Brexit by 31st October: Another Unlikely Promise

Kirsty Hughes | 5 June 2019

© 2018 European Union

The UK must leave the EU by 31st October – so says the ERG Brexiter MPs, together with Boris Johnson and other assorted Tory leadership candidates. A party that just got 9% of the vote in the European elections has Tory leadership candidates – and so candidates to be prime minister – as well as MPs, that apparently think it reasonable to crash out of the EU with a ‘no deal’ Brexit. This is despite the economic, political and constitutional damage such a Brexit would do, despite the opposition – until now – of a majority of MPs in the Commons, and despite the lack of support for such a Brexit amongst the UK public who still prefer remain to leave (as they have done for 18 months or more according to polls).

Of course, there’s what Tory leadership candidates say now and what they would do if elected, faced with intractable Commons arithmetic and the stark realities of a no deal Brexit. We can debate whether the Commons could stop a no deal Brexit in the face of a kamikaze prime minister, through emergency debates and other Commons manoeuvres. But there is no political, democratic or public legitimacy for such a move. Amidst the ‘tragic farce’, as Ken Clarke calls it (perhaps more farcical tragedy), of the remnants of today’s Tory party, perhaps no deal cannot be ruled out. But even now, it looks unlikely.

Constitutional outcomes of a no deal Brexit

A no deal Brexit would also be the most damaging for the UK’s union, yet Tory leadership hopefuls emphasise the union’s importance to their politics. It would be immeasurably damaging to the peace process, as well as to the economy, in Northern Ireland, encouraging demands for a border poll. And it would intensify sharply the independence debate in Scotland. These two remain-voting areas of the UK are not identical though – passing the Withdrawal Agreement with its backstop (if that happened instead) might be seen as the least worst Brexit perhaps in Northern Ireland. But for Scotland such an outcome – making Brexit definite (and not in any way ‘soft’) – would also intensify current consideration of the independence option, even if not with quite such urgency as a no deal Brexit would provoke.

Other Scenarios?

But what next, if not a UK hurling itself over the Brexit cliff on Halloween? The UK’s Tory and Labour parties could come to their senses and vote – with the SNP and LibDems – to revoke Article 50. This looks unlikely. But if there’s not to be a no deal Brexit or an Article 50 extension, then the EU will have to agree a further extension. Will it do so? Expect more harsh words from Emmanuel Macron and others. And unanimity (including agreement from the UK side) is, of course, needed for an extension.

The EU27 are moving on but may still extend again

But as the EU27 choose their new Commission and European Council presidents, and the new European Parliament embarks on its next 5 year mandate, will the EU’s leaders really want the chaos that a no deal Brexit will impose. Some in Brussels think not. Getting away from Brexit ground hog day has its attractions, but in the cold light of day, another extension may well look more attractive. And, for now, the UK has been utterly side-lined in these discussions of the key new EU posts – a Brexiting UK has no political say, despite its formal status inside the European Council, and unless the UK becomes disruptive, an extension may not look such a bad option.

No time and less substance for a re-negotiation by 31st October

Several of the Tory leadership candidates claim the EU-UK Brexit deal of the Withdrawal Agreement and political declaration could be re-visited – even while the ERG insists both parts of the deal have failed and are not coming back. Yet the EU, in its 10th April agreement to extend Article 50, stated the extension excluded any re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement. The Brexit conundrum continues.

But there are practical issues here, as well as the state of the UK’s decaying politics. If a new prime minister gets his or her vote of confidence in the House of Commons at the end of July, there will be little time for any re-negotiation of the political declaration – if that should be the aim. And there would be even less time then for the Commons, in an unlikely scenario, to pass May’s withdrawal deal at the fourth attempt. The Commons, after its summer recess, returns on 5th September only to break again for the party conferences and return on 9th October. Getting a tweaked withdrawal package through the Commons by 31st October is not a serious prospect. So 31st October is only a possible exit date for a no deal Brexit, not for Brexit with a deal.

The October European summit is on 17-18th October, so the Commons may return on the 9th only for the new prime minister to go as a supplicant to Brussels on the 17th for an extension. Tusk asked the UK to use its extension well. It’s not what has or will happen.

Extend for what?

What will any extension be for? The EU27 are likely to ask for, perhaps insist on, better reasons than in April. This depends where the Commons gets to in its few weeks available before the 17th October. A majority could yet emerge in the Commons for a people’s vote. More Tories might back such a route out of Brexit chaos. Waiting for Corbyn to shift towards such a repeat referendum turned into waiting for Godot a while back – nonetheless, at its September conference, Labour could yet move.

A new Tory prime minister will surely be obliged to head to Brussels to ask for new negotiations, whatever rebuff may await him or her. Are there tweaks to the political declaration, some wonder, that could spell out how the UK could exit the backstop (assuming it went into it). But how could any tweaks do more than show again that either the UK stays in a long term customs union with the EU or accepts a border in the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland?

Will the idea of passing the Withdrawal Agreement subject to a people’s vote be resurrected? Perhaps, but it’s hard to see this happening without the agreement of the new Tory prime minister – and quite hard to see Tory backbenchers backing that, at least unless there is to be a no deal option on the ballot paper, something that would be utterly irresponsible for the Commons to agree to.

Election, people’s vote, revocation – chances rising

Amidst this continuing Brexit chaos and confusion, the chances of a general election – despite the Tories doing anything they can to avoid one – are continuing to rise. And the prospects of another EU referendum are rising too.

And if the new Tory prime minister does indeed set up a charge towards a no deal Brexit on 31st October, then revocation of Article 50 will rise up the probability stakes too.

It looks like groundhog day on Brexit still but the politics of Brexit are changing. And the stakes – whether in terms of the survival of the two big parties, Tory and Labour, or in terms of the survival of the UK – are getting ever higher.

Kirsty HughesKirsty Hughes | Twitter

Scottish Centre on European Relations

Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. She is a researcher, writer and commentator on European politics and policy, and she previously worked for a number of leading European think tanks.