So here we are. After three years of tortuous negotiations and three previous unsuccessful attempts to get a Brexit deal through Parliament, on 17 October 2019, British and European negotiators once again reached a revised Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration. The deal was achieved just in time for a two-day summit (17-18 October) of EU leaders in Brussels, where they will sign off the Brexit agreement.
So, what is the substance of the deal? Under it, the UK would be able to strike independent free trade agreements, Northern Ireland would remain in the UK’s customs territory, and the UK would be responsible for collecting EU VAT and excise duties but with special treatment for some goods. In addition, four years after the end of the transition period, the Northern Ireland Assembly would vote on continuation of the special arrangements by a simple majority.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has welcomed it as a “great new deal”, whilst European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has indicated he would be personally opposed to granting a further Brexit extension if the UK Parliament rejects the Brexit deal. However, it is not within Juncker’s legal authority to refuse a further Brexit extension. Rather, an extension has to be agreed unanimously by the 27 member states of the European Council, who are likely to accept such a request in practice. Juncker’s words should therefore be interpreted as his own personal opinion, as he wants a deal done before the end of his Presidency this year, rather than a general statement of the EU27’s position.
The real obstacles to a successful Brexit deal remain at home, and more specifically Parliament. Johnson needs the backing of at least 320 MPs to achieve a majority – there are 288 Conservative MPs overall, meaning he needs a further 32 non-Conservative MPs to get his Brexit deal through the Commons. Juncker’s offer to rule out an extension helps Johnson to sell his deal to MPs as a binary choice between a deal and no-deal and publicly uphold his pledge to deliver Brexit, “do or die”, by 31 October. However, coupled with the likelihood that the EU would grant an extension if requested by the UK, Johnson lacks a Commons majority following recent defections to the Liberal Democrats and the expulsion of 21 Conservative MPs for voting against the Government on important parliamentary votes.
Moreover, Johnson has inherited from his predecessor Theresa May a precarious ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with 10 DUP MPs. The DUP’s position will heavily influence many Conservative Brexiteers from the influential European Research Group, however the DUP has said it will oppose the deal due to fears over customs, consent, and lack of clarity over future VAT arrangements. The DUP has suggested that as many as 15 Conservative MPs could join them in rebelling against the Government, which could leave a significant hole in the Government’s current parliamentary arithmetic.
Several Brexiteers who previously rebelled against May have said they will back Johnson’s deal or have since joined the Government, including Andrew Bridgen, Priti Patel, and Theresa Villiers. The Government’s key task will be winning around those ERG members who have not yet declared their intentions, as for every Brexiteer who rebels, Johnson will need another opposition vote to counterbalance them.
MPs will attend Parliament in an extraordinary session being held on Saturday (19 October), where they will debate and vote on the Brexit deal. However, MPs have backed an amendment proposed by Sir Oliver Letwin, which means the motion will be amendable and could therefore pave the way for a second referendum as a condition of passing the Withdrawal Agreement, which could be backed by a coalition of Labour MPs, Lib Dems, SNP, and former Conservatives.
On the one hand, Juncker’s remarks about ruling out a further extension could focus minds in Westminster, where MPs against a no-deal but critical of Johnson’s deal, such as moderate Labour MPs, could feel compelled to support it out of fear of a disorderly no-deal Brexit. Some of those Labour MPs who have already come out in support of Johnson’s deal include John Mann, Jim Fitzpatrick, and Ronnie Campbell.
At the same time, under Jeremy Corbyn’s instructions, the Labour frontbench will whip its MPs to oppose the deal and has signalled that it might back a second referendum. Corbyn described the deal as “even worse” than Theresa May’s, arguing that it risks cutting environmental and worker protections via regulatory divergence from EU standards. Fears of cutting back regulations and achieving a smaller state post-Brexit could dissuade moderate Labour MPs from backing the deal who are otherwise reconciled to Brexit, such as Lisa Nandy and Stephen Kinnock.
Even if the DUP vote against Johnson’s deal, it could theoretically pass the Commons with a majority of just one if the 286 MPs who voted for May’s deal on 29 March were behind it, as well as 28 Conservative Brexiteers (including the ERG) and seven additional votes from opposition parties. This is also factoring in the loss of one constituency to the Lib Dems (Brecon and Radnorshire) since the March vote, leaving the Conservatives with a theoretical 320-strong majority.
However, this appears a highly unlikely scenario at this stage, given many ERG members’ sympathy with the DUP’s concerns. Moreover, the 286 MPs who voted for May’s deal includes some of the 21 former Tory MPs who had the whip recently removed by Johnson. Whilst some will be looking for a way back into the Conservative Party, others such as former Attorney General Dominic Grieve might not vote in favour of the deal due to their support for a second referendum. Former Tories who have signalled support for the deal so far include Sir Nicholas Soames, Nick Boles, and Alistair Burt.
Given efforts by rebel MPs and the DUP’s continued opposition to the Government’s agreed deal, it is therefore unlikely that Johnson will be able to have enough numbers to get his deal through Parliament on Saturday, which is also the deadline for the Benn Act’s legal obligation for the Prime Minister to seek a further Brexit extension into January 2020. The latter is increasingly looking like the most likely option going forward, unless Johnson is able to attract enough MPs to fall behind the Government’s deal.
If Johnson is indeed defeated, EU ambassadors are planning to meet again on Sunday morning, with the EU likely to hold an emergency summit in late October to agree a short technical extension. This remains the most likely political outcome, which would undoubtedly embolden the Government’s desire to seek a general election in November or December to help resolve the current parliamentary deadlock. Under these trying circumstances, Downing Street would hope that the combination of a triumphant deal at Brussels and yet another Commons defeat would send a compelling message to the British public – if you want to get Brexit over and done with, return the Government with a larger majority in a general election.
This may yet prove to be the manoeuvre needed to resolve the current deadlock, once and for all.
Richard Black, Public Affairs
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January 21, 2021