What now for Brexit?

The pending resignation of Theresa May as Leader of the Conservative Party and, subsequently as Prime Minister is a key event in the Brexit process.

While any attempt to revive her long dead ‘deal’ and drive it through the Commons had only stood a chance of success in her own irrational thinking, her resignation effectively ended that process, at least for now. The fact remains, however, that the ‘deal’ represents the only offer that the EU27 are likely to make given the ‘red lines’ put in place by the UK Government. The coming to office of a new Prime Minister of itself changes nothing. The EU remains a rules-based organisation, the ‘red lines’ define what is possible within those rules and the land border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland is a conundrum that will continue whatever decision the Conservative Party makes.

So what might happen from here on in? First there is the question of timetables (I've been banging on about this to whoever might care to listen since the latest extension was announced). Ever since it became clear that the UK would be unable to make an orderly exit from the European Union on 29 March it has been clear that the period that would follow was fraught with difficulties for any new negotiation based on different pre-conditions (for it is evident to all but the foolish that no other circumstances merit a renegotiation). The 8th Legislature of the European Parliament finished its session on 19 April in Strasbourg mean that there was no practical mechanism for the ratification of any withdrawal agreement and necessitating European Parliament Elections. This also represented the practical conclusion of the current European Commission’s term in office. The President of the ‘unelected bureaucrats’ these days being effectively elected by the voters in the European Elections and the remainder being subject to ratification hearings by the new Parliament in September and possibly October. Though the mandate for Brexit negotiations is strictly a matter for the Council (the member states) the difficulty during the EU’s transition process is obvious. The Conservative Party, having concluded it’s member ballot in July (and it doesn’t look as if it will simply be a matter of acclimation this time), the will remain little or no time for a new Prime Minister to engage with the EU27 negotiators before Brussels begins its summer recess and the UK conference season is upon us following which October is upon us.

The impracticality of the timeframe leads many to speculate that a Prime Minister elected on a ‘no deal’ prospectus will have to do precisely nothing to succeed in ‘crashing’ the UK out of the EU on 31 October. While in theory this is possible and the UK Parliament would, again in theory, have no binding method of preventing such a course, it should be born in mind that same Parliament has decisively voted against a ‘no deal’ exit and any Prime Minister would be risking losing a vote of confidence by defying the will of the House and The Speaker has already indicated that it is inconceivable the Commons would not express its view on the matter once again.

Predictions of what, exactly, will happen are therefore as foolish as ever, but there are a number of possibilities:

The new Conservative leader is a Brexiteer who seeks to crash out the UK and succeeds. The future course of UK politics in these circumstances is unclear but the probable disruption to domestic life renders an early election less likely.

The new Conservative leader, despite being a Brexiteer, is thwarted by the House of Commons and is forced to seek a new extension to Article 50 from the EU27.


The new Conservative leader favours an orderly exit but is forced to seek a further extension either simply because of the practicalities of the timetable or to facilitate a new negotiation on different pre-conditions.

In either case there is now considerable doubt over whether a further extension would be granted by the EU27. Much would depend on the position taken by the President Macron who, without an election in the offing, may choose a more conciliatory approach. Either way the most likely extension date would be 31 December 2020. This has always been the practical option for the EU27 as it brings the UK to the end of the current seven year budget (MFF) period (the rationale for the end of the formerly proposed ‘transition’). If this is the course of action agreed an early election is once again, given the volatile state of the polls, a less likely option.

Finally, there is the possibility that the newly chosen Prime Minister succeeds where Mrs May failed and gets some cosmetic variation of the Withdrawal Agreement through the Commons either through the fear of the political consequences of not doing so, the fear of crashing out or on the promise of ripping up the political declaration and unilaterally negating the backstop arrangement for the border in Ireland (and in the process violating the Good Friday Agreement). Should this be achieved the new Conservative leader would undoubtedly go to the country as soon as the dust had settled.

For what it’s worth, which is probably not very much, I regard these three scenarios as more or less equally likely. What I believe, sadly, has become much less likely, though not impossible, as a result of the dynamic of the European Elections, is a public vote on a final deal (the position I favour and for which I will continue to campaign). This would effectively be a subset of the second option – a further extension. While it still represents a practical route out of the mire and it necessary to gain acceptance within the UK of any outcome, the use of the vote as a political weapon in the European Parliament Election campaign was a major strategic error that will result in more intractable positions by key players in the two large Westminster parties who may now be inclined to back any orderly exit.

The waters of Brexit are as muddy as ever and with every test of public opinion the political stakes are raised further. The elections may be over for now by Brexit will remain unfinished business until the Autumn and would continue to dominate the public discourse well beyond any potential exit.