It’s 100 days to Brexit – but can it be done in time? It doesn’t look like it
Even if Theresa May eventually wins the vote in parliament to approve the Brexit deal, there is important legislation that has to be passed, and the European parliament has to approve it too
The vote of the House of Commons on the Brexit deal will now be in the week beginning 14 January, the prime minister confirmed on Monday. She hopes that her MPs are slowly coming round to the deal as the least worst option. She may also hope that Jeremy Corbyn gives his MPs a free vote, in which case enough of them may vote for her deal as a way of avoiding another referendum.
It still seems more likely that Theresa May will lose, in which case the Brexit timetable will slip further. She would probably then ask the Commons to vote again after it had rejected the other options. The one that is easiest to eliminate would be that of leaving the EU without a deal, even if it were dressed up as a “managed no deal” – at least, it ought to be easy to eliminate this option, but, until all the hoops have been jumped through, a no-deal Brexit remains the default, which is why there was such a fuss about no-deal planning at yesterday’s cabinet.
The more difficult course for parliament to rule out is that of postponing Brexit and holding a referendum. If Corbyn backs a final say referendum, a Commons vote could be close, but, if May can defeat that option, she could then ask MPs to vote again on her deal.
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That seems to be her plan: to wear parliament down. That way she might finally win the vote at a second attempt a week later, in the week beginning 21 January – or even after that.
By then, the country would be running out of time to complete Brexit by 29 March.
The problem is that a vote to approve the deal, important though it is, is only one of the things that need to be done to take us out of the EU. Once the deal has been approved, parliament also has to pass legislation to give effect to the withdrawal agreement in UK law.
This will be called the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill – yet another bill that sounds similar to all the others. It will be a complex and contentious bill that will be tricky to get through a hung parliament. In particular, it will contain a mechanism to entrench parts of the withdrawal agreement in UK law and make it hard for future parliaments to change them.
The government hasn’t yet said what this mechanism will be, but Raphael Hogarth of the Institute for Government has speculated that it could be a referendum (not another one!), a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons, or a clause requiring the whole act to be repealed if a future parliament wanted to amend it.
There are other Brexit bills waiting in the queue, although most of them don’t need to be passed by 29 March, because – if there is a deal – the UK will then go into a standstill transition period when we will be treated as an EU member for most purposes. Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, would like the Trade Bill to be passed by Brexit day so that he can take his seat at the World Trade Organisation and begin talks about new trade deals, but that isn’t essential for our departure.
Meanwhile, government departments are scrambling to get minor legislation known as statutory instruments through parliament before the UK leaves. Government spokespeople continue to insist that these are on track.
The final stage of the Brexit process is the European Parliament, which is required by EU law to give its approval to the withdrawal agreement. No one expects MEPs to vote against the deal, because it has already been signed off by EU leaders and the commission. But the European Parliament has its own committee procedures for scrutinising the deal, and time is running out for this – at a time when MEPs are increasingly distracted by preparations for the next European parliament elections in May 2019.
Can it be done in time? The trouble is, as Ed Conway of Sky News put it, “for most of the participants it’s perfectly rational to take us to the brink”. The prime minister in particular needs to put pressure on her rebels, the DUP and Labour MPs by convincing them there is no time left to negotiate anything else.
But that risks leaving too little time to get the bill through the UK parliament and to hold the vote in the European parliament. Then the only way to avoid a no-deal Brexit would be for Theresa May to ask the EU to postpone Brexit – which EU leaders have suggested they would be prepared to do, for a few weeks, to finalise a deal that was already agreed.
No wonder the betting markets now think we are unlikely to leave the EU on 29 March.
The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.
Sign our petition here