What’s next in Brexit, the never-ending story?

233
Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

A lot could happen between now and July, let alone October.

The decision to delay Brexit until, potentially, October 31 temporarily lowered the temperature of the UK’s exit crisis.

But while MPs’ Easter break will likely see the issue put on the backburner for a few days, the House of Commons drama will ramp up again as soon as they are back in Westminster April 23.

Meanwhile, UK political parties are making last-minute preparations for a European election they never expected to take part in, and which Prime Minister Theresa May is still hoping — perhaps optimistically — to avoid by somehow passing a Brexit deal between now and May 22.

Here’s how the next few months of the tortuous Brexit process are likely to play out.

Now until April 23: Easter recess

Now on Easter break, the House of Commons will not sit again until Tuesday April 23.

In the meantime Government officials have indicated that talks with the Labour Party will continue.

The aim of the talks is to find either a compromise proposal on the post-Brexit future relationship to put to the House of Commons or, failing that, to agree on a short list of potential future relationship options to put to the Commons. Unlike the indicative votes held last month, these votes would be binding.

This latter scenario would require a pledge from both the government and Labour front benches to abide by the decision of the house if one of the options gets a majority.

Why is this important? Because the legislation implementing that decision — the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (known as the WAB) — will require a stable majority to complete its passage through parliament. The government does not want a Brexit option to pass narrowly in the initial voting, only for the WAB to fail to win parliamentary approval.

April 23 to May 22: Last chance to avoid the European election

During this period, May’s government will try, one way or another, to get a Brexit deal approved by parliament in time to avoid the UK having to take part in the European election on May 23.

May said in the House of Commons that “if we were able to pass a deal by 22 May, we would not have to take part in European elections and, when the EU has also ratified, we would be able to leave at 11pm on 31 May.”

May speaks to the press at the European Parliament in Brussels | Tribouillard

This is the importance of the “flextension” part of the EU27’s agreement at their summit on Wednesday. Their conclusions state that if the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified by the UK and the EU before October 31, Brexit will take place on “the first day of the following month.”

That means ratification by both sides before the end of May could mean departure at one second past midnight on the morning of June 1, Brussels time (or 11pm UK time on May 31, as the prime minister put it).

The Withdrawal Agreement Bill

Government officials say that when May talks about “passing a deal” by May 22, she means not only having MPs’ approve a way forward, but that the entire WAB legislative process should have been completed, and the European Parliament has ratified the deal.

That raises the probability the government, in order to beat the clock, might try to bring the WAB forward soon after April 23, even if the Labour talks have not yet yielded a compromise.

The law states the government must win a meaningful vote on its Brexit deal and pass the WAB to ratify the deal. But it does not state in what order that must happen, so there is no legislative barrier to the WAB coming forward — just a political one (May doesn’t have a parliamentary majority).

May appeared to touch on this in her statement on Thursday, suggesting the WAB could become “a useful forum to resolve some of the outstanding issues in the future relationship.” MPs will almost certainly try to amend the WAB to shape the way ahead. For example, second referendum supporters could try to amend to legislate for a public vote.

The problem for May is the same one she’s had all along: To pass the WAB she will need a majority for one kind of Brexit or another. And there’s no sign of one. Unless that changes, her bid to avoid the UK taking part in the European election will fail.

April 25: Deadline for MEP candidates

According to the Electoral Commission, political parties must submit their nomination papers and lists of candidates for the European election by 4pm on Thursday April 25.

Each political party has its own procedures for selecting candidates, but because the UK elects MEPs on a regional basis, all parties will have to submit their regional lists by that date (except for the South West region, which must file a day early because of public holidays in Gibraltar, which is considered part of the region).

May 2: Local elections

Town hall elections across England and Northern Ireland (there are no local elections in Scotland or Wales this year) will provide an important stress test of the impact the Brexit crisis is having on support for the main parties. Results will be clear by the afternoon of Friday May 3.

Some Conservative MPs say a poor result for the Tories could be the trigger for a move against May, but there is no formal mechanism by which the party can remove her until a year has expired since the last confidence vote, which was in December 2018.

May 23: European election in the UK

Assuming May is unsuccessful in her bid to complete ratification of a Brexit deal by May 22, then the UK will have to take part in the EU ballot.

May 26: European election results

While the UK vote count may be complete by the morning of Friday May 24, all EU countries must hold back their results until the evening of Sunday May 26, when all countries have finished voting. Watch out for breakthroughs from new parties on either side of the Brexit debate: Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, and Chuka Umunna’s Change UK, which advocates for a second referendum and staying in the EU.

May 27 to July 1: Stop those MEPs!

Even if the UK has elected MEPs, May’s government will hold out hope that a Brexit deal can be approved by parliament soon enough to ensure they never have to take their seats in the European Parliament, or if they do, to leave promptly thereafter.

“We want to ensure any British MEPs that are elected never have to take their seats in the European Parliament by ensuring this is all done well before the new European Parliament convenes,” Chancellor Philip Hammond told the BBC on Friday.

July 2: New European Parliament

The new European Parliament sits for the first time, with UK MEPs if Brexit has not happened yet.