31st October 2019
Witches’ Sabbath, Hans Baldung Grein, 1510
Today the United Kingdom will not be leaving the European Union by automatic operation of law.
The next date on which the UK’s departure is set to happen will now be 31st January 2020, the fourth such departure date.
So familiar are we now with Brexit days coming and going there may perhaps be a blithe expectation that the UK will stay in the EU again after the next supposed departure date.
This expectation may be complacent.
There is a form of ratchet effect with the successive exit dates.
The UK parliament has now agreed the current withdrawal agreement in principle.
And the EU will, it seems, be glad to be rid of the Brexit problem, if not rid of the UK.
With one more heave, so to speak, the UK may well be departing the EU in January.
Nobody should assume the UK will stay in the EU after 31st January 2020.
The UK government has now twice loudly declared that Brexit would happen on specific dates – 29th March and 31st October.
There is endless footage of successive prime ministers insisting that successive departure dates are absolute and will be kept.
It is difficult to see how anyone will take the government seriously if it now insists loudly that Brexit will definitely happen on 31st January 2020.
The UK government has already lost trust in its dealings on Brexit, and it is now losing its credibility with its threats.
(Of course, some wags will say that the UK government never had credibility in the first place; but it was entirely credible that, but for the Benn Act and the defeat on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill programme motion, the UK would be leaving the EU this evening.)
Hallowe’en is nowadays a festival where once scary things are treated as not at all scary.
And so it is perhaps fitting that today is when the UK government’s scary (and irresponsible) approach to Brexit, of demanding that an exit date be kept in all circumstances, is shown to have not worked.
This does not make the prospect of an actual departure, either with a deal or without a deal, on 31st January less of a prospect.
That remains a real possibility, and it is now the default position.
What has been removed, however, is the ability of a government under the current or other prime minister to use a departure date as a rhetorical device to frighten others into compliance.
Nobody will believe them.
The current prime minister famously said that he would rather “die in a ditch” than for the UK not to leave the EU today.
And now such ditches and ditchcraft seem as unthreatening as depictions of witches and witchcraft at a children’s Hallowe’en party.
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