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Is there any way back from a Brexit cliff edge?

Theresa May wrote to Donald Tusk asking for a further Brexit delay until June 30. Credit: PA

Pretty much everyone I meet says they want all the Brexit uncertainty to end, one way or another.

But that is now impossible: even agreement - which seems remote - on some version of the PM’s deal to take us out of the EU would only be a beginning of a sort, not an end, with so much left to decide on what kind of future relationship we need and deserve with the EU.

And if there is no backing from MPs for the Withdrawal Agreement that is the divorce from the EU, then we are into a series of choices whose consequences would be to lead to various forms of national and international fission.

Cross-party talks between Mrs May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn are expected to continue this week. Credit: PA

Every option, from a no-deal Brexit to a referendum, or even revocation of the decision to leave, leads to some combination of UK nations (England versus Northern Ireland and Scotland) or social groups (to simplify, nationalist low-income Brexiters versus internationalist wealthier Remainers) shouting treachery and betrayal.

There is no Brexit peace to be had. For many years. Or at least none I can see.

And that sure knowledge will condition how EU leaders decide on Wednesday whether and what postponement of the date we leave the EU to grant us.

European Council President Donald Tusk has said he is willing to offer the UK a one-year 'flexible' extension. Credit: AP

The president of the EU council Donald Tusk wants the 27 leaders of the EU’s residual nations to offer the UK a Brexit delay of a year, but with a break clause that would allow the UK to leave earlier, if - somehow or other - we complete political and legal preparations for a negotiated Brexit earlier than that.

But the great fear of some EU leaders, and especially the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, is that the delay will in practice keep the UK and the EU overwhelmed by Brexit arguments, making it impossible for either the UK or EU to regroup and rebuild.

The greatest fear of all for the Macrons of the EU is that a new UK prime minister - which there will certainly be within the coming year - would use the delay to rip up the Withdrawal Agreement, or the divorce settlement, which is seen within the EU as the single achievement of Brexit talks to date.

Emmanuel Macron has argued a long extension will keep the EU overwhelmed by Brexit arguments. Credit: AP

Tory leadership hopefuls Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab have more-or-less pledged to do just that.

The EU27 and Tusk are agonising about how to pre-empt and prevent that. It won’t be easy.

So it would be dangerous and naive to assume the EU will roll over and offer the long extension which Tusk moots (there is zero prospect of May being granted the 30 June Brexit date she has requested).

EU leaders will meet in Brussels for an emergency summit on Wednesday to agree their response. Credit: AP

A no-deal Brexit on 12 April, the current official Brexit date, is not a de minimis probability. And nor is either parliament voting for a referendum or straightforwardly to revoke Brexit, if MPs see the sole alternative to those desperate acts of evasive action as leaving the EU with no deal.

But any of those outcomes would lead to different combinations of acute strife in politics, economy, society. We’ve muddled though to a precipitate cliff edge - and we don’t know which cliff it is and how steep the drop may be. Heaven help us.