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Brexit extension: trick or treat?

After weeks of speculation, we now know the UK will not be crashing out of the European Union (EU) today. Another Brexit extension has been granted, this time until the 31st October - however, this extension does not mean the UK will be leaving the EU on this date. There are a number of possibilities that could take place before October or even before the European Parliament elections in May. Although Easter recess is now in full swing, the buzz around Brexit will continue in the weeks ahead. This week we analyse what could happen next.

Fourth time lucky

Conservative ministers and Labour shadow ministers will be meeting again today as both sides seek to reach a breakthrough in the deadlock and search for a way to avoid taking part in what could be a messy European election at the end of May. It is not impossible that the government might be able to secure parliamentary approval for withdrawal before the European elections are due to take place, but the signs are not promising so far. May needs to try and win a degree of Labour party backing for the current withdrawal agreement, perhaps by taking on a commitment to stay in the customs union with the EU. This is largely favoured by Labour and also a number of Conservative cabinet members, but May herself is strongly opposed to it.

However, as it stands, the PM's current deal is all but dead. After three defeats, the likelihood of May passing her existing deal through the Commons on a fourth attempt seems highly unlikely. May failed to convince MPs to back her deal even with the real prospect of no deal looming, so it's hard to see how she can win them over now.

EU elections

If May fails to secure a compromise agreement or is unable to pass her current deal, Britain will be forced to take part in next month's `elections. Under the terms of the extension, the UK has to take part and if it doesn't will automatically leave without a deal on the 1st June. May will do her best to avoid participating, as the European elections pose particular problems for the Conservative party given its divisions over Brexit are larger than those within Labour. Smaller parties also tend to fare much better in European polls than they do in British general elections, namely because of the proportional representation voting system.

It is widely expected that both of the main parties will suffer, with the Conservatives being hardest hit. Nigel Farage has today launched his new Brexit party and pledged to "revolutionise" British politics ahead of the elections by promising to steal votes from all parties. Talking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme he said he was determined to make sure the referendum result is delivered on and added that the party has already received £750,000 online over ten days. It's safe to say we will be seeing a lot more of Farage over the coming weeks.

A new leader and a general election

Assuming May's deal is defeated a fourth time and the European elections go ahead, the additional extension period that has been granted to the UK opens a raft of possibilities, including a change of leader and a general election. Political pressure is continuing to mount around May and Conservative MPs are plotting to change a party rule which states that a prime minister cannot be kicked out within 12 months of winning a no confidence vote. If 10,000 Tory members sign a petition backing this change, a new rule could feasibly be pushed through which means May could be removed from office far sooner. However, whoever is elected will be confronted with the same problems May has faced for months. Currently, there are huge divisions within the Conservative party and there is no resolution to the Brexit impasse across the House. An election could provide a way out of this deadlock. Observers are saying that if consensus cannot be agreed with the current make-up of Parliament, the only option is to force a shift in the parliamentary arithmetic.

It's a risky strategy, as there is a significant chance the UK public could use an election to deal a significant blow to the Conservative party. There is also no guarantee that an election would solve the current deadlock. Another hung parliament would present the same challenges and even if Jeremy Corbyn secured a majority, divisions over whether the Labour party want a soft Brexit or second referendum could create a similar impasse. Despite these risks, a general election cannot be discounted at the moment given the level of uncertainty we face. If the current stalemate is to be overcome, some dramatic decisions will need to be made in the weeks and months ahead.