As Boris tries to cinch Brexit, two Brits try to make sense of it all

Monitor Staff

Two Brits and one curious American talk Brexit in a group chat.

Simon Montlake (Brexit reporter, Brit): Hello from cloudy London where I’ve just had a long lunch. 

Peter Ford (senior global correspondent, Brit): Lovely day in Paris. Is the U.K. already suffering from Brexit?

Rebecca Asoulin (engagement editor, American): Ah – well I am secretly obsessed with British food (and overdone meat apparently) – so I am envious of the lunch! Shall we pivot to the meat of the issue? Oct. 31 is inching closer and Britain is still set to leave the European Union on that date – deal or no deal. Half a year ago now (which is, what, like 10 in Brexit years?) we chatted and you two made some predictions about where we’d be by now. Did you get it right?

Peter: I’ll fess up first. I said I thought there would be an election and there hasn’t been one, so I was wrong. But it is uncanny how similar the situation today is to the situation when we last talked seven months ago. Then we were 10 days away from a deadline that got pushed back. Same today. Then I set out the four possible futures:

1) Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal passes 

2) A second referendum in which the people vote on Brexit again

3) A national election for Members of Parliament

4) A no-deal Brexit

Substitute ‘Boris Johnson’s deal’ for ‘Ms. May’s deal’ and those are the same four options we are still looking at seven months on... 

Simon: There’s one more option: a Brexit reversal. Give it up as a bad idea. The Liberal Democrat party has adopted this as their platform for the next election. However, the Liberal Democrat party won’t have a majority. Plus it would be incredibly controversial to backtrack on the 2016 referendum result. 

Rebecca: So it’s not quite groundhog day for this chat – because of the main difference to the options Peter laid out. It’s not Ms. May’s deal anymore that’s an option, right?

Simon: No, step forward Boris Johnson, prime minister!

Rebecca: Tell me more about him and how he changed the Brexit equation. Is he really the U.K.’s Donald Trump? 

Simon: Let me go first... Boris Johnson has been auditioning for the job for many years. He’s finally made it, having helped defeat Theresa May’s attempt to deliver Brexit. The Trump comparison holds true for his political persona and his malleability, but there are big differences too. Boris plays up the goofball image when it suits him. But I have to give him credit for pivoting to a serious negotiation with the EU that has produced a compromise deal. Some believed he was just posturing and wanted the U.K. to crash out of the EU without a deal. Instead we are within striking distance of a Brexit deal, at least the first stage. 

Peter: Boris can carry all the Brexiters, including those who were skeptical about Ms. May’s deal, because he has been the Brexit standard bearer since the referendum campaign began. If he says it’s a good Brexit deal, hardly anybody on the Brexit side will dare argue with him.

Rebecca: And that new deal he struck was supposed to be voted on Saturday. Simon – you were reporting for the Monitor in the House of Commons over the weekend. What happened?

Simon: Super Saturday! Was more of a souffle Saturday, if we extend the culinary metaphors. It rose up and fell back to Earth.

Peter: Sounds like my efforts in the kitchen...

Simon: It was quite a day. There was a huge march to Parliament Square by supporters of a second referendum, essentially a pro-EU crowd. Inside Parliament, the MPs crowded in for a debate and a vote, which was highly unusual. The last time Parliament sat on a weekend was 1982 and Britain was on the verge of war with Argentina over the Falklands Islands. 

This time it was Boris seeking approval for his freshly minted U.K.-EU withdrawal agreement. And he didn’t quite get what he wanted. What happened was parliamentary chicanery of the highest order: an amendment to the motion. And it passed by a slim majority, which basically meant the postponement of MPs having to vote up/down on the withdrawal agreement.

Rebecca: Wait, so they didn’t vote on the deal itself, they voted on an amendment to the motion on the deal?

Simon: Yes, they amended the motion, all in the name of preventing any chance of a no-deal Brexit on Oct. 31, which is still the official deadline for the U.K. to leave. What the amended motion did was insist that Parliament passes all the necessary laws to effect an orderly Brexit. And that’s where we are this week. The big question is whether Parliament can legislate before Oct. 31, or if another hurdle will arise to prevent Johnson’s deal going ahead.

Peter: There are a number of spanners [i.e. wrenches] that could be put in the works of Parliament this week. One option as the government tries to get approval for its deal is that somebody might amend the motion to tack on a condition: OK, we approve this deal, but only if it is also approved by a confirmatory referendum.

Rebecca: In other words, only if people vote again to leave the EU with this deal. 

Peter: Right. Very controversial, as Simon said earlier. And although the country seems split down the middle on Brexit, with an apparent slight tilt towards ‘Remain,’ it is hard to see Parliament voting for that. But someone else could also introduce amendments that would make Brexit much ‘softer’ than the hard break with the EU that Mr. Johnson wants, and maintain close economic ties. That idea might attract majority support, but the prime minister would not stand for that. So that’s another possible route to a new election. (I will be right on this in the end...)

Simon: The key to Brexit predictions: Eventually, you could be right. An election is coming!

Rebecca: I think I’ll keep being right for a while. The only thing I kept predicting was Brexit would drag on with extension after extension!

Simon: It’s time to talk extensions – and extension letters. 

Peter: Or non-letters. Since Parliament withheld its approval of Johnson’s deal on Saturday, the prime minister was obliged (by a law passed earlier designed to forestall no-deal) to ask the EU for another extension till Jan. 31, 2020. Johnson had said he would ‘rather be dead in a ditch’ than do that, but the law is the law. So he did ask for an extension, but only by sending Brussels a photocopy of the legislation spelling out what he had to ask for, and not signing it.

Then he sent another letter – signed, sealed, and delivered – telling the EU to ignore what he had just sent them and not to give the U.K. any extra time. Diplomatic legerdemain (i.e. sleight of hand, Peter’s been in Paris too long!) or a silly schoolboy prank? Observers are divided....

Simon: Of course, the EU must decide on the extension request. But I don’t see them rejecting it if the result is a no-deal Brexit that causes chaos and disruption on all sides, which means that we could be looking at a January 2020 Brexit deadline.

Peter: You are absolutely right, Simon. The EU’s top priority is to avoid a disorderly Brexit. But at the same time EU leaders are fed up to the back teeth with what is going on in Britain, and increasingly worried about what another few months of uncertainty would do to business confidence across the continent. If they don’t give an extension, the thinking goes, the pressure on Parliament to approve the deal on the table will be intense because the alternative would be no deal. But these are high stakes to play for.

Rebecca: What comes next if the deal does pass?

Peter: Aha! You thought you could sit back and relax, didn’t you? No such luck. If the deal passes, we all move on to a year – or possibly three years – of negotiations between London and Brussels about the exact nature of the U.K.’s new relationship with the EU, on trade and all sorts of other things. These talks will keep you on the edge of your seat, guaranteed...

Simon: I think Johnson will go for an election. He will campaign as the Man Who Delivered Brexit – but, the problem is that elections are unpredictable and the electorate has grown very fickle. It’s not a two-party system any longer, if it ever was, and we don’t know how much Brexit will be yesterday’s news, so what will be the pitch to voters?

Rebecca: Do you think the British people will ever feel like Brexit is yesterday’s news? How do you think they will react to a deal passing? 

Simon: I think people are desperate to move on and talk about something else. If Johnson’s deal does pass I think it will be due to fatigue on all sides. Fatigue and momentum go together, in a curiously British way. One sign I saw at Saturday’s rally: “Down With This Sort Of Thing.”

Peter: That’s right. Brexit has been such a terribly divisive question and has sucked all the oxygen out of British political life for so long, I think that a deal – any deal – would probably be greeted with a huge sigh of relief on all sides. But in fact economists are unusually unanimous in predicting that Brexit of any flavor will be bad for the British economy and make the country’s citizens poorer than they would have been inside the EU. That has got lost in the wash. 

Simon: We made it this far without mentioning Northern Ireland or the cast-off backstop. Back to the backstop? No forward to the front stop.

Rebecca: What’s the short version of how Boris’ deal deals with Northern Ireland?

Peter: Northern Ireland will be both in the EU and out of it. In law (de jure) it will be part of the U.K. In fact (de facto) it will be in the EU customs union and single market for most goods. And subject to the European Court of Justice. When the EU proposed such an idea two years ago Mr. Johnson called it a constitutional outrage. But it was his only way out so he took it.

Simon: The idea is to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Which this deal does, by treating Northern Ireland differently. The irony is that Northern Ireland gets a special status that allows it access to EU markets for goods. Which the rest of the U.K. won’t have, not under Johnson’s vision of future trade. But the Unionists in Northern Ireland are set against any special status that pushes them closer to Ireland, and over time weakens their ties to the rest of the U.K., aka Great Britain. Alas, no way to keep everyone happy. That is Brexit.

Ah and speaking of no one being happy, the House of Commons speaker just blocked Parliament from voting on Johnson’s deal today. (at 3:30 p.m. GMT Oct. 21) – as expected. 

Rebecca: I’m watching his statement right now as we chat. Do members of Parliament laugh and make so much noise all the time during sessions?

Peter: Yes. It’s a bear pit.

Simon: As a reporter who sits in the press gallery, looking down on the bear pit, I can assure you that it’s the best theater seat in town.

Rebecca: So the short version of what just happened is Parliament won’t vote on the deal again today because they already voted on it Saturday. And there is a rule (dating back to the early 1600s, apparently!) that Parliament won’t debate the same issue twice in the same session. 

Simon: It often feels like Britain has been debating Brexit since 1600. 

Rebecca: It does feel like Brexit moves both too slow and too fast at once. 

Peter: And goes round in circles sometimes.

Rebecca: Well we will see if Halloween proves to be the end of the beginning or just more of the beginning of this process. 

Simon: One more sign from Saturday’s rally that made me laugh: ‘Make Halloween Unbrexity Again.’ I predict the U.K. will not leave on Oct. 31. But I will stick my neck out and say that Brexit will happen before Christmas, followed by a spring election.

Peter: I will leave Simon’s neck on the block. And my Halloween resolution is to make no more Brexit predictions.

Rebecca: Fair! Thank you both for chatting!

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

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