The European Union’s national leaders have finally agreed to grant the United Kingdom another extension to its Brexit deadline.
This time it’s a so-called “flextension”—the deadline has been shifted to the end of January, but the U.K. can still leave earlier, on the first day of any of the intervening three months, if the government can manage to get parliamentary approval for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.
Confused? There’s more! Monday morning’s development paves the way for a general election in the U.K., probably in December. But even that’s not certain.
How did we get here?
Not long after Johnson snatched away the poisoned chalice of leadership from Theresa May, he announced that he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than ask for another Brexit extension beyond October 31 (the first extension, for six months, was granted in March).
But the prime minister had that decision effectively made for him, when Parliament last month passed what is known as the Benn Act. This law meant that, if Johnson could not get parliamentary approval for his deal by October 19, he had to ask his EU counterparts for another extension. He grudgingly asked them to extend the deadline by three months if he could not get his parliamentary approval in time for Halloween. Johnson subsequently tried to win that fast-tracked approval, but Parliament refused to be rushed.
The EU leaders would have come to a decision about Johnson’s request last week, had it not been for the intransigence of French President Emmanuel Macron, who—quite understandably—has had enough of the interminable Brexit drama and would rather see the U.K. just leave already.
However, Macron recently burned a ton of political capital by blocking the expansion of the EU in the Balkans, for unclear reasons. He may be trying to make France more assertive these days, but there’s a limit to how far he can annoy the rest of the EU. So, following a Sunday night call with Johnson, Macron relented, and on Monday morning the request was granted.
Is Boris Johnson dead in a ditch?
He is not.
So now what?
Johnson has been trying for ages to trigger a general election, and will try again Monday afternoon. This is not essentially unreasonable. After all, the current Parliament has been unable to agree on any form of Brexit, or on a revocation of Brexit, or on another Brexit referendum. A new Parliament may clear the logjam. Or not.
The issue is that, since a change to electoral law in 2011, British governments can no longer call elections at will. Parliamentary terms are supposed to last five years now, and the only way an early election can be called is if two-thirds of Parliament agrees.
Johnson’s main obstacle has come from Labour, the official opposition, which has maintained that it won’t agree to an early election until the threat of a no-deal Brexit has passed. The newly-granted Brexit “flextension” wards off that threat in the near term.
However, Johnson’s Brexit deal makes it possible that the U.K. could still leave the EU without a deal at the end of 2020, if a new trade agreement between the two sides has not been agreed by that point. Anyone who pays attention to trade agreements knows they usually take many years to write and pass.
So Labour is now demanding that Johnson agree to never, pinky-swear ever pursue a no-deal Brexit, if it is to agree to his election request. This is unlikely, as Johnson has previously been so comfortable with the idea of no deal that Parliament had to force him (via the Benn Act) not to do it. Labour will therefore probably abstain on Monday’s election vote.
So no election?
Not so fast. Johnson may not be able to get a two-thirds majority for his preferred election date—December 12—but he might still be able to get an election, with some help from smaller parties.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Liberal Democrats are both heavily anti-Brexit and have for a long time been calling for a second referendum on the matter. But, as repeatedly demonstrated in votes, the current Parliament is not going to agree to that.
So the SNP and Lib Dems have proposed tabling a very short legislative bill that would amend the 2011 electoral law, specifically to call an election on December 9 this year. This would only require a simple majority in Parliament, rather than a two-thirds majority.
Johnson’s team initially scoffed at the idea but may have no choice after today.
At this point, that seems the most likely outcome. Not that it’s guaranteed to settle anything.
The latest aggregated polls show Johnson’s Conservative Party on top with 35% of the vote, but that’s not nearly enough to command a majority. Labour currently seems set to get 25%, the Liberal Democrats 18%, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party 11%, and the Green Party 4%.
Based on those numbers, it is difficult to see how anyone could form a viable coalition. But, just maybe, the shakeup could produce a workable way forward for the country.
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