Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 24 September 2020

UK general election: why it's impossible to just 'get Brexit done'

The December poll and the latest extension will do nothing to resolve the current impasse, writes Chris Grey, author of The Brexit Blog

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London, October 29. Reuters/Toby Melville 
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London, October 29. Reuters/Toby Melville 

We are now approaching the third occasion when a deadline for Brexit has been missed. The first two – on March 29 and April 12 – were followed by the departure of Theresa May as British prime minister. Her successor, Boris Johnson, made leaving on October 31 the defining issue of his leadership. Tomorrow was to be the day that “do or die” Britain would leave “with or without a deal”.

But the possibility of leaving without a deal was scuppered by the British parliament. Instead, MPs demanded that Mr Johnson write to the European Union asking for an extension if he had not struck a deal that had also been approved by parliament. He did manage to reach a deal with the EU – but it hasn’t been passed by parliament. Thus, extremely grudgingly, he wrote a letter asking for an extension.

Even so, his deal did get majority support at second reading – that is to say, it was agreed in principle but subject to discussion and possible amendment. But parliament has not approved the extremely truncated timetable he proposed for that discussion and amendment.

To the puzzlement of many observers, rather than just change the timetable, Mr Johnson decided to seek a general election. That, too, required parliamentary agreement, which, barring some formalities to be completed today, has been secured. An election will therefore take place on December 12 against the background of the nature of Brexit still hanging in the balance, and in an atmosphere of political crisis.

These events have posed serious problems for the EU, where there is a mixture of bemusement and exasperation. They do not want the Brexit crisis to drag on endlessly, but nor do they want there to be no deal. And if there is no deal, they don’t want to be seen as being responsible for it by having refused an extension. Equally, they didn’t want to set a date which – by its shortness or length – seemed to frame, and therefore interfere with, the choices open to the UK. A short extension would have precluded an election. In the end, EU leaders opted for the simplest course by agreeing the date that the UK had asked for of January 31, 2020.

An additional, and under-recognised, problem for both the UK and the EU is that the later the UK leaves, the shorter the transition period between legal departure and actual departure. This period is needed to negotiate the complex matters of Britain’s future trade and other relationships with the EU. In the absence of that transition period also being extended, it will expire at the end of 2020.

This situation makes it very difficult for British businesses and individuals to plan their affairs. The government had been running a massive public information campaign based on the October 31 date. It covered everything from obtaining new export licences to arrangements for taking pets on holiday.

Many have planned on that basis – unnecessarily, as it turns out. Others have not done so, either because the advice offered lacked detail and clarity or, especially for small businesses, because they could not afford to. Some may have correctly calculated that, like the previous deadlines, this one would come and go. Still others have so deeply imbibed the dismissal of "Project Fear" – the term adopted by Mr Johnson during campaigning for Brexit in the 2016 referendum – that they think come what may, nothing much will change if Britain leaves the EU, whatever the date or the terms.

It is easy to conclude from these twists and turns that the British political system, and perhaps even its uncodified constitution, is broken. That is not really so. The constitution is actually working robustly to maintain the separation of powers between executive, legislature and judiciary. The political system is working as it should to accurately reflect the views of the British people.

The problem is that those views remain evenly split between leaving the EU and staying. And while in principle, the narrow majority of 52 per cent who voted to leave in the 2016 referendum answered this question, it was not specified which of the many possible ways of leaving should be followed. Thus, any concrete version of Brexit does not have the backing of all who support Brexit, nor does it have the backing of any who do not; hence the impasse.

It is by no means clear that this latest extension will do anything to resolve matters. The election will be very bitterly fought and the outcome is highly unpredictable, even though Mr Johnson’s Conservatives currently lead in the polls.

A key factor will be the impact of the prime minister’s failure to deliver his high-profile, unequivocal promise to have left by Thursday. That is likely to boost support for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Meanwhile, Remain-leaning voters are likely to vote tactically for the party best-placed to defeat the Conservatives.

Precisely because the public is so divided, the election might very well yield another hung parliament as hamstrung as the present one. That would probably imply yet another extension application to avoid a no-deal Brexit. It might yield a parliament that seeks to hold another referendum, but if so, that too would require another extension.

But suppose it yields a parliament that passes Mr Johnson’s deal. That will only be the beginning of a new stage. Given the Christmas holidays, ratification by both the UK and EU would probably happen in January. Then future terms talks will begin but, because of the mandates needed, they’re unlikely to start before March 1, 2020.

To extend the transition period deadline of the end of 2020, the UK would have to make an application by July 1. Mr Johnson has already said he won’t do so but no one believes negotiations can be completed without an extension. So almost before we know it, all the talk will be of new extensions and new cliff-edge deadlines. This will extend all the uncertainty that businesses and individuals face, and the problem of how – or whether – to plan.

Many opinion polls in Britain show that the public "just want Brexit done" and no doubt that sentiment is shared by other countries too. The reality is that we are still many months – and possibly many years –away from that.

Chris Grey is a professor of organisation studies at Royal Holloway, University of London and the author of The Brexit Blog

Updated: October 30, 2019 02:50 PM

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