What kind of Brexit delay is the EU considering?

Theresa May believes she can deliver a negotiated Brexit by 29 March. It is what she repeatedly said over the past 24 hours.

Here in Egypt, where she is meeting EU leaders on the margins of a summit with the League of Arab States, it is clear her prime-ministerial peers are paying more attention to her sceptical and anxious ministers and MPs kvetching and plotting back in London - and therefore don’t believe her.

So the EU is working on three versions of delaying Brexit.

One, against the instincts of the EU leaders, is predicated on the notion that she secures agreement on a Brexit deal so close to the 29 March deadline that just a few weeks of extra time are required to pass associated legislation and complete technical preparations.

The second is a delay, again of a few weeks but not long enough to compel UK participation in this summer’s European parliamentary elections, that would be offered to her if she (and they) believed one last heave would get a deal over the line. Again there is not massive confidence this is a credible path.

EU President Donald Tusk and Theresa May at the EU-Arab summit in Sharm El Sheikh. Credit: AP

The third, thought to be favoured by the EU President Donald Tusk - though officials I’ve sounded out aren’t totally convinced, would be for a substantial 21-month delay, to allow a new European Commission and European Parliament to find their respective feet and the UK to decide what kind of Brexit or even no Brexit it really, really wants.

That said European governments are, I am told, divided about whether the 21-month delay should be offered to the UK as a kind of rejuvenating sabbatical away from the Brexit furnace or as an elaborate new process with strings attached about what is negotiable and acceptable destinations.

None of this can become any kind of reality absent the UK prime minister actually asking for a delay (brief or long).

Theresa May in animated discussion with Luxembourg PM Xavier Bettel, second left, and Dutch PM Mark Rutte, second right. Credit: AP

And right now she won’t get off the mantra that delay solves nothing.

A majority of her MPs could not disagree with her more. Which is why as I said on Sunday some of her colleagues harbour a belief that on Tuesday she will perform one of her habitual supertanker-sized u-turns and concede for the first time she has an open mind about a (shortish) delay to reduce the risk of a no-deal Brexit.

If she doesn’t, or if she moves towards embracing delay with inadequate conviction, Wednesday’s parliamentary vote will be an epic battle between MPs and her to force her to accept Brexit postponement as an inescapable reality - and she knows it is a battle in which she is set to be trounced.