Andrew Grice / Nov 2019
Will the general election finally bring closure to the UK’s tortuous debate on Brexit, and prevent the need for another extension to its EU membership?
The latest opinion polls suggest Boris Johnson’s gamble in calling the country’s first December election since 1923 is likely to pay off. But there is still a long way to the contest on 12 December – the day, coincidentally, EU leaders gather in Brussels for their regular summit. They will know the result by the time the two-day meeting concludes.
The Prime Minister insisted he did not want this election, claiming it was forced by Parliament blocking the legislation implementing the withdrawal agreement he secured against the odds in October. This was disingenuous: the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill received a second reading (approval in principle) by a margin of 30 votes. MPs then blocked his timetable for them to scrutinise the measure, but only because he proposed a paltry three days of Commons debate. It appears that Johnson, whose Conservative Party ended the last Parliament 45 votes short of a majority, concluded his best chance of winning one was in a pre-Brexit election so he could promise to finish the job, rather than after the UK had left the EU.
If the polls are right and he secures an overall majority, the Bill would be re-introduced before Christmas and should complete its passage through the Commons and House of Lords by mid-January, comfortably before the 31 January deadline set by the EU’s last extension. This scenario would also apply if Johnson fell just short of an overall majority but could get over the line with the help of MPs from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party or Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, though the latter would be an unlikely bedfellow because of its strong opposition to the agreement’s “customs border in the Irish Sea.”
Although Labour trails the Tories by about 10 points in the polls, Jeremy Corbyn's prospects of becoming prime minister are better than they look. While Johnson would struggle to find potential partners with large numbers of MPs in a hung parliament, Corbyn could probably rely on the backing of the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and (despite their current hostility) the Liberal Democrats. So Labour could form a minority government with the support of these parties in key Commons votes, even if Labour made only modest gains in the election.
The common bond between these parties is a commitment to another Brexit referendum. Corbyn has promised to hold one within six months, though that might prove optimistic as legislation would need to be pushed through Parliament. Labour would offer voters a choice between remaining in the EU and a soft Brexit deal, including a customs union, the Government would negotiate with the EU within three months of the election. Another optimistic deadline, perhaps. Labour frontbenchers insist their contacts with Brussels suggest such an agreement would be straightforward. But the EU might be rather less accommodating when it realised Corbyn would not promise to back Labour’s soft Brexit deal in the referendum. He intends to remain neutral, while a special Labour conference to decide the party’s stance would likely recommend a Remain vote --in other words, Labour would not endorse the agreement it had just reached with the EU.
With Corbyn in Downing Street, Brexit-weary EU leaders should brace themselves for a further extension of UK membership, perhaps for another nine months.
If Johnson retained power and pushed his deal through Parliament, the Brexit divorce would be completed, but the future relationship would then have to be resolved. To give Farage a figleaf to allow him to stand down Brexit Party candidates in Tory-held seats, Johnson promised that a “super Canada plus” free trade agreement without political alignment would be concluded with the EU by December 2020. He said his government would not extend the transitional period beyond then.
This could prove yet another unrealistic deadline. Few officials in London or Brussels or independent trade experts believe a long-term agreement could be reached in 12 months. Despite his nod to Farage, Johnson has not taken key decisions on his goals in such a deal. In practice, he might need to take advantage of the clause in the agreement allowing the transitional period to be extended for up to another two years.
The UK election is only one more staging post on the long Brexit road.