29 August 2019

Yesterday the Queen approved Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s request to prorogue Parliament from mid-September until 14 October, in order that his Government can present a Queen’s Speech with a new legislative programme.

Given that there was already a planned recess for the party conferences, this cuts parliamentary time only by a few days – although the decision to prorogue may have headed off a plan by some MPs to shorten the recess. Johnson claims that MPs will still have time to debate his new programme and Brexit, both before the European Council summit and after.

As Open Europe’s Dominic Walsh points out, the ‘Grieve amendment’ to the Northern Ireland Executive (Formation) Act, which requires ministers to update Parliament on the restoration of the executive in Stormont, will not have a major effect. The Government can update Parliament immediately before (9 September) and immediately after (14 October), in compliance with the provisions of the NI Act.

Overall, the move shortens the time available for those MPs seeking to block a No Deal Brexit but does not remove the possibility entirely. It forces them to finally confront the few Brexit options available. It has been clear for weeks that Johnson would use the 31 October deadline to put pressure both on MPs in Westminster and the EU.

Anti-No Deal MPs will still have the opportunity either to take control of the parliamentary timetable and pass legislation requesting an Article 50 extension, or table a motion of no confidence and potentially put in place a caretaker government.

The question, which has always been in doubt, is whether there are sufficient numbers to support either option.

Meanwhile, following Johnson’s recent meetings and phone calls with EU27 leaders, the EU seems to be increasingly open to engaging on the backstop – this does not mean they will be ready to remove it or launch ‘new’ negotiations, but there has been a subtle shift away from the previous rhetoric of insisting that the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be reopened.

Johnson has told national leaders and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that he would be satisfied with the deal if the backstop is removed. Arguably, the EU is also keen on avoiding the blame for No Deal by saying that it at least tried to engage with UK proposals. But there is now increased pressure to agree something at the European Council summit on 17-18 October. As Johnson suggested in his letter to MPs, Parliament will have the chance to debate the result of the summit.

If a last-minute deal is agreed, and the Prime Minister’s gambit goes to plan, MPs could yet be presented with a binary choice between a deal and No Deal in mid-October, as the vote will be very close to the Article 50 deadline.


News in brief

1. Opposition leaders agree to pursue legislation to block No Deal
On Tuesday Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn met with other opposition party leaders, and they agreed to pursue legislation to block a No Deal outcome, although not ruling out the possibility of calling a vote of no confidence.

This morning, Shadow International Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner said Labour would “try and have what’s known as a standing order section 24 debate… We will seek to try and put through the appropriate legislation in this constrained timetable that the Government has now imposed.”

The Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said that there are only two choices for No Deal opponents: “One is to change the Government and the other is to change the law. If they do either of those that will then have an effect.”

Separately, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, has announced her resignation.

2. Irish Deputy PM rejects renegotiation of Withdrawal Agreement
Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney has said that for now, the EU does not see any viable proposals or ‘alternative arrangements’ from the UK’s side that can form the basis of an agreement on the Irish backstop, adding that even if the EU wanted to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, “which we don’t, we can’t do it in six or ten weeks.”

This comes after EU27 leaders and EU officials, including chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have suggested over recent days that Brussels would be ready to examine UK proposals regarding the Irish backstop, as long as they do not go against the integrity of the single market.

3. New government in Italy
The populist Five Star Movement and the centre-left Democratic Party have agreed to form a new coalition government in Rome. This came after outgoing Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, from the right-wing Lega, pulled the plug on the Five Stars-Lega coalition, in government since June 2018. The Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, will stay on in the new coalition. Lega will move to the opposition, but it is unclear whether this arrangement will last until the next general election, scheduled for 2023.

4. Formation of the next European Commission
All EU27 member states, except Italy, have nominated candidates for the next European Commission, and President-Elect Ursula von der Leyen will continue meeting with them over the next days. The UK has decided not to nominate a new Commissioner.


Open Europe in the media

In an op-ed for last weekend’s Mail on Sunday, Open Europe’s Chairman Lord Wolfson wrote that in a No Deal scenario, “The biggest worry is that the country will run short of food, medicine and manufacturing components. Talk of scarcity revolves around one issue – congestion at our ports. If there is no congestion there will be no shortages and no need for stockpiles.” He adds, “At all costs, queues of outbound traffic must be kept away from our key ports, particularly Dover.”

Commenting on the decision to prorogue Parliament yesterday, Dominic Walsh told CNBC, “This seems like a rapid-fire response to the gathering of opposition parties and MPs yesterday… [opposition MPs] seemed to settle yesterday on the legislative route to stop No Deal, rather than going straight for a vote of no confidence. It will be interesting to see whether those tactics remain the same [now].” He was also quoted in Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita as well as in Yahoo Finance UK.

David Shiels told BBC World News that the dates of the prorogation suggest that the Government’s attention is focused on the European Council summit in October.

Speaking to BBC World News ahead of last weekend’s G7 summit, Acting Director Stephen Booth said that after Brexit, “The UK needs to try and avoid a scenario where it has to choose between Washington or Brussels… we’ve always treaded a balance.” Booth also discussed alternative arrangements to the backstop with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine.