The balance of the cabinet and the PM’s back office has changed
Boris Johnson has wasted no time in changing the composition of the cabinet he inherited from Theresa May. Within days of his decisive victory in the Tory leadership election, he conducted one of the most comprehensive re-shuffles in recent times. Both the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary are now conviction Brexiteers, though they are by no means the only voice in the Cabinet as a whole. He has also appointed a number of Vote Leave alumni to his staff, most notably Dominic Cummings who was its campaign director.
No deal preparations ramped up
During the last few months of Theresa May’s premiership, the Government’s no deal preparations had been put on hold. In view of Mr Johnson’s commitment in the leadership campaign to take the UK out of the EU on 31 October “come what may”, it is hardly surprising that one of his first actions as Prime Minister was to put fellow Vote Leave campaigner Michael Gove in charge of no-deal preparations. The new Chancellor Sajid Javid has already stated that he will make a further £2.1 billion available to boost no-deal preparations, though press reports indicate that only about half of this figure has been allocated to Government departments.
Despite these developments, Mr Johnson has repeatedly stated that he remains committed to getting a deal with the EU – even saying that a no-deal exit was a “million to one” chance.
Parliamentary arithmetic has marginally worsened for Conservatives
Following the victory of the Liberal Democrats in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election on 1 August, Mr Johnson’s working majority in the House of Commons is down to just one.
As the vote on the Northern (Executive Formation) Bill on 18 July showed, a majority of MPs remain opposed to a no deal Brexit. That vote was designed to prevent the Prime Minister from being able to engineer a prorogation of Parliament in the run up to 31 October as a way of pushing through a no deal Brexit against the wishes of Parliament.
However, a clear majority has yet to emerge in favour of any other solution to break the deadlock, whether this be a softer Brexit, a second referendum or revoking Article 50. In addition, the powers of MPs actively to prevent a no-deal Brexit are limited.
A general election cannot be far away
The slender working majority that Mrs May assembled after the 2017 General Election with the support of the DUP has been whittled away. It seems likely that Mr Johnson will choose to go to the country sooner rather than later in an effort to win back the working majority that Mr Cameron won for the Conservatives in 2015. It is also possible that a general election could be triggered by a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons.
As things currently stand, the message from number 10 is that there will be no general election until after 31 October and that the UK will leave the EU on that date. It is possible, however, that matters will be taken out of Mr Johnson’s hands, or that he will change his position if his efforts to persuade the EU to return to the negotiating table fail.
No one is able to predict exactly how this crisis will be resolved. However, the default position is that if no further action is taken by the UK Government (whether to seek a further extension of the deadline, to revoke article 50 or to get Parliamentary approval for a withdrawal agreement) the UK will leave the EU without a deal on 31 October.
Key milestones to look out for in the run up to 31 October include:
- 24-26 August: G7 summit – this may present the last realistic opportunity for the UK to persuade the EU (who will be represented at the summit) to resume negotiations on the withdrawal agreement, something which the EU has consistently ruled out to date.
- 3 September: House of Commons returns from summer recess – if the opposition want to trigger a general election before 31 October, the necessary vote of no confidence will need to be held within a few days of Parliament’s return, given the timetable dictated by the Fixed Term Parliament Act.
- 29 September to 2 October: Conservative Party conference – if Mr Johnson is to sell an alternative vision for a withdrawal agreement, this would be a good platform to do so.
- 17-18 October: EU summit – the final opportunity for the UK to come to alternative arrangements with the EU to avoid leaving without a deal on 31 October.
We have faced this position once before in the run up to 31 March. Organisations who are exposed to Brexit and who are in a position to mitigate its impact will have no option but to revisit their preparations, even if it is to re-assure themselves that nothing more can sensibly be done.
Whatever happens, certainty in terms of the UK’s relationship in the EU will be in short supply for many years. A withdrawal agreement with the EU would certainly be a good start, but it will not resolve key questions about the future relationship, and as currently drafted will only buy the UK a standstill period of just over a year, though this can be extended by agreement. Even reversing the decision to leave by means of a second referendum would not put the issue to bed in the long term and in the meantime there would be uncertainties about how the UK’s relationship with the other member states would evolve inside a club it had spent more than three years trying to leave. And of course a further extension of the UK’s membership beyond 31 October without a concrete plan for when the extension expires would merely kick the can a little further down the road.
So, unless a national consensus can be built about the way forward with the EU (something which was impossible in 2016 and which feels no closer now), our advice to our clients is to get used to the fact that the terms of our relationship with the EU are going to be uncertain for many years to come, regardless of what happens on 31 October.
In fact, in a manner not too dissimilar to the uncertainty regarding many other issues that affect the UK’s economy on an ongoing basis. Perhaps uncertainty over our relationship with the EU is just the new normal? It certainty seems likely to be for many years to come.
This paper by the Institute of Government, published on 29 July, explains the formidable task the Government still faces in order to prepare for a no-deal Brexit on 31 October.
This House of Commons Library briefing explores the constraints the UK faces in re-opening the Withdrawal Agreement, and the extent of MPs’ powers to prevent a no-deal Brexit.