20 December 2019

The Withdrawal Agreement Bill today passed the House of Commons at Second Reading (a debate and vote on the general principles of the Bill) by 358 votes to 234 – a majority of 124. The remaining stages of the Bill are expected to have a smooth passage through Parliament next month. That would mean that on 31 January 2020, the United Kingdom will cease to be a member of the European Union, and negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship will begin in earnest.

After months of political stalemate, the UK’s exit will have a profound effect on British politics. Boris Johnson’s victory in the General Election last week appears to have brought an end to the decades-long ‘civil war’ in the Conservative Party over the question of Europe. The prominent pro-European Conservative grandee Lord Heseltine said last week, “We’ve lost, Brexit is going to happen and we’ll have to live with it.” It may be that some of the old divisions will resurface in new ways when the Government confronts difficult decisions over future trade agreements and domestic reforms. But ultimately the Conservative Party is now the party of Brexit, and the fate of this Government will depend on how it manages the consequences of that decision.

Meanwhile, the Labour party is now preparing for a leadership contest in the new year. While there is a debate about how far the party’s defeat in the election was due to Brexit, a new leader will have to come to terms with a very different reality post-2020. There will be room for an opposition with an internationalist message which challenges the Conservatives on key strategic choices about the UK’s future, but it is unlikely that Labour will support a policy of re-joining the EU.

Another key issue facing the UK at the start of the new decade is the future of the Union itself. Since the referendum in 2016, many commentators have said that Brexit will hasten the end of the UK in its current form. The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, is seeking powers for the Scottish Parliament to allow another independence referendum, pointing out that her party’s mandate in Scotland is greater than Johnson’s mandate in the UK as a whole. The Westminster Government will have to tread carefully as it tries to keep another referendum off the agenda for now.

There is no doubt that Brexit has given the SNP an opportunity to revive the cause of independence sooner than seemed likely in 2014. But Scottish independence is not a cause that needed Brexit in the first place: the first referendum was held in the context of EU membership. Moreover, the SNP won a higher share of the vote (50%) at the 2015 General Election – before the Brexit vote – than at the 2019 General Election (45%). However, the terms of the debate will change again after Brexit becomes a reality. Although the SNP expect Brexit to galvanise the independence movement, it also makes independence a more challenging prospect in practice. Unanimous EU agreement for Scottish re-accession to the bloc as an independent nation cannot be taken for granted. And if Scotland did rejoin the EU, doing so after Brexit would make the Anglo-Scottish border the EU’s external border – with major implications for the deep economic ties that exist within these islands.

In Northern Ireland, Brexit was undoubtedly a significant factor in the General Election results. However, as I argued this week, the outcome suggests that there is limited appetite for a border poll in the immediate future.

In the meantime, the Government is likely to use its majority to try to shift the domestic political agenda onto other matters in the new year. The Government has confirmed that it will close down the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU), and there are even reports that the Prime Minister wishes to discourage the use of the word ‘Brexit’ by officials and Ministers. Abolishing DExEU is not just a symbolic move; it is likely to mean that EU relations are managed more centrally from Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, reducing the Whitehall turf wars that blighted phase 1 of the Brexit negotiations. However, the Government will also need to ensure that key expertise is not lost.

The Open Europe office will be closed from 24 December until 2 January, and the Weekly Briefing will return in the new year. In the meantime, the Open Europe team wishes you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

News in brief

1. Parliament votes for Withdrawal Agreement Bill at Second Reading

The House of Commons voted for the Second Reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill today by 358 votes to 234 – a majority of 124. The Bill contains some changes from the version introduced in October, including a specific legal commitment not to extend the transition period beyond December 2020 and a reduced role for Parliament in approving the future relationship. This comes as the Government yesterday set out its legislative agenda for this session of Parliament in a new Queen’s speech.

Separately, the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has called on the UK Government to agree to a so-called Section 30 order, which would transfer the power to hold a second referendum on independence to the Scottish Parliament.

2. Labour leadership campaign gets underway

Jeremy Corbyn has said he will stand down as leader of the Labour Party early next year, following last week’s general election defeat. The shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry and shadow sustainable economics minister Clive Lewis have officially entered the race to succeed him as leader. The shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer has said he is “seriously considering” running. Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey and backbenchers Jess Phillips and Lisa Nandy are also expected to run.

3. Boris Johnson conducts minor ministerial reshuffle

Boris Johnson has conducted a minor reshuffle of his ministers in the wake of last week’s general election result. Nicky Morgan, who stepped down as an MP, will be elevated to the House of Lords and remain as Culture Secretary. Simon Hart has been appointed as the new Secretary of State for Wales, replacing Alun Cairns who resigned over a scandal during the election campaign. Zac Goldsmith, who lost his seat, has also been given a peerage and will continue to attend Cabinet as environment minister. Several junior ministerial posts have also changed hands. Multiple newspapers report that a more wide-ranging reshuffle is planned after the UK leaves the EU.

4. Donald Trump impeached by US House of Representatives

The US House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump yesterday, on charges of abusing his power and obstructing congressional investigations. The impeachment vote in the Democrat-controlled House recommends Trump’s removal from office. A trial in the Republican-controlled Senate will follow.

5. European Parliament calls on EU to open rule of law dialogue with Malta

The European Parliament has adopted a resolution calling on the EU to open a formal rule-of-law dialogue with Malta, following a corruption scandal involving the murder of a journalist in October 2017.

Separately, the Croatian government has outlined its priorities for the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union, which it will take over on 1 January 2020.

Open Europe blogs and media

Appearing on BBC NewsDominic Walsh discussed Boris Johnson’s decision to include a clause in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill ruling out an extension to the transition period. He said, “What Boris Johnson is effectively doing is forbidding himself from doing something which he wasn’t going to do anyway… If he doesn’t want to extend the transition period, then all he has to do is not do it – he doesn’t have to pass a new law.” Walsh also appeared on Global News Canada, Al-Jazeera English and Voice of America to discuss the general election results, and on LBC to discuss the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.

Writing for the Spectator’s Coffee House blogPieter Cleppe argues, “In the longer term, it is very likely that the UK will opt for more regulatory divergence, which is in line with Boris Johnson’s own strong preference,” adding, “The EU’s regulatory zeal is likely to drive the UK to diverge in terms of regulation, thereby truly becoming the ‘competitor’ Angela Merkel fears.” Cleppe also appeared on CNBCEuroNews and TRT to discuss the general election and the upcoming negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship.

Responding to the general election result on our blog last week, Stephen Booth and Dominic Walsh wrote, “The emerging argument in some quarters that Johnson will use his new-found room for manoeuvre to pivot towards a softer Brexit seems at odds with what we know about Johnson’s own strong preference for divergence from the EU.” This analysis was cited by Spanish business newspaper Expansion and the Australian Financial Review.

Commenting on whether the Conservative majority will “get Brexit done” in an article for ConservativeHome, Stephen Booth writes, “our relationship with Europe could never be ‘settled’ in a one-shot deal. However, we should not underestimate the consequences of bringing the first phase of Brexit to a conclusion.” Booth also appeared on France24 to discuss the general election results.

Also writing for ConservativeHomeDavid Shiels comments that while the general election was a bad result for Unionists in Northern Ireland, “a border poll… is not something that either London or Dublin will want to contemplate yet.”

Table of the week: The key flashpoints and milestones for Brexit in 2020