Brexit Update 24th May 2019

By June 5, 2019 Brexit Updates

Top 3 developments

  • Theresa May announced she will quite as Conservative leader on Friday 7th June.
  • The fourth vote of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill has been pulled from the business agenda following the Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom’s, resignation.
  • Voting for European Parliament Elections begun on Thursday, with results announced on Sunday.

UK Update

Who’s in charge?

After holding talks with Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee this morning, Theresa May announced in an emotional statement in Downing Street that she will quit as leader of the Conservative Party on Friday 7th June. The leadership battle for Leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister will commence on the following week, beginning Monday 10th June.

According to Conservative leadership rules, Candidates are whittled down one by one until the final two are voted on by the Party membership. This process can take up to twelve weeks and Tory MPs are thought to be hoping for a more thorough leadership contest than the 2016 one. However, the Party’s main focus is for the contest to be finished by the end of July in order to move on with the next phase of the Brexit process.

Boris Johnson is the main front runner at this stage, with his pitch to centrists MPs being that his popularity would help the party in a General Election. He is reportedly telling MPs he can also get changes to the Irish backstop but will not extend Article 50 past 31 October. However, there still remains a majority in Parliament against a no-deal and so it is likely attempts would be made to block this. One way of preventing this would potentially be a no confidence vote in the Government, which would result in a General Election, but this would require a number of Tory MPs choosing to bring down their own party in order to prevent a no-deal. Other frontrunners include Jeremy Hunt, Matt Hancock, Dominic Raab and Sajid Javid.

The new leader of the Conservative Party will be crucial in deciding what course the UK takes as the Brexit process continues, although it is unlikely that it will have an impact on gaining concessions from the EU27.

The New, New, New, New Deal

On Wednesday the PM announced that she would bring a new Withdrawal Agreement to the Commons for a vote on the 7th June. This new deal was a different one to the deal that had been previously rejected thrice in the Commons, as it included full customs union membership and a second referendum attached to the deal if it passed. These strings were clearly attached to attain cross-party support as May has completely given up on courting the hard-line Brexiteers in her Party. But once again all the deal managed to do was unite the entire Commons against her deal.

Not only was this deal rejected by all opposition parties, but members of the Cabinet launched their own mutiny by refusing to endorse a deal that included a Second Referendum. So strong was the opposition from the Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom that she quit the Government. Leadsom has consistently been opposed to a Second Referendum, and she would have been the Minister responsible for bringing this Bill into Parliament. She has been hovering on the fence for a while about whether to stay or leave the Government, and the timing of her departure enables her to focus on potentially launching a leadership bid to replace May. Unsurprisingly, following these events it was announced on Thursday that the Bill would not be brought to the Commons.

The Deals on the Bus Go Round and Round

With the UK Parliament having wasted a significant amount of time and little progress being made in terms of the Brexit deadlock, Cabinet was once again split this weekend over no deal preparations. Stephen Barclay, the Brexit Secretary, called for such preparations to be stepped up whilst another Minister argued for it to be ruled out in law.  Barclay claims that these Cabinet ministers are not “facing facts” that if a Withdrawal Agreement is rejected once again then the choice for the UK would most likely be between staying in the EU and leaving without a deal.

With summer recess fast approaching, and the likelihood that a leadership battle will dominate most of the agenda until this point, there is little chance for significant progress to be made in resolving the Brexit deadlock. If no deal preparations do not begin before an inevitable leadership battle then it is unlikely that they will begin until as little as two months before the current scheduled departure date.

However, the chances of a no deal is dependent on the new leader of the Conservative Party, if there is one. Rory Stewart, the International Development Secretary who hopes to succeed May, stated that if he were Prime Minister he would “like to legislate” to rule out no-deal. Therefore, should those in the same mind as Stewart succeed May then the preparations would be futile as the future PM would only leave the EU with a deal. On the other hand, if a Brexiteer like Boris Johnson is the next Prime Minister then they would be necessary as he has frequently advocated leaving the EU without a deal.

It is unclear which direction both the Conservative Party and Brexit negotiations will take in the next few months but Barclay is arguing that the lack of preparation will only have negative consequences to the United Kingdom should we leave the EU. EU27 countries have conducted extensive no-deal preparations, therefore ensuring that there is no disruption to them once Brexit happens, if it ever does.

Pivot!

Jeremy Corbyn appeared to change his position on a second referendum during an interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday. When quizzed about a second referendum, Corbyn said that if Labour could get a deal through Parliament, “then I think it would be reasonable to have a public vote to decide on that in the future.” This is a definite shift, as Labour’s previous policy was to support a public vote if a deal that they support could not get through Parliament. This new position indicates that they would support a confirmatory referendum on a deal that has passed through the Commons.

Corbyn has been facing intense pressure to support a second referendum, both by the party membership and by his MPs and Shadow Cabinet. Labour have also been trailing the Lib Dems in some European Election polling – who are campaigning strongly against Brexit and for a second referendum – so there are a number of reasons which can explain Corbyn’s pivot. But this change confirms that every sitting Parliamentary Party apart from the Conservatives and DUP now supports a second referendum. That means that Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, Green Party and Change UK are now united in their call for a second referendum.

EU Update

Panic Stations

The UK voted in the European Parliament elections yesterday, with the rest of Europe voting until Sunday evening when the results will be announced. This was an election that the UK was never meant to participate in, having expected to leave the EU on 29th March. These elections are largely becoming a protest vote, allowing voters to express their frustration with how the UK Parliament has acted since the 2016 referendum, causing fears amongst the EU27 leaders over how this will derail the European Parliament’s agenda.

Current predictions outline that the Brexit Party, headed up by Nigel Farage, is set to win 28 seats in this election. If this comes into reality it is expected that the EU27’s position, particularly that of France, will harden towards the UK over the Brexit negotiations. This will make it extremely difficult for the UK Prime Minister, whoever they may be at this time, to seek more concessions to the Brexit Agreement or a further delay to the UK’s departure. The Head of the European Policy Centre has publicly stated this warning arguing that the success of the Brexit Party “shows the potential of a mobilisation of pro-Brexit votes around Brexit as a single issue in the case of a second referendum or a general election…[there will] likely be long-term political instability in the UK”.

Despite the argument that the influx of Brexit Party MEPs will be disruptive to the European Parliament agenda, many believe that the day-to-day matters of the Parliament are left to the German cohorts. Supporters of this argument highlight how the influx of far-right parties in 2014 did not deflect the EU’s course and neither did Brexit. Therefore, there is scepticism about how much the result of these elections will affect the running of the Parliament, unless Germany loses faith in the European project. What is clear however is that the result will shape how the EU27 respond to the UK in next steps of Brexit negotiations.

19 months of hurt will probably stop me dreaming

The EU reacted to the PM’s new Brexit deal with predictable despair this week. May’s proposals were criticised for their “emptiness” by EU officials, as they were seen as rehashes of previous proposals that had already been rejected by Brussels and Parliament. The EU were also surprised by the claims that the political declaration could be rewritten to achieve frictionless trade outside the single market and customs union, with the bluntest response being the clearest: “It is not going to happen.”

There are further fears from the EU that any compromise deal is unlikely to be secured in time for it to be in place for when the UK is meant to exit the transition period in December 2020. It is all but confirmed that a decision will have to be made on the 31st October to either extend Article 50 further or to force a no-deal Brexit on the UK, as there is no sign that the current Brexit paralysis will change anytime soon. Even if a new PM is brought in swiftly, it has been made very clear that there is no Parliamentary majority for any option, and the warning signs are already visible that the EU does not have confidence in a deal being in place by December 2020, an agonisingly long 19 months away.

Upcoming Key Dates

  • 26th May: European Election Results
  • 7th June: Theresa May’s departure date
  • 10th June: Leadership battle begins
  • 23rd June: Three year anniversary of Referendum.
  • 30th June: Brexit review if the UK is still a member of the EU.
  • 31st October: Current Brexit Deadline