U.K.: Parliament Makes a Brexit Delay More Likely

4 MINS READOct 22, 2019 | 21:50 GMT
The Big Picture

The United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the European Union on Oct. 31, but recent defeats in Parliament have forced the British government to ask Brussels to delay its exit. While the European Union has yet to make a formal decision, it is likely to authorize an extension, even if the exact duration will be subject to negotiation between London and Brussels.

What Happened

An Oct. 22 vote in the British House of Commons means an orderly Brexit will probably not occur on the Oct. 31 deadline, but it also means that a no-deal Brexit is unlikely. Parliament rejected Prime Minister Boris Johnson's plan to fast-track the approval of the withdrawal agreement bill, a package of legislation that would have implemented the terms of the Brexit deal that London reached with Brussels last week. The government had sought to have the House of Commons approve the bill by Oct. 25, which would have increased the chances of Johnson honoring his promise of taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union on Oct. 31. After his defeat, Johnson said he would "pause" the passage of the bill.

Why It Matters

The most probable scenario in light of the Oct. 22 vote now is a Brexit delay, though the duration of the extension will be a matter of negotiation between London and Brussels. On Oct. 19, the British government officially asked the European Union to delay the United Kingdom's exit date. On Oct. 22, European Council President Donald Tusk suggested that Brussels would grant London that extension, though it will wait to see how things evolve in the House of Commons before deciding how much time to give London. After the Oct. 22 votes in the House of Commons, a spokesperson for the European Commission said Brussels now expects London to inform it of its plans for the coming days.

Even if Johnson asks for a general election, he does not have a majority in Parliament to approve the request, which means the decision will be in Labour's hands.

Not everything is lost for Johnson: In another vote on Oct. 22, the Commons backed the second reading of the withdrawal agreement bill by 329 votes to 299. This suggests that lawmakers want the ratification process to continue even if they do not like Johnson's proposed timetable. Notably, 19 members of Parliament from Labour, the main opposition party, voted in favor of Johnson's withdrawal agreement bill. This means that Johnson has made more progress toward the ratification of a Brexit deal than his predecessor, Theresa May, ever did. (The House of Commons rejected May's version of the withdrawal agreement bill earlier this year.)

What Happens Next

Johnson now has to make a decision. He could ask the European Union for a so-called technical extension of a few more weeks to try to get the Brexit deal approved in Parliament. The problem with this option is that the House of Commons could introduce amendments to the government's plans — for example, one that requires a "transition period" after Brexit that lasts longer than the current Brexit deal deadline of December 2020. Alternatively, Johnson could ask for a longer extension of, say, a few months to try to hold an early general election in hopes it would result in a less fragmented Parliament that could finally approve a deal. The risk of this option is that the new Parliament could be as fragmented as the current one.

Even if Johnson asks for a general election, he does not have a majority in Parliament to approve the request, which means the decision will be in Labour's hands. Labour has already rejected two early election requests by the government, but that happened because the party wanted to make sure that Johnson asked for a Brexit extension before authorizing a snap poll. Now that London has formally asked Brussels for more time, Labour could be more open to the idea of a general election. Alternatively, Johnson could ask for a no-confidence motion against his government. A defeat for such a motion (which is likely, considering that he does not have a majority) would give members of Parliament 14 days to appoint a new prime minister. If they fail to do so, a general election would have to take place.

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