Top 3 developments
- Parliament has been prorogued, again, legally, ahead of the Queen’s Speech next week.
- Negotiations to resolve the backstop appeared to have hit a roadblock this week, but bilateral UK-Ireland talks late in the week raise hopes.
- The UK Parliament will sit on Saturday 19th October, the day after the EU Summit and the deadline to the Article 50 extension request under the Benn Act.
Cancel your weekend plans…
Boris Johnson is preparing for Parliament to sit on Saturday 19th October, for the first time in 37 years, after the EU October Summit. Notably, this is also the deadline for an extension of Article 50, under the Benn Act. There are various scenarios as to what this day could be used for, all depending on the outcome of the EU Summit beforehand.
The Government could, somehow, reach a deal with Brussels and use Saturday 19th October to pass this deal through Parliament and allow the UK to leave the EU on October 31st, as originally planned. Alternatively, the Government could use that Saturday to put Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement to a vote, along with the option of a Brexit extension and General Election. Considering that some Labour MPs were debating bringing May’s deal to the floor, there is potential that this may pass through Parliament and again allow the UK to leave on October 31st. This would most likely then be followed by a vote of no confidence and a General Election.
Another scenario could be that Government request an extension during the Summit and then table a motion on the Saturday for an early General Election. Labour could hardly object to such a motion if an extension to Article 50 has already been approved by Brussels despite their current poor showing in the polls. However, the opposition would not support the motion if the Government chooses not to apply for a Brexit extension. Yet, the Government is obliged to call for an extension, under the Benn Act, and if Boris Johnson failed to do so it would either result in a vote of no confidence or he would be taken to court, again. Should this be the case, MPs may attempt to take control of the order paper and amend the Benn Bill to allow another individual, other than the PM, to request an extension from Brussels in order to avoid a no deal.
All of these scenarios are a possibility and rest on the outcome of the EU Summit. Tensions have been on a high this week between Brussels and the United Kingdom, with Angela Merkel and Leo Varadkar declaring a deal “unlikely” and Jean-Claude Juncker accusing Johnson for playing a ‘blame game’ to retain support from the public. Yet, progress seemed to have been made towards the end of this week, with leaders suggesting that there is a pathway to a deal with compromise on the Northern Ireland customs arrangements. It will be interesting to see whether enough progress can be made for the UK to leave on October 31st with a deal or whether the Prime Minister will be obligated, under the Benn Act, to request an extension of Article 50 by October 19th.
Next week is set to be another key week in the Brexit drama, with a Queen’s Speech on Monday marking the State Opening of Parliament. Expect the usual pomp and circumstance to have added political charge in what is likely to be a Government programme with an election in mind.
General Election Fever
With the EU Summit fast approaching, so to is the likelihood of a General Election. Next week, Boris Johnson will either secure a deal for the UK to leave the EU on October 31st, attempt to leave without a deal, request an Article 50 extension under the Benn Act or engage in some form of obscure constitutional tactics to wriggle out of the obligation to seek an extension. All of these scenarios will most likely result in a vote of a no confidence and General Election. However, with Labour’s poor performance in the polls and the 5-week window required to organise an election, there remains the possibility of an election in the new year. Either way, parties in Westminster are starting to begin their campaign to get voters on their side.
The so-called ‘blame game’ that took place this week could be considered to be a positioning to make Brexit failure appear to be the fault of Brussels, Ireland or Westminster, but not Johnson’s failings to deliver. However, it is unclear whether running an election campaign on the promise of a ploughing ahead with a no-deal, and disregarding Parliament’s objections, is the certain to win a majority, or even remove the threat of the Brexit Party. Whilst there is a likelihood that most Conservative voters also voted to leave, not every leave voter will be willing to vote Conservative in the next election and there could be a danger in Johnson relying on securing the leave votes. His support will also rest on whether he can fulfil his promise for the UK to leave the EU on October 31st, which could impact his legitimacy and standing as a leader.
Additionally, it is not clear whether or not Labour’s plan to remain neutral over the Brexit vote in order to appeal to both sides will work in their favour. The public is split over Brexit, as opposed to party values, and the lack of clear position may only serve to frustrate voters who already feel that Parliament has abandoned them since the 2016 referendum. When Brexit is dominating much of the political climate at the moment, voters may be unwilling to vote for a Party who has not clearly outlined what the next steps may be.
Finally, the Liberal Democrats positioning themselves as the dominant pro-EU force may alienate Remain voters to feel that revoking Article 50 without a second referendum may be a step too far. This follows the same logic as the Conservatives dilemma, in that most traditional Liberal Democrats voters will be Remain voters, but now they might not be willing to back such a dramatic policy over Brexit in the next election. As research published this week made clear, the electorate is volatile and political certainties are hard to predict.
Unite to Remain at the Liberal Democrats
Heidi Allen MP, former members of the Conservative Party and Change UK, has recently defected to the Liberal Democrats, claiming that a least half a dozen Conservative MPs are considering following suit. Allen argued that Boris Johnson has irreversibly damaged the Conservative Party and that it is no longer a party that MPs want to belong to, as it has become a party championing a no-deal Brexit. Allen has also argued that the thought of defecting to the Liberal Democrats, the UK’s main Remain party, is playing on the mind of numerous Conservative MPs – particularly in seats which lean heavily Remain or having a strong Lib Dem presence.
Jo Swinson, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, has welcomed Allen to the party, citing her as a champion against Brexit through her campaign “Unite to Remain”. Her defection brings the total number of Lib Dem MPs to 19, a third of whom have joined this year from other parties. As negotiations between Government and Brussels continue to go south, it may be possible that more MPs deflect increasing the chances of a Liberal Democrat come back in the next election.
Backstop Back and Forth
Boris Johnson sent new proposals over to Brussels last week outlining alternative arrangements to the Irish backstop. These proposals were rejected by Dublin, and the EU27, arguing that they failed to uphold the Good Friday Agreement’s commitment to “parity of esteem” for both the unionists and nationalist communities as well as “double majority”. The sticking point of the proposals for Stormont was the concern that the DUP were essentially given a veto over the Irish backstop, suggesting that they could remove it against Ireland’s objection. Additionally, EU negotiators did not accept the Government’s logic of having two borders, a regulatory one in the Irish Sea and a customs one in Ireland.
The EU, then, offered concessions this week in the hope that this would secure a deal by the EU Summit. European Governments were prepared to concede a unilateral revocation of the withdrawal treaty by Stormont after a period of time, as long as both Northern Ireland and Ireland agree to it. In return for giving Stormont a ‘lock’ over the deal in the future, the EU also wanted the UK Government to accept a time limited customs border in the Irish Sea, that the people of Northern Ireland could amend if the agreements do not benefit them.
However, the Conservative Party and DUP rejected these concessions earlier this week, arguing that it would allow Sinn Fein to block leaving the arrangements, thereby trapping Northern Ireland. This led to Guy Verhofstadt, European Parliament’s negotiator, accusing Johnson of rejecting reasonable compromises and seeking scapegoats for a no-deal Brexit. This signalled that tensions were building between Brussels and the UK, ruining the chances of securing a deal for the UK’s exit on October 31st.
The tides began to change yesterday when Johnson met with Leo Varadkar, on neutral ground, to resolve issues from the week. It appeared to be a positive meeting, much to everyone’s surprise, with statements suggesting that the two Prime Minister’s can see a “pathway to a possible deal”. Yet, in reality, this deal is probably still a long way off as it is hard to see where a mutual compromise may be found. The EU reiterates that a compromise would be more feasible if the UK would drop its red line about Northern Ireland exiting the customs union as well. It will be Johnson’s priority now to find a compromise before the EU Summit to fulfil his promise to leave the EU on October 31st, now that he is bound by the Benn Act to ask for an extension.
Upcoming Key Dates
- 14th October: Queen’s Speech
- 17th October: EU October Summit
- 19th October: Parliament sits and deadline of the Benn Act.
- 31st October: Current Brexit Deadline.
- 31st January 2020: Proposed Brexit deadline, if Article 50 is extended.
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