after a majority of MPs rejected allowing no deal to happen – though legally it still could).
In her latest attempt to get the deal through, Mrs May asked MPs to vote only on the big document. Only that document needs a positive vote in order to secure Brexit.
It still didn’t go through. Some Brexiteers held their nose and voted for it but some didn’t and Labour decided it was a “blind Brexit” because it didn’t contain the short document on the future (even though they didn’t like the current contents of that document).
So what now?
Well – firstly – it’s really very very hard to accurately predict anything at the moment.
The two new key dates are 10 April (when the EU has called all leaders to Brussels for an emergency summit) and 12 April which is, ostensibly, the new 29 March – no-deal Brexit day.
Between now and 10 April, the UK has to come up with a plan B.
The central question is: “Will the UK take part in the European Parliament elections?”
If the UK wants a longer extension – which is now almost the only alternative to a no deal rupture – then it must commit to taking part in the elections which are on 24 May.
Why? Because if the UK continues to be a member of the EU after those elections then, legally and democratically, it must have MEPs in the European Parliament.
If the UK commits to those elections (a hard/impossible pill to swallow for Britons who voted leave) then the EU will probably grant a long extension at that 10 April summit.
But there is a view gaining traction among some in governments across the EU that the time is fast approaching to cut the UK loose.
The pendulum on the risk/benefit analysis of no deal (very damaging) versus long extension (continued paralysis) is moving.
If the UK committed to the European Parliament elections but had no plan B for sealing an exit deal then it might not be enough to secure the extension.
The EU doesn’t want to prolong the uncertainty. They want a credible, deliverable alternative path from Westminster.
Back to the documents. Remember that while the long document is closed and can’t be changed, the short one can be rewritten in a matter of days.
Therefore, if as a consequence of the indicative votes process where MPs are whittling down the future relationship options they are prepared to countenance an option which gets the thumbs-up from a majority of MPs, then we could be back in business for a deal or a guaranteed extension.
The next indicative vote round is on Monday. At the last one, both a second referendum and membership of a customs union came close to a majority.
If either one secured a majority next week then the short document could be rewritten by UK and EU negotiators to reflect that.
The short document and the long one could then be married together again and voted on late next week.
That could result in the deal passing.
Many Brexiteers, who held their noses and voted for the long document at this last vote, would probably not do so again (they hate both a customs union and a second referendum) but many on the opposition benches who didn’t vote for the long document this time probably would vote for it.
If the customs union option formed the basis of the new short document then there is still the prospect that Brexit could happen on 22 May – the original extension granted by the EU.
That scenario would mean the UK doesn’t need to take part in the European Parliament elections because they don’t take place until 23 May.
If the confirmatory referendum option was chosen then a longer extension would be required and so too would participation in the European elections.
There is, of course, a snag. Now that Mrs May has committed to stepping down if her deal goes through, many pro-EU MPs will fear that a harder line Brexiteer replaces her and then, down the line, rips up the reworked shorter document.
In that scenario, the future relationship negotiations would break down and the backstop would come into effect – which would be that future Brexiteer prime minister’s nightmare.
Honestly, though by the time you read this, anything could have happened. I haven’t even mentioned a general election.