In the five days Parliament sat, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson lost all six Commons votes, lost his majority, fired 21 Conservative MPs, and saw two members of his cabinet—one of which was his own brother—resign from the party in protest over his stance on leaving the European Union. More resignations are rumored.
After convening for just five days after a five-week summer recess, the U.K. Parliament has now been suspended for a further five weeks. It will open for business on Oct. 14—just three days before European Union leaders meet for final Brexit talks and just over two weeks before the official Brexit deadline of Oct. 31.
Johnson has consistently vowed as Prime Minister to achieve Brexit with or without a deal. He is also vehemently against asking for a third deadline extension (he said he would “rather be dead in a ditch”). Now he has been forced by MPs to either achieve a new deal with the European Union when he goes to Brussels on Oct. 17 or ask for more time—pushing the Brexit deadline back to Jan. 31, 2020. And in a humiliating move, MPs have even drafted the template letter he must (by law) reproduce in full, sign, and send to ask for another delay.
Johnson tried to tip the balance in his favor by proposing a general election, earmarking Oct. 15 as his choice of date. A victory at the polls—which political pundits think would still be likely, despite his leadership failings—would provide Johnson with a mandate to commit to leaving with or without a deal on Oct. 31: It would be like the Commons defeats had never happened. The plan, however, failed: Opposition MPs refused to take the bait and rejected the idea overwhelmingly twice, forcing the government to bring prorogation forward by two days.
As a result of his defeats in the Commons, Johnson must seek a new deal with the European Union or ask for an extension, while the prospect of a general election can only take place at the earliest in mid-November—after the current Brexit deadline has expired and while the United Kingdom remains an EU member state.
But while MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit have wrecked Johnson’s plans, alternative proposals are still noticeably thin on the ground. Although the prospect of “no deal” is currently off the table, there is no clear signal what a majority of pro-remain MPs want in any new Withdrawal Agreement and less evidence of them being able to get sufficient support within the available timeframe.
There is little sign from Brussels that it is willing to offer a new deal or even revise the current one, furthermore, and no guarantee it will actually offer an extension anyway (the chances of not doing so are low, but new conditions may be attached). And even if the European Union does push back the Brexit deadline, Johnson may simply rip up any agreement once/if he wins a general election and put a “no deal” scenario back on the agenda.
Johnson has consistently claimed he is negotiating closely with the European Union while conceding leaving with a suitable deal is unlikely. EU officials, however, have said he has hardly been in contact. Anne Mulder, the Dutch Parliament’s rapporteur on Brexit, has said “there are no negotiations with this government,” adding Johnson is “totally unrealistic.”
More generally, France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has said the French government has lost patience with the process, prompting Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit rapporteur, to add that “yet another extension for Brexit is unacceptable unless the deadlock in London is broken” through a second referendum, new elections, Parliament’s approval of the Withdrawal Agreement—or even by a revocation of Article 50, the legal clause the United Kingdom used to trigger Brexit.
The country’s leading business association, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), is also feeling drained by the drawn-out Brexit process, though it adds the probable delay is “a small chink of light for business” as “most firms back an extension over the known harm of no deal.”
Brexit certainty for business (and everyone else), however, is still some way off. The government might refuse to comply with the legislation enacted last week and could take a chance with legal action: Ministers have refused to rule out an Oct. 31 exit date.
The government could also pay lip service to its new requirements and simply wreck negotiations by demanding too many concessions or by refusing to budge over its own “red lines” on immigration and the Irish backstop, the EU’s proposed arrangement whereby Northern Ireland would effectively remain part of the EU customs union to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.