Richard North, 26/10/2019  
 


During yesterday, nothing substantial changed. We are still in complete turmoil, with no idea whether or when we are leaving the European Union, whether we're to have a pre-Christmas general election, or even whether the UK will be given an Art 50 extension by the European Council.

In theory, a no-deal Brexit on 31 October is still on the cards, but only in the unlikely event that there is no extension offered by the end of the month, or the UK (the government or parliament) refuses to accept what's on offer.

That, however, seems only a theoretical possibility. No one seriously expects the European Council to allow the UK to drop out of the EU without a deal. The only real question is how long an extension might be, and what conditions might be imposed, if any.

The real hang-up, though, is the Mexican stand-off between the European Council and Westminster. Corbyn and his party have yet to decide whether to vote for an election, while the Council wants to know which way things are going before it makes up its mind. Somebody has to blink first.

Corbyn himself seems to have moved the goalposts. He's insisting that no-deal is taken off the table, but now it appears he's referring to the transition period. Rightly, he is concerned that Johnson will refuse to extend it past December 2020, which will have the effect of the UK crashing out on WTO terms.

Since we have yet to agree the current deal – and there is no certainty that it will be concluded in the near future – the possibility is somewhat academic. But an opportunity to prevent an early end to any transition period would surely come if the WAB was debated, whence a provision could be inserted in the Bill which required the government to go for the full period, ending in December 2022.

Nevertheless, it seems Corbyn has no intention of accepting Johnson's offer of resuming the debate. It appears that the leader of the opposition and the other opposition leaders would prefer an earlier general election than Johnson has in mind, without the WAB being passed and with the UK still in the EU.

This creates a further element of uncertainty, but it makes absolute sense for Corbyn to refuse to play Johnson's game. On the face of it, Labour has a better chance of winning a general election if Brexit has not been achieved.

Furthermore, there is some evidence that Johnson has failed to sell his deal to the public. Only 19 percent of those responding to a YouGov poll thought it was "good", while only three percent said it was "very good". Most of those who had made up their minds deciding that the deal was either "bad" or "indifferent".

Another interesting twist is in the apportionment of blame if we fail to leave on 31 October. Some 20 percent blame Johnson and his Tories, parliament the greater share, with 52 percent, while Corbyn only takes 13 percent. That would leave him open to pursue his plan to renegotiate the deal and then put it to a referendum. Having Brexit in place would rather shoot Corbyn's fox.

Another baffling possibility rests on the premise that the EU will grant a three-month extension without a general election being agreed. Then backbenchers might prevail upon Bercow – in one of his last acts as Speaker - to "unpause" the WAB, allowing MPs to stack it with amendments to suit the opposition agenda.

The fly in the ointment, here, seems to be the response of the European Council. The leaders of the EU-27 will not necessarily be in tune with these games, and will not necessarily give us the full three-months extension. That would further complicate matters as any deviation from the Benn Act request would allow parliament to intervene.

All this, though, has to happen within the next five days. And if the European Council doesn't make a decision until Tuesday, with us due to drop out at 11pm on the Thursday, parliament is going to have to get its skates on if it is to make use of the procedure set out in the Act.

Supposing, for the sake of example, the European Union follows the line which Macron is said to have suggested, that the extension should last only until 15 or 30 November, notifying us on the Tuesday, the House of Commons could decide "not to pass a motion moved by a Minister of the Crown within a period of two calendar days beginning with the end of the day on which the European Council's decision is made or before the end of 30 October 2019".

That would then require the European Council to come back with a different offer, but there would hardly be time for that to happen, suggesting that the Commons would have to allow whatever period the European Council first offers, or we fall out of the EU without a deal.

Given a short extension, without the prospect of another one at the end of it, the opposition parties would then be in a position of having to pass the WAB, unamended, in order to avoid triggering a no-deal Brexit once the new extension had expired. This, effectively, would be game, set and match to Johnson, except by then it would be far too late to call an election for this year.

There would then lie another problem for the warring parties, on both sides of the divide. Even with the polls currently showing a lead for the Tories, an election is difficult enough to call if held before Christmas. But how the polls would look at the end of January is anyone's guess. With the UK out of the EU, though, one must assume that they would favour Johnson.

Basically, in none of the possible scenarios – with Brexit in place – does it end well for Labour. Corbyn's best option is to engineer an early general election while the UK is still in the EU, which he can only do if he agrees to one on Monday (alongside enough of his MPs), so that the European Council goes for the full Monte the following day. Yet, that is precisely what he seems intent on avoiding.

For now, we have the weekend which will doubtless be given over to endless speculation as to the intentions of the different players, with the possibility that, by Monday the political environment will have changed beyond all recognition.

This is more than a possibility, given that - as the Mail asserts - Johnson is said to be working with Macron on the shape of the extension. Their collusion could add another layer of complications which neutralise Corbyn's calculations.

If this is true – and one has no means of telling - The Times may be behind the curve, or extraordinarily prescient, depending on how you interpret its latest report. It is claiming that France is "ready to send Britain crashing out" of the EU unless Labour and the Commons agree to a general election or to ratify Johnson's deal – a claim that relies on "a source close to the French president".

This would not be the first occasion when The Times had magicked a story out of nowhere, only for it to be debunked within hours. And it does seem unlikely that the EU would seek to engineer a no-deal exit for the UK, or allow itself to be seen as interfering with domestic UK politics.

We are told that many European governments - and especially Germany - are concerned at the precedent set if Macron gets his way in setting political conditions, such as elections, to agreements at the EU level. "The EU can't set conditions based on calling elections. It is too dangerous — imagine if we did that with member states on other topics?", a European diplomat is cited by The Times as saying.

Far more plausible, I would have thought, is the idea of leaving the European Council's decision so late that the Commons has no choice but to accept what it is offered. There might, therefore, be some truth in the claim that the Council is planning a special meeting for 30 October – even if, previously, the plan was to rely on "written procedures", with the spadework being done by Coreper II. If it didn't act until then – and perhaps later in the day – parliament might not have time to respond, thus allowing the government to approve the offer.

Whatever is actually being planned, though, it really does say something of the political process that, even at this late stage, there is so much uncertainty about our immediate future.






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