The Ides of March continue....Brexit delayed; final outcome remains unclear On 21 March the EU agreed to delay Brexit until 12 April to give the UK parliament more time to coalesce around a way forward. While this move shifts the date of a possible no-deal Brexit back by two weeks, it does nothing to reduce political uncertainty, which will continue to hinder business investment and the economy until clarity emerges regarding the final outcome of the Brexit process. A further vote on the prime minister’s deal is possible in the coming days. If the deal is approved, Brexit will be further delayed until 22 May to allow the passage of necessary legislation. If the deal is rejected, the UK will have until 12 April to decide how to proceed. According to James Smith, an economist at ING: “Those Brexiteers that calculate a long delay is inevitable may… still decide to back it [Theresa May’s deal], while those more moderate MPs that fear ‘no deal’ may also decide to get behind it – although we suspect there will be nowhere near the numbers needed for May to get her deal passed.” Assuming the deal is rejected—or Theresa May declines to present her deal to parliament altogether—all options remain on the table. Parliament could agree on a softer Brexit stance—in favor of a permanent customs union or continued membership of the Single Market for instance—and subsequently request a further Brexit delay in order to make the corresponding changes to the political declaration with the EU.
The UK could also request a further Brexit delay to hold a second referendum or a general election, or could even decide to unilaterally revoke its decision to leave the EU. This last option, however, appears improbable. On 25 March, MPs voted to take charge of the parliamentary timetable, shifting control of the Brexit process away from the prime minister. This move sets up a series of “indicative votes” on Wednesday 27 March to assess which Brexit options could command a majority in parliament, although Theresa May has not yet promised to abide by the outcome of the votes. MPs’ decision to take control could even boost the chance of Theresa May’s deal being approved, by encouraging pro-Brexit Conservatives to back it for fear of an even softer Brexit, or no Brexit at all. It is still perfectly possible that parliament fails to agree a course of action by 12 April. If this is the case, the government could ask for a further delay regardless, although the EU may be reluctant to agree. As Kallum Pickering, an economist at Berenberg, says: “the EU would most likely not grant a longer delay for the UK to just continue voting on May’s deal again.” If the EU refuses a request for a second extension, or the UK decides not to ask for one, the UK would leave the EU with no deal on 12 April, likely severely denting economic activity in the near-term.
\The economy remains stuck in low gear in the three months to January According to monthly GDP data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), economic activity rose 0.5% in January over the prior month in seasonally-adjusted terms, contrasting December’s 0.4% fall. Despite the strong January showing, the quarter-on-quarter expansion for the November- January period was a mere 0.2%, matching the reading for October-December, and comes amid sluggish momentum in the rest of the EU and elevated Brexit uncertainty. Looking at a sector-by-sector picture, the November-January reading was underpinned by a solid showing from the service sector, which was partially offset by contractions in the industry and construction sectors. FocusEconomics panelists expect GDP growth of 1.3% in 2019, down