Brexit: A New Deal

Brexit: A New Deal

October 2019 | Politics

The Withdrawal Agreement is dead, long live the Withdrawal Agreement. A new deal has been signed much to everyone's surprise. This time will be different.

Everyone thought it was impossible. Many thought he wasn't even seriously trying to do it. Until on Thursday, Boris Johnson stunned the world by announcing a revised Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. One which is far more acceptable to both hardline leavers and European leaders than the previous agreement.

He did it by agreeing to the one thing that Theresa May couldn't: a customs border in the Irish Sea. At one point the ill-fated backstop was supposed to be a Northern Ireland only arrangement, but the former Prime Minister changed her mind late in the game after pressure from the ERG and the DUP. Those ERG leaders are now in a government that comprehensively threw the DUP under the bus in order to reach an agreement. Northern Ireland will formally remain in the UK's customs union but for practical purposes will be subject to EU customs and regulatory arrangements.

Boris's betrayal of the Northern Irish unionist community will have long term consequences, but it had the short term effect of uniting what remains of his party including most of the 21 anti-No Deal Rebels without the whip. Some of those rebels are lost forever but the majority are genuine in their desire to get the whip back. For the first time in over 12 months, the Tories have a settled position on Brexit backed by all wings of the party, just in time for the rumoured winter General Election.

Getting It Done

First, he needs to pass the deal. Ignore the minor setback that is the Letwin Amendment. The Government has the numbers to pass the deal even without the DUP. Close to a dozen Labour MPs have publicly endorsed the agreement, so will vote for it when the time comes to do so. Even if he doesn't, the Government could force a general election with SNP and Liberal Democrat support. With the Labour Party historically unpopular, there is no way the passage of the deal can be stopped only delayed.

It is delay that yesterday's events in Parliament were designed to either promote or prevent. The author of the Letwin Amendment supports the deal but wanted to delay the rapidly approaching departure date so it could be scrutinised properly. Boris made a big deal of the October 31st deadline, so wants to avoid the embarrassment of missing that date. The EU just want Brexit sorted one way or the other as soon as possible.

The Amendment Risk

It may not even come to that. There is an open question about whether tomorrow's re-run of the meaningful vote will be allowed. However, nothing is stopping Boris from placing the Withdrawal Agreement Implementation Bill before Parliament this week, and he says he wants to do this. Most observers believe it will pass. The risk lies with any amendments that are proposed to the Implementation Bill. Some, such as a Customs Union, are fundamentally unacceptable to the Conservatives and would kill the agreement stone dead if added to the Bill. The Government would probably force an election if unwanted amendments are added to the Bill.

The possibility of amendments explains Boris's desperation for holding a straight up or down vote on it this weekend. He needs to prove that it has sufficient support as drafted. This is not a necessity for the UK's ratification process but is for the EU ratification process. The agreement needs to be approved by the EU Parliament, who meet this week and then are on a break until mid November. Having been burnt once, the EU aren't prepared to commence their own ratification process until the UK Parliament has approved the deal.

An Unwanted Letter

In the end, this may give a purpose to the unwanted extension request sent last night. So long as the House of Commons approves the deal this week, a technical extension to complete the ratification processes can be agreed. This will be mildly embarrassing to the Government, but they will probably be able to shrug it off by blaming either EU Bureaucracy or Opposition delaying tactics.

If Parliament narrowly votes to block the deal, then an extension becomes inevitable despite all the rhetoric from Paris and Dublin. That extension will be conditional on a general election being held, which suits Boris just fine. We won't get an answer to the extension until next week, because it requires a special summit of EU leaders to meet and agree on a response. By this time, the timetable for ratifying Boris's deal should be clear and the extension will be agreed accordingly.

The Queen's Speech

There is one gigantic obstacle to getting the deal passed: last week's Queen's Speech. Originally intended as a way to waste parliamentary time prior to the October 31st deadline, it may now backfire on the Government. The Commons spent last week debating the speech, and are due to vote on it on Tuesday. With the DUP firmly against the Government, they could well lose. The Government have lost a lot of votes recently, but this one is important because it is traditionally seen as a confidence vote. Lose, and the Government is expected to resign. Corbyn doesn't have the numbers to form an alternative government, but an election would delay the Brexit departure date.

A week ago, delaying the departure date would have been hugely damaging for Boris. Now, it won't. The opposition strategy was built around forcing an extension in the hopes it would hit his polling numbers. With a brand new shiny deal acceptable to both Tory leavers and Tory remainers, there is no way he can lose an election against Jeremy Corbyn. A split opposition and public disgust at the antics of MPs will see him home, probably with a narrow majority that will just be big enough to get the deal through the Commons. No Deal is off the table, and this removes a major obstacle to getting electoral support from remainers. The Deal and Farage's reaction to it, has robbed the Brexit Party of any chance of peeling significant numbers of defectors on the other flank.

It is impossible to understate how fundamentally this deal has changed the Brexit dynamic. No one expected it to happen, least of all the public. Now that it has, a large portion of the public have now shifted to supporting the Government on this one issue. The general public are mostly sick of the Brexit deadlock and want to see it resolved one way or the other. This deal isn't perfect, but it's good enough for both leavers and for Tory Remainers so has the support of Brexiters and Conservative voters including many who were firmly backing either No Deal or Revoke just a few days ago. Now Parliament just needs to pass it. Given the pressure from all sides to get Brexit sorted, they don't have a choice.

Written by Alan Chatfield