Today was meant to be the final resolution of the Brexit saga—or rather this phase of it (talks on the future relationship with the EU are the inevitable next step after Brexit day). Instead, the decisive vote on Boris Johnson’s revised withdrawal agreement was forestalled, with MPs instead voting to support Oliver Letwin’s amendment which deferred a vote for now. What happens next?
First and foremost, the failure to vote for a withdrawal agreement by 19th October triggers the obligation under the Benn Act (discussed further here) for the prime minister to ask the EU for a further three month extension of UK membership. We’ll see soon enough if the prime minister lives up to this legal obligation at all, or whether he does so in a way (such as sending a contradictory letter) that frustrates his legal obligations under the Act.
What if the PM does not comply with the Act? The Court of Appeal ruled on Friday in England that it would not make an order in advance of the 19th, instead waiting to see what the prime minister would do. We will soon enough know what he does. Similarly, an appeal court in Scotland suspended proceedings aimed at enforcing the Benn Act prior to the 19th, but is ready to resume them on Monday.
It’s also possible that the EU does not grant a further extension, or grants one for a different period. (The Benn Act requires the PM to accept an extension, although if it’s for a period of other than three months, parliament could vote to turn it down). The EU might think it prudent to wait for a few days closer to the deadline of 31st October to see what happens in the UK.
The government announced plans to table another motion approving the revised withdrawal agreement on Monday. However, the speaker might rule this out of order—since the same motion cannot be put twice in the same parliamentary session. If he does allow a vote on the motion, the proponents of delay might try to amend it again. But if parliament does vote to approve the deal, the Benn Act says that the PM may withdraw or amend the request for an extension.
The government plans to table a bill to implement the withdrawal agreement shortly. Some of the advocates of delaying Brexit simply seek the time to scrutinise this complex and controversial bill properly—and/or make sure that the UK does not leave the EU with no deal by accident on 31st October, because parliament might run out of time to consider it.
The bottom line is that political observers reckon that at the moment, there are probably enough MPs willing to support the revised Brexit deal at some point soon. If that’s true, then the UK will leave the EU with a deal in the near future. Even if there’s a three month extension initially agreed, the UK would leave the EU the first day of the month after approval of a withdrawal agreement by both sides. So approval in November means Brexit Day is 1st December . But opponents of the deal are likely to continue trying to persuade MPs to vote against it (or attach a condition of a referendum) until the last minute.
In any event, the revised withdrawal agreement creates another no-deal cliff edge, as far as trade is concerned. That’s because the transition period within it terminates at the end of 2020, and the government opposes any extension of that period. (A one or two year extension is possible). So the Brexit issue will loom large in politics for awhile—although an intervening election might alter the situation one way or another.