What’s happened so far?
On the 23rd June 2016, the U.K. voted by a majority of 52% to 48% to leave the European Union. As a result, David Cameron resigned as prime minister and was succeeded by Theresa May. May attempted to trigger Article 50 without parliamentary approval, a decision which was blocked by the Supreme Court. In March 2017, parliament authorised the government to trigger Article 50 on the condition that they got a vote on the final deal. Theresa May formally triggered Article 50 on the 29th March 2017, starting the two-year countdown to exit day. In light of very favourable opinion polls, May decided to call a snap election to be held on 8th June 2017. However, a radical Labour Manifesto and a mass mobilisation of students combined with a disastrous Tory campaign due to weak leadership and poorly publicised policies such as the social care reform dubbed the ‘dementia tax’ cost May her majority. In an attempt to stay in power, she entered into a confidence and supply deal with the DUP.
Theresa May then negotiated a deal with the EU, although she managed to survive two no-confidence votes, parliament overwhelmingly rejected her deal three times in the biggest ever government defeat in history and her government became the first government in history to be held in contempt of parliament. With no deal agreed by exit day, an extension was granted to the 12th April 2019 then extended to the 31st October 2019. In May following the European elections, May resigned paving the way for Boris Johnson to become the new Prime Minister on the 24th July 2019.
On the 28th August 2019, in an attempt to avoid parliamentary scrutiny, Johnson announced parliament would be prorogued (suspended) for five weeks leading up to the Brexit deadline. This sparked outrage amongst opposition MPs and led to the landmark Supreme Court ruling that Boris Johnson acted unlawfully and accordingly the court voided the prorogation. As a result of the prorogation, MPs rushed through the Benn Act which required Johnson to seek an extension to Article 50 if he hadn’t secured parliamentary backing for a deal by the 19th October 2019. A Queen Speech was held on the 14th October 2019, in which Johnson promised a domestic programme focussed on law and order, rather ironic given his difficult relationship with the law.
At the EU summit on the 18th October 2019, a new Brexit deal was agreed and for the first time in 37 years, an emergency session of parliament was convened on Saturday 19th October to vote on the deal. However, due to a loophole in the Benn Act opposition MPs introduced the Letwin amendment which reserved approval for the deal until the necessary statutory legislation giving the withdrawal agreement effect in UK law was passed. The Letwin amendment passed by 16 votes causing the government to pull their meaningful vote on the deal. As a result, Johnson was forced to seek an extension to Article 50 and in a childish stunt refused to sign the letter and sent a 2nd contradictory letter.
On Monday 21st October 2019 the government attempted to have a 2nd meaningful vote which was blocked by Speaker John Bercow as parliamentary convection dictates the government can’t introduce the same motion twice in a parliamentary session without substantial changes. As a result, the government introduced legislation called the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill 2019, a complex piece of constitutional law which makes the necessary legal changes to allow the implementation of the withdrawal agreement. In order to meet the October deadline, Johnson proposed a programme motion (timetable) to pass the bill in just three days, leading to concern amongst opposition MPs that there wasn’t sufficient time to scrutinise this important and complex piece of legislation considering previous bills of this magnitude were debated over months not days. As a result, Boris Johnson won the 2nd Reading of the bill by 30 votes but lost the vote on his programme motion by 14 votes, causing him to pause the legislation while he waited for a decision on his extension request from the EU.
The Brexit Deal
It’s been over 3 years since the referendum, so why haven’t we got a deal? While some would claim it is because of Remainers in parliament trying to frustrate the result, it is far more complex than that. A key reason is Northern Ireland, currently as a member of the EU there is no land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In order to respect the Good Friday Agreement and the delicate political situation in Northern Ireland, it has been a key priority to prevent a hard border in Ireland.
Theresa May’s solution was a backstop which meant that if the transition period ended with no free trade deal, Northern Ireland would remain in the single market and the UK in the customs union until a deal was struck. This would mean no hard border in Ireland but checks on certain products across the Irish sea such as agricultural products. The backstop infuriated the DUP who insisted Northern Ireland must be treated like the rest of the UK except on Abortion or Gay Marriage, demonstrating an impressive level of hypocrisy. The backstop also infuriated hardcore Brexiteers like the ERG who said it gave too much control to the EU. Labour disliked the deal because it didn’t contain provisions for a customs union and didn’t fit their own Brexit policy of incoherent contradictions. As a result, May’s deal failed to pass the commons three times.
Johnson struck a new deal with the EU which was very similar to May’s deal but with some key changes: Protections for Workers’ Rights would no longer form part of the legally binding deal, which has annoyed opposition MPs, and the deal introduced a new protocol for Northern Ireland. Under the new deal, the whole of the UK would leave the EU customs union. There would be no customs checks on the Northern Irish land border however, there would be checks on items crossing the Irish sea if they were deemed to be ‘at risk’ of entering the EU. Northern Ireland would also have to follow some EU regulations e.g. labelling and VAT laws but not others such as food standards. The Northern Irish Assembly would also have a vote on whether to continue the arrangements every four years. If the assembly decided to end the arrangements, the arrangements would end two years later giving the EU and UK time to decide a way forward.
The new deal has pleased the ERG and the hard-core Brexiteers but has infuriated the DUP who expressed concern at the deal as it could undermine the Good Friday Agreement and it separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. The deal causes significant concern over Northern Ireland as the Stormont assembly hasn’t sat in three years and the deal doesn’t require Cross Community support for any votes on the customs arrangements. Cross community support is a mechanism within the Northern Irish Assembly that means proposals need both Unionist and Nationalist support, in an attempt to safeguard minorities’ rights. The vote on the arrangements every four years risk a further sectarian divide between Nationalists who will want to stay aligned with Ireland and the EU and the Unionists who will want to align with Britain, which raises serious concerns about peace in Northern Ireland and the principles of the Good Friday Agreement.
The withdrawal bill raises other concerns such as the transition arrangements. During the transition period, we are still part of the EU, we pay into budget, follow EU Law but don’t have representation. If we reach December 2020 with no trade agreement, we face another no-deal cliff-edge and the bill provides no provision for parliament to demand an extension of the transition arrangements, leaving some to fear a no-deal scenario further down the line.
What Happens Next?
If the EU grants an extension to the 31st January 2020, like expected, Johnson will try and force an election to be held on the 12th December 2019, meaning parliament will be dissolved on November 6th 2019. Johnson requires the support of two-thirds of the commons (434 MPs) to call an election, Labour has said they want an election once no-deal is off the table, but it is currently unclear whether they will vote for one on Monday. If Labour refuses, the government has threatened to effectively go on strike and refuse to bring any government business to the house of commons. If MPs support the election, before Parliament is dissolved Johnson will try and get his deal through parliament which opens the bill up to amendments such as a 2nd Referendum or a customs union which have significant support in the commons, but any votes would be close.
So, who would win an election? Any election would be hard to predict, current polling suggests the Tories lead by 10% nationally. However, additional polling suggests that if the government misses the October Brexit deadline, many conservative voters would defect to the Brexit Party – polling from ComRes on the 16-17th October suggest in this scenario Labour would lead nationally by 1%.
A further consideration is Scotland, which acts very differently politically. Scotland voted 62% in favour of remain meaning, both Labour and the Tories are predicted to lose seats in Scotland due to their Brexit policies. As a protest vote against the Westminster politics, we may see another 2015 election style SNP landslide in Scotland.
The Liberal Democrats are attempting to capture the remain vote and whether through naivety or delusion Jo Swinson claims she can be prime minister. She believes with her revoke Brexit policy, she can gain the remain vote but there are two fundamental problems with her theory. Firstly, not all remain voters would be comfortable with just nullifying the referendum result and secondly many younger voters haven’t forgotten the electoral betrayal the Liberal Democrats committed while in coalition with the Tories, especially regarding tuition fees.
Another consideration is how the election is fought if it is fought on Brexit, Labour faces a devastating defeat. However, if they can fight the election as they did in 2017 and mobilise young supporters on a manifesto of radical social and economic reform, Corbyn may have a chance of winning this election.
Ultimately what happens with Brexit depends on the outcome of the imminent election, a hung parliament is likely, and Britain will still be stuck in this Brexit nightmare, it is becoming increasingly clear that there are no easy ways out.
Brexit was a seismic shock to the political establishment, no-one truly expected it, but the aftershocks were even more damaging. Brexit has polarised society between Remainers and Leavers, it has divided families, parties and the country. Three years after the tragic murder of the MP Jo Cox by a right-wing extremist, a shocking poll from Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh found that 71% of English Leave voters said violence towards MPs was a ‘price worth paying’ in order to deliver Brexit and 58% of English Remain voters said violence was worth it if it meant remaining in the EU. This study demonstrates the significant level of polarisation in our society due to Brexit, the fact that cabinet ministers and other MPs needed police escorts to protect them from protestors is a sad inditement of our failed political system.
Three years ago, the British People voted to leave the EU, whether that was right or wrong is a matter of opinion, but Brexit has caused irreversible damage to our democratic institutions and has coarsened our political discord. I continue to believe that we need to come together as a country, restart meaningful debate with respect for all views and focus on the many other issues we face. However, we are running out of options and it is not certain if we will ever be able to heal these deeply rooted societal divisions.