'Very unlikely' UK will leave with deal in October

It is now very unlikely the UK will be able to leave the EU with a Brexit deal on October 31, says the independent British think-tank the Institute for Government.

14 August 2019
By Oliver Rowland

Furthermore there will now be little time or opportunity for those opposed to leaving with no-deal to act to stop it, meaning the ‘default’ scenario of a no-deal crash-out – which UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson called ‘a million to one against’ as recently as June – is now the most likely scenario according to the body's analysis.

This comes as former chancellor Philip Hammond, in his first comments since stepping down, accused the prime minister of moving “from a tough negotiating stance to a wrecking one” by insisting the EU must totally remove the ‘Northern Irish backstop’ – part of the negotiated deal aimed at keeping the border open – as opposed to seeking changes to it. He said there was 'no mandate' for leaving with no deal.

In its report the Institute for Government says Britain’s MPs will head back to work on September 3 to face “a Brexit showdown in September and October”, however:

“With the prime minister defining the October 31 deadline as “do or die”, and a simple choice between deal or no deal, it looks very difficult for MPs who are opposed to no-deal to force a change of approach.

“Even if they can assemble a majority to do so, they may find few opportunities to make their move – and time is running out.”

The institute adds that MPs will have “far fewer opportunities to make their voices heard” than they did in the run-up to the original March 31 date when then Prime Minister Theresa May was still trying to get the negotiated deal passed through the UK parliament.

It says that even if Mr Johnson was able to renegotiate some parts of the current deal with the EU there will be very little time to pass legislation to ratify it and he will probably need to ask the EU for another extension to complete the process.

However this does not fit well with Mr Johnson’s statement that the UK will leave “do or die” on October 31.

What is more outgoing EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker reiterated in an interview with Austrian newspaper Tiroler Tageszeitung at the weekend the longstanding EU position that the withdrawal agreement – including the backstop – cannot now be changed, though tweaks to the accompanying Political Declaration on the future relationship are possible.

Mr Juncker added that “the British would be the big losers” in a no-deal and the EU is “fully prepared” for it.

Considering other options, the Institute for Government said MPs would be able to express opposition to no-deal, but that alone would not prevent it happening.

A vote against it ‘in principle’ would have no binding effect on the government and there is no legislation the government itself needs to pass before October 31 which MPs could amend or vote down with a view to stopping no-deal.

MPs might want to try a repeat of the ‘Cooper-Letwin act’ this spring in which MPs were able to force the government to seek an extension, however “as the government controls most of the time in the Commons there are limited opportunities”, the institute says. If it worked, then the EU would have to agree.

Cancelling the party conference recess – a move that some MPs are reported to be seeking – would not in itself solve this problem, the institute added.

This refers to the fact that, after the current summer recess from July 25 to September 3, the House of Commons would normally close down again for around three weeks from mid-September to mid-October for party conferences.

This year they are planned from September 14 (the start of the Liberal Democrat conference) to October 15, when the SNP’s conference ends.

Commentators say that if the recess is cancelled the conferences will doubtless still take place, meaning that at any one time at least one party’s MPs will be absent from Commons debates.

Even a vote of no confidence in Mr Johnson as prime minister, which would require at least one Conservative MP to rebel, would not necessarily stop no-deal, the report says.

If passed, such a vote would trigger a 14-day period during which MPs could try to form a ‘government of national unity’ – referring to a coalition government of all major parties formed in times of war or other national emergency, with a new prime minister (failing which a general election would be called 25 working days after Parliament is dissolved).

However it is unclear what would happen if Mr Johnson refused to follow constitutional convention and step down in the event of an alternative government and prime minister being put forward.

Some commentators say the Queen might be forced to step in and sack him, however she usually remains aloof from such hands-on involvement in politics.

It is possible a general election will be called because the Opposition pushes for one or because Mr Johnson opts for one to bolster a mandate for no-deal. However Mr Johnson might then try to set the date after October 31, by which time the UK would have left by default.

Furthermore, snap elections require a five-week build-up by law and if either side wants one before the Brexit deadline MPs would realistically have to start work on this almost as soon as they come back from the summer recess.

As for another referendum, this could only happen with government support, the institute says, as it requires legislation and government spending. There would not be time to hold one before October 31 so the government would have to ask the EU for an extension for it to be held.

In the case of the UK leaving with no-deal, French no-deal laws would come into play, requiring Britons to apply for ‘third-country’ citizen’s cartes de séjour within six months and obtain one within a year.

France has said that nothing would change for UK pensioners’ healthcare for two years, but their cover after that would depend on the outcome of bilateral negotiations with the UK.

The UK has said it intends to continue to uprate UK state pensions, also in the context of bilateral agreements with EU states.

Many other areas of life could be affected, including new requirements for owners of second homes, who would for example no longer have healthcare Ehics and would be limited to staying no more than 90 days in any 180-day period.​

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