“A week is a long time in politics” – Harold Wilson, British Prime Minister, in 1964

The first week of Parliamentary scrutiny for Boris Johnson’s Government has certainly lived up to Harold Wilson’s famous aphorism. MPs returned from their summer break to the news that the Prime Minister intended to close down (“prorogue”) Parliament after one week until 14th October. This spurred those opposed to a “no deal” Brexit into action, with the result that:

  • the Government’s working majority went from +1 to -45, caused by a few resignations of the party whip and the expulsion of 21 senior MPs for voting against the Government;
  • Parliament passed a law forcing the Prime Minister to seek an extension to the Article 50 deadline of 31st October unless he has secured a deal and had it approved by Parliament by 19th October;
  • the Government lost all six substantive votes during the week;
  • the Government twice failed to secure a decision for an early (mid October) election; and
  • Parliament required the Government to publish its analysis of the impact of a “no deal” Brexit (the Government is likely to resist this) and some other internal documents.

What happens next?

The Prime Minister promised during the leadership election that he would ensure that the UK left the EU on 31st October, come what may. Unless the Government can find a way to circumvent the law Parliament has now passed, his only way to fulfil this promise is to secure a deal and get Parliament to approve it. This is not impossible: the Government is now starting to explore ways to dilute the impact of the backstop arrangements for the Irish border in the existing Withdrawal Agreement, and the EU has said that it is willing to look at new language for the accompanying Political Declaration on the future relationship. The practical deadline for any deal would be the European Council meeting on 17-18 October. Approval of any deal by Parliament would not be straightforward – the Northern Irish DUP would vote against anything resembling the backstop, and around 20 Conservative MPs would vote against more or less any deal, but a number of Labour MPs have indicated that they regret not voting for the Withdrawal Agreement before.

The chances of a “no deal” exit on 31st October have reduced substantially, but not disappeared. It could happen if either the Government found a way to circumvent the new law, or the EU refused the UK’s request. Neither looks likely at this stage. And of course we could find ourselves facing a similar situation at the end of any extension period agreed.

It looks very likely that there will be a UK General Election some time before the end of the year – the Government cannot continue to function with no majority. It is possible that an election would produce a clear Conservative majority, which would allow the Prime Minister to pursue his Brexit policy – renegotiation backed by a real threat of a “no deal” exit. But it is equally possible that an election would produce another hung Parliament (having four parties potentially polling between 20-30% would make the election particularly hard to call), in which case it is hard to see any way out of the deadlock other than another referendum. The Labour leader has announced that his party would go into the election promising to put a realistic leave option (likely to be based on the existing Withdrawal Agreement) and a remain option to the public in a further referendum.

What should you plan for?

The risk of a “no deal” Brexit on 31st October has greatly reduced, but not disappeared. The risk of “no deal” at some point in the future remains.

At this stage, either leaving with a deal (which would include the implementation period), or a further extension to allow for a UK General Election, look to be the more likely outcomes for 31st October.