Brexit: Milestones and Millstones

Conservative Party MPs returning after Easter will find many millstones still around their collective neck.

The House of Commons rose for the (delayed) Easter break on the evening of 11 April, no doubt to the relief of the majority of MPs. However, the high degree of fed-uppedness over Brexit among the UK electorate should ensure that many among them, perhaps particularly Conservatives in constituencies which voted ‘leave’, are unlikely to get much by way of respite, let alone any sympathy over numerous press reports of parliamentarians so stressed out that some are “on the brink of breakdown”.

Even though MPs are not, of course, directly involved, local government elections in England and Northern Ireland on 2 May are only likely to add further to stress levels — again perhaps particularly among Conservatives with their more or less totally pro-Brexit ‘rank and file’ completely disillusioned at best and in open rebellion at worst. Expect heavy Conservative losses across England as a whole even though much of the voting will be on local issues.

Furthermore, if the UK does indeed go to the polls again on 23 May to vote in the European Parliament (EP) elections (which I think is more likely than not despite the ongoing Conservative/Labour talks looking to find a Brexit compromise), prospects for the Conservatives look even worse. In less than four weeks a Tory lead over Labour in opinion polls has been turned on its head. Indeed, if, as many believe, the EP elections turn into a de facto referendum on Brexit (albeit with, I expect, a much lower turn-out than we saw in the 2016 referendum proper, and one which may be dominated by infuriated pro-leave voters despite the efforts of some smaller parties to get the pro-EU vote out), especially with voting by proportional representation the Conservatives’ pain is only likely to be compounded by arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage’s launch of a new Brexit Party last week.

Of course:

  • The Conservatives and Labour could reach a compromise before 23 May which secures a majority in the House (nb: press reports suggest that the talks could go on for at least another 10 days or so, with parliament due to return on 23 April); or
  • It is not totally out of the question that Prime Minister Theresa May could get her deal through the House at a fourth attempt (though, personally, I see this only as a very low probability).

Just over a week after EP elections look like being held in the UK, on 1 June we get to another deadline. If the election does not go ahead, the EU27 has determined that the UK should leave the EU then, with or without a deal.

From that date onwards, if the EU and the UK ratify a deal at any point before the now scheduled final exit date of 31 October (see below), on the first day of the following month the UK will leave and move into the agreed transition period which is currently due to end on 31 December 2020 but which could be extended thanks to the delay Brexit per se.

Assuming the UK is still in the EU come June, in theory leaders of the EU27 will again take stock at the European Council meeting on 21/22 June. But this is widely expected to be a very superficial exercise, especially with other pressing items to consider such as a new president for both the European Council and the European Commission.

On 2 July, the new European Parliament convenes, probably including British MEPs (but few Conservatives).

With her Party set to take a battering in two elections in the next five weeks or so, few expect Mrs May to survive the summer irrespective of whether she can get a deal through parliament and even though the Parliamentary Conservative Party (PCP) cannot force a vote of confidence in her again until December. In the event of a contested election, which would almost certainly be the case, the process as a whole (ie the PCP reducing the number of candidates to two who are then put to the full membership of the Party) should take between two and three months. At latest, many in the Party will want to see this done and dusted in time for the 29 September to 2 October Party Conference.

The European Council will meet again on 17/18 October for what is supposed to be the final time before Brexit. We shall see.

And the supposedly hard deadline for Brexit is now, of course, 31 October.

Alastair Newton