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Even Conservative Brexiteers now accept that Brexit will be delayed

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LONDON — Growing numbers of Conservative MPs now accept that Brexit will inevitably be delayed and Article 50 extended, even if the prime minister secures a deal.

Tory MPs told Business Insider that there is now widespread acceptance that the government will not be able to pass the raft of Brexit-related legislation which is still making its way through parliament in time for March 29, meaning Theresa May will need to seek a short-term technical extension of Article 50 to buy extra time.

“It is absolutely impossible for the government to deliver anything other than a no-deal Brexit by March 29,” said one Conservative MP and former minister who voted against the prime minister’s deal in January.

The government still needs to pass several pieces of major legislation — including the hugely complex Withdrawal Bill — and make hundreds of changes to existing law before it leaves the EU in March.

MPs say a short-term extension of up to three months will be necessary to push the legislation through, pointing out that bills are often held up in the House of Lords, something which is beyond the control of the Commons.

There is also concern that the potentially controversial content of the Withdrawal Bill means its passage through the Commons will also be held up.

“This is not uncontroversial stuff,” said a Tory MP.

“It’s quite remarkable that the government says it can be done by March. That’s utter bulls**t. We’re looking at stuff that should have been done last year,” they said.

Downing Street insist the legislation can be rushed through parliament in just days or weeks. However, this is not a view widely shared among Conservative MPs.

“I don’t buy the argument that MPs will jump through hoops just because it’s Brexit,” one Conservative MP told BI.

“They haven’t done that for the last two and a half years. Why would they start in the next three months?”

Are Brexiteers softening on a Brexit delay?

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Even hardcore Brexiteers appear to be softening on the idea of an Article 50 extension. Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the Brexit-supporting European Research Group, said for the first time last week that an extension of Article 50 was “not impossible” and would allow for proper scrutiny of Brexit-related legislation.

“If the agreement were made but a little Parliamentary time were needed, as long as the Second Reading [of Brexit-related Bills] had taken place a short extension is not impossible,” he wrote in the Telegraph.

The ERG, comprised of around 60 Tory MPs, had previously insisted that the UK should leave the EU on March 29 with or without a deal.

Several Cabinet ministers have already raised the prospect of a delay, including chancellor Philip Hammond and trade secretary Liam Fox, in what some believe is a sign that the government is softening up the public for an inevitable U-turn.

Fox said a short delay would be acceptable to “most MPs.”

How would Theresa May seek an Article 50 extension?

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Theresa May has sought to dismiss claims that she will seek an Article 50 extension, insisting that she is “determined” to ensure Britain leaves the EU on March 29.

There is also significant concern within the party that seeking an Article 50 extension would cause a backlash from voters, with 80% of Tory members opposed to an Article 50 extension, according to a recent Conservative Home poll.

However, even those MPs concerned about a backlash from constituents believe that a short-term extension attached to a clear commitment to a new departure date would be manageable.

“I don’t see why a short-term extension couldn’t be sellable, but there would have to be a lot of provisos and caveats attached regarding a specific exit date,” one Conservative MP who voted for the prime minister’s deal.

Another MP said the prime minister could benefit from MPs voting in favour of an amendment which sought an Article 50 extension next week or in early March, which would provide her cover to seek an extension without looking to have performed a U-turn.

The remaining EU27 member states would all need to sign off an extension, but they appear likely to grant one provided the government has secured a deal and provided the UK still left before planned EU elections in July.

“If the British side asks for an extension of two or three months and there are reasons for that, I think there’s a good chance that the member states would accept that unanimously,” German finance commissioner, Günther Hermann Oettinger, said on Thursday.

“But in the eight or 12 weeks there needs to be the possibility of achieving progress and that there must be a withdrawal agreement at the end of that.”

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