Brexit: The Race to October 31st
October 22, 2019
Since becoming Prime Minister in July, Boris Johnson has made clear his determination to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union no later than October 31st – the current deadline, agreed between his predecessor, Theresa May, and the EU in the spring.
Johnson has used the deadline to raise the prospect that the UK could leave the EU on October 31st with a deal. But his recent change of position to secure a deal by October 31st has brought about significant changes to the agreement forged with the EU by his predecessor. While the prime minister did achieve what was thought unachievable – that the EU would reopen and revise its draft treaty with the UK – it did so in order to return to an offer that the EU had proposed two years earlier: that Northern Ireland would remain in the EU customs union. This original proposal was rejected by the May government as a deal no prime minister could accept because it alters the equality of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. Mr. Johnson however has accepted this offer, allowing customs checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of UK – an about face which has angered deeply the unionist community of Northern Ireland.
The government has just published the 115-page Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB). As with all legislation put before parliament, it must proceed through several steps, and win votes at each stage, before it can become law – starting with a program motion, which sets out the timetable for the approval process. The vote on this is particularly tight, with many MPs calling for more time to scrutinize a bill of such importance.
Prime Minister Johnson continues to hope that both houses of parliament will be able to rush through this new agreement to be able to leave the EU by the 31st. But Johnson lost his majority in the House of Commons long ago, and parliament continues to hand defeat after defeat to this government, reinforcing the message that sovereignty continues to rest with parliament. Also, the House of Lords may come into its own on this bill: the usually supine Upper Chamber may well refuse to play along, causing fresh problems for the PM. Parliament has signaled that it will withhold consent until it has fully reviewed the new agreement and potentially proposes changes to the agreement (which, if altered, would have to be approved by the EU). The Government Control Act requires parliament 21 days to review and approve treaties; but Johnson is seeking an exemption from this rule, arguing his Brexit bill is a special case.
Can Johnson get his new deal through? Unlikely. The government must now win votes on every significant amendment which is debated. And any one significant change has the potential to dramatically change what would be acceptable to this government. For example, a majority of MPs may support keeping all of the UK in the EU Customs Union (not just Northern Ireland). A majority may seek to maintain EU protections on workers’ rights and the environment, which Johnson’s new agreement removes. There may be a majority that seeks to remove the possibility of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit at the end of the transition period in December 2020 (which some fear is the new no-deal Brexit timeline). And there may be a majority to submit the agreement or other options for a second referendum (although there does not seem to be a majority as of yet for this option).
Gone is the political posture; parliamentary procedures and the phrasing of amendments are what matters now. This will be a pivotal week in determining whether Prime Minister Johnson’s deal will move expeditiously or be delayed past October 31st, forcing the EU to decide whether it should grant an extension. Beyond the deal, the mostly likely upcoming event will be a general election which could alter the deal once again. The Brexit race continues.