Or will we? For the last two years, the one fixed point in an often chaotic negotiating process has been that the UK would leave the Union on 29 March 2019 — a promise made by Prime Minister Theresa May on more than 100 occasions. However, as described in the previous article in this series, it became increasingly apparent in the run-up to that date that there was neither a majority in Parliament for the Prime Minister’s proposed deal nor for leaving the EU with no deal in place. After a hasty meeting between Mrs May and the other 27 European leaders, two more dates then came into play: 22 May (the day before elections to the European Parliament) if the Prime Minister could win approval for her deal and 12 April if she failed and the UK was prepared to leave without an agreement in place.
The Prime Minister then decided that she should take the action that many of her opponents thought would have been wise at the beginning of the process, inviting the leaders of other parties to talks on the way ahead. These got off to a shaky start when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn reportedly walked out of the first meeting when he realised that Chuka Umunna, a former Labour MP (and now a member of the breakaway Independent Group), had been invited. While the process recovered from this setback, mainly with Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet members in lower-level talks together with officials from both sides, nothing concrete has so far emerged. Despite this, the ongoing discussions were Mrs May’s main card when she had to return to Brussels for yet another meeting with the EU Council to ask for a further extension.
At this stage, things became (even more) complicated. With her party up in arms at the thought, Mrs May had made it clear that she really did not want to have to run European elections in the UK so was keen to leave before that become mandatory in late May. For the Council, President Donald Tusk (who has made no secret of his wish for the UK to think again and agree to withdraw Article 50) said that a year might be needed for the various parties in Parliament to sort themselves out. He then added another word to the growing Brexit dictionary when he suggested that this might be in the form of a “flextension”: a period of at least a year that could be ended at whatever point agreement became possible. On the other hand, President Macron of France — seemingly playing to his home audience — took a tough line and said that the UK should either sort itself out in the next few weeks or leave with no deal. The resulting arguments took the Council meeting into the early hours of the next morning before eventually a compromise was reached that seemingly left everyone concerned dissatisfied. Everyone, that is, except for headline writers.
Trick or treaty?
The decision to go for a six-month extension ending on 31 October was a gift to those involved who had already categorised the latest discussions as a horror show. Jacob Rees-Mogg said that there was “symbolism” in the choice of Halloween for the new deadline while various Twitter users said it proved that the EU had a sense of humour or wondered if Liam Fox might now be considering “be-spook trade deals”. Another popular question was whether the Prime Minister would finally “take bat control”.
The one person that was certainly not smiling at any of these juvenile jokes was Theresa May as she must immediately have realised that, while the six-month extension would initially take the pressure off the search for a deal, it also left unresolved the question of the European Parliament elections. For reasons explained in the previous article, the EU is adamant that if the UK is still a Member State then it must elect its quota of MEPs at the end of May and they must take their seats for the start of the new session on 2 July 2019.
Nightmare on Downing Street
It has been made abundantly clear to the Prime Minister that many of her party members (and even some in her Cabinet) view that process with extreme distaste. Three years after the referendum which seemed to signpost the UK’s way out of the EU, and two months after the date by which they expected to be free of all the institutions of the Union, they were now expected to vote to send members to a body that many of them despised. This has added another layer of chaos to Brexit as Mrs May continues to put forward the view that she can cancel the elections (up to the day before they are held) if only her deal can be agreed. At the same time her Government is advising councils across the country to book premises, hire staff and print papers to ensure that the elections can go ahead.
Nigel Farage has seized the opportunity to launch a new one-policy Brexit Party which arrived with a burst of publicity about his candidates (including Annunziata Rees-Mogg and Ann Widdecombe). When asked if the Conservative Party intended to have its own launch, Chairman Brandon Lewis said that his priority was “not to have to fight the elections at all”. Faced with polls suggesting that many of his members would be voting for Mr Farage as a protest, he said that there was “still time” for the UK Parliament to approve the withdrawal agreement — which it has so far rejected three times.
Could that happen?
In light of the last three years, the answer to that question would have to be that anything is possible. However, it would certainly depend on agreement emerging from the cross-party talks and that increasingly seems unlikely. When the six-month extension was granted, Donald Tusk urged the UK Government “not to waste this time”: MPs immediately started a two-week Easter recess and Brexit disappeared from the political headlines. Even when they returned, there seemed to be a distinct lack of urgency. Talks with the Opposition are continuing and indeed commentators have suggested that the two sides are not that far apart — with Mr Corbyn’s wish for some sort of a customs union being reasonably close to Mrs May’s idea of a special “customs arrangement”. What is likely to derail the talks, however, is that he cannot be seen to be facilitating a “Tory Brexit” and she could not survive an agreement that depended on Labour votes for its passage through Parliament.
The other significant problem is that, on closer examination, the six-month extension is not quite as generous as it first appeared. As mentioned above, part of it has already been lost to the Easter break and, unless there is a move to change Parliament’s timetable, we can expect to see it close for a further week at Whitsun, followed by six weeks for the summer holidays and four weeks for the party conferences in the early autumn. In addition (assuming they go ahead), the European elections will divert attention from Brexit and, to some extent, will introduce the three-week period known as purdah when government is traditionally prevented from making announcements about any new or controversial initiatives which could be seen to be advantageous to any candidates or parties in the forthcoming election. With all this debating time taken out of the schedule, the Government will struggle to complete and pass the required legislation — even if finally gets approval to do so.
Business (upset) as usual
Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI Director-General, said that while the extension to October meant an imminent economic crisis had been averted, it needed to mark a fresh start. “More of the same will just mean more chaos this autumn,” she said. “Businesses will today be adjusting their no-deal plans, not cancelling them.” The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) agreed that businesses would be relieved that prospect of “a messy and disorderly exit” had again been avoided but warned that its members’ frustration with this seemingly endless political process is palpable. The Institute of Directors (IoD) added to the chorus of complaints saying: “Westminster absolutely cannot feel the pressure is off now, quite the opposite, we need an increased sense of urgency towards finding a solution.”
What must not happen, the BCC warned, is for things to drift on towards another late-night drama in October as that would be a disaster for business confidence. But who would bet against exactly that happening? Leading trade expert Pascal Lamy, the former Head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and previously the EU’s Trade Commissioner, has summed up the UK’s dilemma by suggesting that it wants to leave Europe politically, but remain economically. This paradox is unlikely to be solved by the present Parliament, he argued, which implies that there will either be a second referendum or possibly even another general election before the year is out.
Last reviewed 2 May 2019