The recently agreed extension of the Brexit deadline to 31 October 2019 removes some of the immediate pressure on the negotiations and market concern surrounding the topic. It does not, however, alter the key challenges facing the process nor provide any greater clarity on the direction in which Brexit will ultimately unfold. All options are still on the table, from no deal to no Brexit.
The extension still leaves scope for the UK to leave the European Union (EU) before the 31 October deadline, if a withdrawal agreement is ratified before European Parliament elections take place in late May. Otherwise, the UK will participate in these elections and the October 31 deadline will become the next key milestone on the long and winding Brexit road.
The potential for a May 2019 Brexit hinges on the ongoing cross-party negotiations delivering an agreement that the UK parliament can approve in the next few weeks. The challenges here remain formidable. For one thing, it is questionable whether the Labour Party is incentivised to deliver a solution to a problem that is so clearly damaging Conservative Party unity. Second, it is hard to envisage a significant number of Conservative MPs supporting the sort of deal that would be acceptable to Labour. If voting patterns in the recent parliamentary indicative votes are anything to go by, the two parties are still a long way from agreeing on any form of Brexit.
Table: MP support for Brexit options in parliamentary indicative vote
Source: House of Commons Library, as at 3 April 2019. Numbers represent MPs voting for each option on votes held 1 April 2019
One consequence of the Brexit deadline being shunted six months down the road, is that it broadens the scope for political developments to further complicate the process. The two big contenders here are the possibility of a Conservative Party leadership contest and an early general election. Each of these could inject significant new political energy into Brexit and potentially shift the current meandering directionless process onto a more decisive path.
The extra time provided by the Brexit extension provides an opportunity for the Conservatives to hold a leadership election, if that is a direction that they want to take. This is certainly a conceivable outcome in the months ahead, given Theresa May’s unpopularity among her party and its Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) partners. Senior DUP politicians have been scathing about May’s recent political decision-making and are in a strong position to demand a change of leader, given that a loss of their support would eliminate the government’s Commons majority. While party rules do not allow another leadership election until December, Theresa May looks set to remain under persistent pressure to resign before then. This pressure looks will probably intensify further if the party suffers heavily in the upcoming EU elections, as seems very likely.
A change in Conservative Party leadership could set in train a chain of political events that ultimately have a big impact on the Brexit process. First, it is quite likely that the next party leader will be a Eurosceptic who will take a more aggressive stance in the EU negotiations, potentially reviving the threat of a no deal Brexit. This, in turn, could cause a meaningful splintering of the parliamentary Conservatives with disenchanted moderate MPs resigning from the party.
Another potential spillover is that a change of leader in the Conservative Party would probably increase the chance of the UK having an early general election in 2019. This could be called by a new leader, in an attempt to secure a clear mandate from the broad electorate. Alternatively, if leadership change or anything else does split the Conservatives, this could erode the government’s parliamentary majority giving Labour the opportunity to call for a vote of no confidence in the government, opening another possible route to a general election.
A general election could be a game-changer for Brexit, given that it would effectively offer the country the chance to choose between two highly polarised visions of the UK’s future relationship with the EU. While a Conservative manifesto would probably focus on a “clean-break” strategy — a hard version of Brexit from an economic perspective — Labour would almost certainly offer another referendum and a chance to vote to revoke the whole process.
Something better change
A general election would not in itself guarantee a more decisive Brexit strategy, but it does increasingly look like the most plausible way of breaking the current deadlock. Unless cross-party talks deliver a surprise agreement in the next few weeks, it seems fair to conclude that the Brexit process has hit a dead end. Parliament has failed to form a majority on any sort of Brexit and the government is hamstrung by its efforts to preserve Conservative Party unity.
While, in theory, this unstable equilibrium could be maintained for many months, even leading to an extension of the extension and a seemingly unending Brexit process, political pressures are building and at some stage look set to erupt and jolt the UK towards making a real choice on this tricky topic.