Top 3 developments
- PM forced to request a three-month extension from the EU.
- The second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill passed, but MPs voted against the timetable to leave on 31st October, and Prime Minister paused the Bill.
- Government announced that they will table a motion for a General Election to be held on 12th December.
You Win Some, You Lose Some
Despite the hype ahead of so-called ‘Super Saturday’, the Government did not table their definitive meaningful vote on the Prime Minister’s deal at the weekend as an amendment tabled by Tory Sir Oliver Letwin passed by 322-306. The amendment sought to plug a loophole where the deal could be voted for by Parliament but not the necessary legislation before 31st October and result in an inadvertent no deal. Now instead, the UK cannot leave the EU until all legislation has passed.
As per the terms of the Benn Act, Johnson sent a letter to the EU asking for an extension to Article 50 on Saturday night. Somewhat controversially the PM did not sign this letter and included a second letter which stated that the Government had no intention of negotiating a delay and would still be able to leave on 31st October.
The Government then attempted to table the same motion on Monday for MPs to approve the deal in a straight yes/no vote. The Speaker, John Bercow, denied Johnson’s request to put the Brexit deal to Parliament again. Bercow stated that the second vote would be “repetitive and disorderly” and referenced the rule that the same question cannot be put to MPs twice in the same parliamentary session.
The decision meant that Johnson was unable to withdraw the unsigned letter he sent at the weekend asking the EU for a three-month Brexit extension until 31st January and that instead of a meaningful vote, the 110-page Withdrawal Agreement Bill was voted on. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Commons Leader, set out plans for the Commons to have three days of parliamentary time to scrutinise the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, with the Lords potentially sitting over the weekend with the hope that it would be granted royal assent on Monday 28th October.
The Withdrawal Agreement Bill was approved at its first hurdle in the House of Commons by 329 votes to 299. However, MPs later rejected the PM’s fast-tracked timetable and as a result, the PM has ‘paused’ the Brexit Bill. Johnson is now hoping that he can get an early election motion through Parliament in exchange for more time to debate the Bill. It is unclear whether this will be able to pass through Parliament, given the opposition’s objections to an election until no-deal is off the table. What is clear is that Johnson’s ‘do or die’ pledge to leave the EU on October 31st will not be made a reality.
Election Deadlock is Deadlocked
Parliament is facing another deadlock as a split within Labour emerged as to whether they will support a General Election. Boris Johnson offered to give MPs more time to pass his Brexit deal in return for a General Election on 12th December. Under the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, there needs to be a 2/3rds majority – or 434 MPs – in favour of an election for it to go ahead. The Conservatives are a long way off this number of MPs so they will need a considerable number of Labour MPs’ support to trigger an election.
However, Labour are facing huge divisions over whether to call an election. At present an election is heavily opposed within the Parliamentary Labour Party. Labour MPs fear that an election would see the Party suffer a significant defeat. They have practical concerns about campaigning in winter, especially in more rural and Northern areas, but the bigger reason why Labour MPs are opposed is that they do not have confidence in Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour election machine to pull out a victory at this decisive moment. A Labour defeat at this time would also be devastating for the Party as a Conservative majority would open the door to Johnson’s deal getting through Parliament, their hopes of a second referendum vanish and the future relationship with the EU being determined almost exclusively by Tories.
These divisions are also apparent within the Shadow Cabinet. While Corbyn has indicated he might support an election dependent on the exact nature of the extension offered by the EU, Diane Abbott branded the idea of a December election as “ludicrous” and refused to commit to supporting it. Similarly, Rebecca Long-Bailey in one interview supported the idea of an election, yet in a subsequent interview refused to repeat her comments. Labour’s Chief Whip also sent an email to Labour MPs yesterday urging them to abstain on the vote, however it has since been suggested that this is a provisional position. The current Labour position has not been received particularly well in the EU, as they are seeking Parliamentary clarity about their support for a General Election in order to determine the length of another Brexit extension. It is clear that Labour have not yet made up their mind, but even if the Shadow Cabinet end up favouring an election, there is no guarantee that their MPs will fall behind them in support.
It is important to clarify that despite the rhetoric, there are also concerns within the Conservative Party ranks about a winter election. Conservatives saw first-hand in 2017 how quickly pre-election momentum can vanish, and many Conservative MPs fear that potential gains in Brexit-supporting areas of northern England will not materialise. However, the Cabinet’s line is holding far stronger at present than Labour. The Government has suggested it will go on strike and refuse to lay all but the most vital legislation before a Parliament which has “outlived its usefulness”. However, sources today have suggested that this position has evolved into just Brexit legislation being paused. We will see over the weekend whether Boris Johnson gets his wish of a December election, but the Government’s hands are tied until the EU commits to a further extension.
(Fl)expect a Flextension
The EU is facing significant internal disagreements about how long it should extend Article 50 for the UK. As per the Benn Act, on Saturday Boris Johnson reluctantly asked the EU for an extension to Article 50. The EU, equally keen to avoid an accidental no-deal Brexit, are complying with this request, but opinion is split about how long Article 50 should be extended for.
French President Emmanuel Macron is leading the charge to offer a short, technical extension of 15 days which would allow the UK Parliament to go through its procedure of scrutinising and ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. His reasoning was to exclude any extension to buy time or to renegotiate the agreement. It is clear he wants this issue done and dusted so the EU can move on from Brexit and certainty can finally be provided to businesses and citizens across the EU. There are also fears that the EU will use up a significant amount of political capital if they grant Johnson this technical extension and he then fails to secure Parliamentary support for his deal, leading to further uncertainty and another extension being granted.
However, this technical extension is not the consensus position of the EU. Many EU ambassadors are keen to offer the UK an extension of three months to the 31st January 2020, as set out in the Benn Act. An original deadline of 30th November was initially gaining ground, but there were fears that an extension that did not match that of the Benn Act could lead to accusations of the EU meddling into UK political affairs. Such an extension would not allow for a General Election or second referendum, both of which are most certainly on the table. Support for the 31st January deadline is supported by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has more political influence within the EU than perhaps any other individual.
Boris Johnson’s calls for a General Election have led to further uncertainty within the EU. If Macron refuses to compromise on his position, then the EU might be forced to call an emergency summit on Monday, as an extension requires the unanimous consent of all 27 EU leaders. EU leaders have denied that this would happen, but unless a decision is agreed over the weekend it is hard to see how else this can be resolved. The most likely option on the table currently is for the EU is to offer a tiered extension, or ‘flextension’. This would extend Article 50 to the 15th November, but if the deal was not ratified or a General Election was called, then this would be further extended to the 31st January. This would satisfy both the Macron and the Merkel camps of opinion, and may well be the eventual compromise. However, with Corbyn refusing to support an election until the EU have granted an extension, it appears that the EU will have to make a judgment call by themselves, a decision which could prove pivotal to the likelihood of both a General Election and Johnson’s deal being ratified.
Upcoming Key Dates
- 28th October: Government to table a motion for an early election.
- 31st October: Current Brexit Deadline.
- 12th December: Proposed election date if the motion passes Parliament.
- 31st January 2020: Proposed Brexit deadline, if Article 50 is extended.
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