Trick or leave? The Brexit update

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As we drift past the latest in a series of deadline days, it’s unclear how far the UK is from leaving the European Union. What is clear is that it’s been yet another tumultuous fortnight in the Brexit saga.

Whether you love or loathe Brexit, Boris Johnson deserves some credit for doing what appeared to be impossible – getting the EU back around the negotiating table and finding an alternative, be it viable or not, to the backstop. The newly-renegotiated plans, which essentially involved drawing a customs border down the Irish Sea, were shot down by the DUP, who claimed Mr Johnson was ‘too eager to get a deal at any cost’, but were supported by the pro-Brexit ERG, who remained a thorn in ’s side throughout her premiership.

But if Mr Johnson thought getting his deal through Parliament was going to be easy, he was very much mistaken. Having called back Parliament for its first Saturday sitting in 37 years specifically to vote on this deal, the Prime Minister’s plans were thrown into disarray by a passed amendment put forward by former Tory MP Sir Oliver Letwin, which forced Johnson to ask for a Brexit extension, something he famously said he would rather ‘die in a ditch’ than do.

It was supposed to be the day when the fog surrounding Brexit finally started to clear, when the finish line finally came into sight, but by pulling the vote on his Brexit deal, Johnson turned ‘Super Saturday’ into a non-event. He decided that his deal and the Letwin amendment were mutually exclusive, that any MP in favour of further scrutinizing one of the most significant pieces of legislation in generations was ‘anti-Brexit’. The finish line was pushed even further into the distance and, rightly or wrongly, the Prime Minister blamed Parliament.

After initially saying he would refuse to ‘negotiate’ with the EU over a delay to Brexit, despite the recently-passed Benn Act legally forcing him to do so, Mr Johnson found himself writing to EU leaders just hours later. Notably, he left the official request for an extension unsigned, but signed an additional two letters recommending that the extension be denied.

Despite being rendered basically symbolic by the Letwin amendment, Johnson’s Brexit deal was passed in a vote on the bill’s second reading a few days later, by 329 to 299. For the first time since Article 50 was triggered over two and a half years ago, Parliament had reached some form of consensus over a way forward in the Brexit process, so the significance of this moment shouldn’t be understated. However, any bliss Mr Johnson felt sitting behind the despatch box was short-lived. Just 17 minutes later, MPs voted down his proposal to ram through the legislation in three days. In that moment, his ‘do or die’ promise of leaving the EU by the 31st October evaporated, and an extension was going to be needed.

The European Union kept a close eye on events in Westminster over the weekend, trying to judge whether consensus was closer to being reached over a snap general election, or getting Johnson’s renegotiated deal into law. EU leaders settled on a three-month ‘flextension’, pushing Brexit back to the 31st January 2020, but giving the UK the opportunity to leave should the deal be passed before this date. 

The Prime Minister made no secret of the fact that he feels the last Parliament had ‘outlived its usefulness’, and had already tried twice for a general election. His latest push for an election, this time on December 12th, was announced in an open letter written to Jeremy Corbyn.

In the letter, Johnson repeatedly transposed any blame for delays to Brexit onto Corbyn’s shoulders, writing ‘this Parliament has, with your encouragement, voted repeatedly for delay’. It was a dangerous game to play, given he required a sizeable chunk of Labour MPs to vote with him in order to reach the two-thirds majority needed to trigger an election under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.

This time, however, he got the election he asked for. After some further parliamentary pedantry from the opposition, the EU’s extension to the end of January (plus pressure from the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists) was enough to convince Corbyn that now is as good a time as any for an election.

In spite of one of the most dramatic fortnights in the history of British politics, uncertainty remains the new status quo. Boris Johnson may have taken a significant step forward by both securing a Brexit deal and getting some form of approval for it from Parliament, but the future still doesn’t look significantly clearer, with a first December general election in almost a century likely to throw everything into the air. It’s impossible to predict how the pieces will land and, more importantly, what this means for the future of Brexit.

Image by Chatham House via Wikimedia Commons

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