Top 3 developments
- The EU has rejected Boris Johnson’s new Brexit proposals as ‘unworkable’
- Parliament will be prorogued on Tuesday 8th October to prepare for the Queen’s Speech
- Johnson gives his first Party Conference speech as Prime Minister, where his key message was ‘get Brexit done’
Let’s Get This Thing Done
Boris Johnson used his Conservative Conference Party on Wednesday to reaffirm the Party’s commitment to “getting Brexit done” and leaving the EU on October 31st with or without a deal. Johnson took the opportunity to announce his alternative proposal to the Irish backstop, stating that it was a compromise between both the UK and the EU. He called on Brussels to accept this proposal, emphasising “there is now very little time”. Whilst the deal is being sold as a ‘final offer’ from Number 10, Johnson referred to the proposals as “broad landing zone in which I believe a deal can begin to take shape”, suggesting room for further concessions.
The proposal itself suggests that Northern Ireland will remain in the EU single market for all goods but follow UK customs rules. This would be subject to the consent of people in Northern Ireland every four years. The Prime Minister has claimed that the proposals are based around five elements:
- Commitments that are compatible with the Good Friday Agreement.
- Commitments of North-South co-operation with the Good Friday Agreement.
- An “all-island regulatory zone on the island of Ireland”
- Consent of the people of Northern Ireland
- That Northern Ireland “will be fully part of the UK customs territory”.
There is potential for a Commons majority with this deal, as the Government already has support from the DUP – one thing that Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement significantly lacked. Arlene Foster, the Party’s leader, said that the combination of the principal of consent and the fact that Northern Ireland would leave the customs union secured her support for the deal. Interestingly, Jeremy Corbyn has announced that he would remove the whip from Parliament, should this deal go a vote. This reaffirms Labour’s commitment to securing an exit deal, and the chances that the Government may be able to get this deal through Parliament are somewhat positive. However, getting it through Parliament is irrelevant if the EU do not agree to these proposals.
Let’s keep it civil
A leaked letter from the UK’s top civil servant revealed that Brexit has been severely unsettling civil servants across Whitehall. Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, wrote a letter to his senior colleagues last week outlining his concerns about the effect Brexit is having on the civil service and asserted his determination to keep civil servants away from the inherently political Brexit debate. His letter came about at around the same time as the resignation of Matthew Coats – the Director-General for EU Exit Implementation who reported directly to Michael Gove, the head of no-deal planning. His resignation follows that of his old boss Karen Wheeler, senior director Tim Shinner, and Olly Robbins, the man responsible for negotiating the withdrawal agreement for Theresa May.
In his letter, the Cabinet Secretary outlined that he was determined to “resist attempts to draw the civil service into the arguments” around the implementation of Brexit. He admits that this is an “unsettling period” that not even civil servants are immune from. It is difficult to decide whether Sedwill is using this letter as a call to arms for civil servants to carry on with their duty, or whether he is trying to prevent a brain drain of senior officials looking for greener pastures. It is probably both, but for Sedwill the biggest concern will be to placate the officials who are feeling the heat from Brexit.
Distrust in the civil service is not new. For decades people have complained about the impartiality and efficiency of the civil service. But Brexit has elevated these tensions to completely new levels due to the speculative claims by Brexiteers that Brexit has largely been frustrated because of the fundamentally Remainer tendencies of the mandarins who are tasked with delivering it.
A lot of attention was given to the fact that inflammatory language was catalysing violence towards MPs, but it was revealing that a comment from Nigel Farage went largely unnoticed. The leader of the Brexit Party said that civil servants were “overpaid pen pushers who are not doing a neutral job. And once Brexit’s done, we will take the knife to them.” These comments certainly were not unnoticed by civil servants, and with no one standing up to defend them – even when facing such hostile language – perhaps it is not surprising that so many are unsettled.
Prorogation 2: Coming to a Parliament near you!
Jacob Rees-Mogg has asked the Queen to prorogue Parliament again in order to prepare for the Queen’s Speech on the 14th October. Following the rather unsuccessful previous attempt, the Government consulted with the Supreme Court before making another attempt to suspend Parliament. Despite the Supreme Court ruling, the Government are pressing ahead with their plans to end this Parliamentary session and to unveil a new legislative agenda. Parliament is expected to be prorogued on Tuesday 8th October to prepare for the Queen’s Speech.
Boris Johnson’s reasons for proroguing Parliament a week before the speech were that there would be enough time to adequately prepare for the Queen’s Speech. This is primarily for logistical reasons, as it will take at least three working days to ensure that the security arrangements for the Queen’s presence are sorted and that a throne is installed into the House of Lords chamber. But as there were claims that Boris’ Conference speech was apparently only completed a few minutes before he went on stage, it is fair to speculate whether Number 10 need this week to finalise the Queen’s Speech itself.
Labour were expected to push back on these plans, as they wanted Johnson to attend PMQs on the Wednesday so that he can be questioned by MPs on his Brexit proposals and for him to apologise for his inflammatory comments in his statement last week. As we saw last time, proroguing Parliament is not something that the Opposition have any role in, so there is theoretically nothing stopping the Government proroguing Parliament before PMQs. Number 10 took this opportunity as they could clearly see no value in forcing Johnson to attend these PMQs, and they will be relieved that he can avoid this scrutiny for at least another week.
58547474th time the charm with securing a Brexit deal
The EU has announced that Boris Johnson’s new Brexit proposals are “unworkable” and politically “unacceptable.” There was initial optimism that these proposals were feasible, as the DUP had broadly accepted this deal, demonstrating a softening in the party’s position. But there were inevitably some areas where Brussels would have a real concern. The proposals require the EU to accept that the UK will police a regulatory border along the Irish Sea. It also requires Brussels and Dublin to accept a customs border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The UK is insisting that it can avoid the need for any new physical infrastructure on the border itself. Instead checks, modelled on the EU’s existing customs code, will take place at source or “other designated locations which could be located anywhere in Ireland or Northern Ireland”.
It is for these reasons that the EU have rejected these proposals. Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister, expressed concern over the ‘consent’ aspect of the proposal, outlining that it essentially gives the DUP a veto over the backstop. Additionally, Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit spokesperson emphasised his concerns over the proposal, claiming that they were “nearly impossible” to implement. Therefore, whilst the Prime Minister may be able to pass this deal through Parliament, he will definitely face numerous roadblocks from the EU27 ahead of the October Summit.
The Prime Minister had hoped that these proposals would give the green light for UK and EU officials to go into intensive negotiations to get a withdrawal agreement ready for this summit, but now it looking like the Prime Minister may be forced to apply for an extension to Article 50, in accordance with the Benn Bill. The EU has thrown Number 10 a lifeline by giving them a week to come up with additional solutions, but even with this extension it seems more and more unlikely that a deal will be ratified and implemented by the 31st October.
Upcoming Key Dates
- 8th October: Parliament prorogued
- 10th October: EU deadline for Number 10 to table updated proposals to replace backstop
- 14th October: Queen’s Speech
- 17th October: EU October Summit
- 31st October: Current Brexit Deadline.
- 31st January 2020: Proposed Brexit deadline, if Article 50 is extended.
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