Events on Brexit are moving fast now and trying to report what is happening and its consequences is a little difficult. The sands keep shifting, so this note comes with a health warning that things could be very different in a few days’ time, depending on what happens this week.
Action in the first part of the month concentrated on trying to stop No Deal Brexit happening. I’ve mentioned before what a disaster this would be for our city and country. Economy contracting by up to 9%, the shock of being outside current trading arrangements and food and medicine shortages to name a few short-term impacts.
Parliament successfully seized control of the agenda and passed the ‘Benn Act’ which required the Government either to have agreed a deal with the EU by 19th October or to send a letter to the EU requesting an extension to sort the UKs position out, but under circumstances where ‘no deal’ would not be an acceptable outcome.
As will now be known Johnson did produce a ‘deal’ of sorts, substantially worse in its effect on the UK than the rejected Theresa May deal, and effectively cutting Northern Ireland loose from an integral customs relationship with Great Britain in order to ‘resolve’ the backstop issue.
Johnson attempted to gain a straight ‘up and down’ agreement to the ‘deal ‘ by Parliament in advance of anyone having seen any proposed legislation, so that he could say to the EU that Parliament had agreed a deal, and hence could avoid the need for an extension.
This was stopped in its tracks by an amendment to the motion he proposed which stated that no agreement should be regarded as having been reached until all stages of the European Withdrawal Act had been passed. The amendment was carried, and the amended motion agreed without a vote.
This week Johnson came back by publishing the EU withdrawal Bill containing the implementation into UK law of the agreement he had reached with the EU. He then set a breakneck timetable to get the bill discussed and agreed, all still in pursuit of an agreement that removes the need to extend beyond the end of October.
The idea was that the bill was to be discussed on October 22nd and agreed through all of its common’s stages by Thursday 25th and then passed on to the Lords.
This procedure would have been a straightforward abuse of the parliamentary process in that it allowed members only about eighteen hours to read the bill, digest its contents and produce amendments before second reading and committee stage of the Bill.
The Bill upon reading, contains a number of provisions not really made clear in the initial announcements about stripping away of workers’ rights and environmental protections, more draconian customs provisions than anticipated for Northern Ireland, and clauses that allow for a delayed ‘no deal’ Brexit to be accomplished if a trade deal with the EU is not agreed by early 2020. It needed more than 18 hours to unpick all of this.
Labour opposed the second reading of the bill, but the Government had the numbers to secure this and so it passed. However, the procedural motion to agree the impossible timetable as outlined above for committee and other stages of the Bill was defeated by a coalition of opposition parties, led by Labour.
The plan was that having secured a more reasonable timetable to discuss the bill and having got an extension from the EU to make this possible, Labour would have attempted to amend the Bill in committee. We would have attempted to secure the UKs position in a customs union with the EU and the offer of a vote so that the public could decide between Johnson’s Deal vs Remaining in the EU.
However, after the programme motion vote, Johnson has gone off in a huff (literally …he stormed out of the chamber halfway through various points of order prior to an emergency business statement) and it transpires that the Government has pulled the Bill and is making threatening noises about preparing for a ‘no deal exit on October 31st again.
Where this leaves us is, that technically the Bill is suspended until such time as the EU pronounces on an extension to Article 50. Even though Johnson (childishly) withheld his signature from the letter that he was required to send to the EU requesting an extension, the request has been properly made.
I imagine the EU will agree an extension, although it is possible it will come with strings attached, and it may not be just for the three months requested. At that point (and after October 31st) the discussion on the withdrawal agreement should continue despite Johnson’s childish insistence that no business will come forward until he gets an election.
It may be by then that more momentum builds for what is now the only realistic option to get out of the impasse, which is a confirmatory referendum between Johnson’s Brexit package and Remain.
We’re still a long way from that position at the moment and there are probably quite a few twists in the road to come. Although we have had our backs to the wall in recent days, there is still some hope for a better outcome.