09 September 2019

It is now 39 months since the referendum result, but Jill Rutter says it is becoming even less clear how the Brexit story ends.

The government has failed to stop MPs legislating against a no-deal Brexit on 31 October, and it has failed to get MPs to support an early general election before the European Council on 17–18 October. Once prorogation kicks in, MPs will not sit in the Commons until the Queen opens Parliament again on 14 October. So what might happen in the coming days, weeks and months?

There could be a new Brexit deal, a return for Theresa May’s deal or no deal at all

The PM has made clear that his Brexit preference is to get a deal agreed with the European Council – a deal without the Northern Ireland backstop. He does not seem to be making great progress, however, and has argued that Parliament’s decision to take no deal off the table has removed the pressure on the EU to give ground. If the PM cannot get a new deal, but he still wants to leave with a deal, then he could either resuscitate Theresa May’s deal – a move suggested by some MPs – or accept the EU’s initial proposition of a Northern Ireland-only backstop. The latter option would see him add the DUP to the list of people whose support he has lost since coming to power.

The Brexit deadline might or might not be extended

If the PM fails to deliver a deal by 19 October, then the law now requires him to seek an extension to 31 January – but the government insists that he won’t make that request. That means that the government is planning on frustrating the purpose of the law or that another prime minister will be in place to request the extension. Johnson would therefore have to resign and pass the extension parcel to someone else. 

Of course, the extension is not something the UK can unilaterally deliver. The EU also has a say, but so far its strategy has been to avoid the blame for no deal. So if the UK asks, then the EU is likely to agree, though possibly with conditions and a date of its choosing.  

There may be a general election – but we don’t know when

Proroguing Parliament means the chance of an election before 31 October has disappeared. But an election looks likely to take place before Christmas.

There are various routes to an election: a two-thirds Commons majority vote for an election once the government secures a Brexit extension, or an election if the government loses a vote of no confidence. Both would point to a mid-November election at the earliest – but with the date chosen by the incumbent PM.

Boris Johnson might or might not be the prime minister

Boris Johnson may not be the PM who asks for an extension and calls an election. He could decide to step down – or see his party move against him with a no confidence process, just as they did against Theresa May in December last year. But those Conservative 'rebels' who are so opposed to his approach would not have a say, unless the whip is restored.

Johnson could also be replaced as PM if he loses the confidence of the House, either by losing a formal vote of no confidence or being pressured to do so if his government is defeated on the Queen's Speech. An alternative prime minister, who does command confidence, could then emerge. That could be Jeremy Corbyn – or another 'unity' figure.  

The result of any general election could determine whether Brexit takes place 

The Conservative Party looks set to run on a pledge to leave the EU with or without a deal – though the threat from the Brexit Party may even see the Conservatives commit to a no-deal Brexit. Labour currently wants to negotiate a Brexit deal with a close relationship with the EU – but has promised to put that deal to the people in a referendum choice of deal against Remain. Many of the Conservative rebels will support the sort of deal Labour says it wants to negotiate, while the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and others will run on out and out 'Remain' platforms.

The government or its opponents could settle on a surprising way to break the Brexit impasse

The government could decide to immediately seek an early extension, then recall parliament and try to legislate for an election before 31 October. If it won, it could then attempt to take the UK out of the EU, without a deal, by that date. Another option for the government could be to pivot towards supporting a 'no deal versus Remain' referendum. Or perhaps a coalition of Labour, the Lib Dems, nationalist parties and Independent Conservatives could decide to call for a referendum and only vote for a general election once a referendum had taken place. Alternatively, the EU could just ignore the demands of the UK Parliament and decide that it wants the UK gone on 31 October.

There is only one certainty: for the civil servants, businesses and citizens trying to work out what to do, there is still no certainty.