30th October 2019
An Election Entertainment by William Hogarth 1755
The United Kingdom is not leaving the European Union tomorrow, by automatic operation of law or otherwise.
The United Kingdom will be having a general election instead, on 12 December 2019 (assuming the current Bill before parliament is enacted).
There is now an Article 50 extension in place until 31 January 2020, although the United Kingdom can depart earlier if the withdrawal agreement is concluded.
What can those with an interest in the law and policy aspects of Brexit make of this general election?
Firstly, it shows that the priority for the current government is not to “get Brexit done”.
The government had recently obtained a second reading from Members of Parliament for its Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
This was a significant moment, as it meant that the House of Commons, for the first time since the 2016 referendum, had voted positively in respect of Brexit.
Until then there had been a majority for avoiding No Deal but not for any positive version of a Deal.
A Withdrawal Agreement Bill given a second reading is more likely than not to proceed to a third reading, although there would no doubt have been amendments.
A reasonable period of time would have been needed for proper scrutiny, say of about a month or so.
With a fair parliamentary wind, all the stages of the Bill could have been completed by, say, mid-December.
In other words, there could realistically have been a Withdrawal Agreement Act in place by the date of the general election.
But this government, which supposedly wants to “get Brexit done”, has chosen to have a general election instead, and so will lose valuable weeks in which the Bill could have been scrutinised and Brexit achieved.
This demonstrates that the current government’s priority cannot be to “get Brexit done”.
Second, it means the end of the parliament elected in 2017.
This will be a shame, as it has been a parliament that has become unafraid to stand up to the executive and feisty in its independence.
The people may have voted for Brexit in 2016 but the people also voted in 2017 for Brexit to be delivered by means of a hung parliament.
Both were, in their ways, the “will of the people”.
And if the contention is that the people somehow got their vote wrong in 2017 and should have returned a parliament with an overall majority, then one can also contend that their 2016 vote should be revisited too.
Nobody can predict the result of the next general election, but it would appear that many of the strongly independent elements (and individuals) in this current parliament will not be in place.
The 2017-19 parliament will be missed.
And third, it is probably sensible that there is now a general election, despite the points made above.
The 2017-19 parliament had gone as far as it could go.
The current parliament may be commendably irreverent, but it is not in a position to do the one thing which is now required with Brexit, regardless of one’s perspective on its merits.
The current parliament cannot address the fundamental problem of Brexit: that is, whether the current Deal is the appropriate means of giving effect to the 2016 mandate, or whether that mandate needs revisiting?
And by implication: does there need to be a referendum, to confirm (or reaffirm) either/or the 2016 mandate and the Deal?
The MPs elected in 2017 are not in the position to ask this question let alone answer it, as they are trapped by their 2017 election promises.
There are not the numbers for a referendum – and there are not the numbers for anything other than support the current Deal on offer.
The 2017-19 parliament was exactly what was needed following the 52:48 referendum result – forcing politicians to compromise and work with other parties.
But a new parliament is needed to look at Brexit afresh and ask if the current Deal is the best way forward.
The December general election result may be a Conservative majority, or there may be a majority for parties that support a further referendum in some form (or even straight revocation).
And for Remainers, a general election is a risk – but a risk to be set aside the near-certainty that the current House of Commons which has passed the current Withdrawal Agreement Bill in principle will eventually pass it overall.
The December election in other words is the Remainers’ last chance.
That the current government even wants to give Remainers this opportunity is rather odd.
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