Last Thursday the Prime Minister told MPs that ‘if we were able to pass a deal by 22 May, we would not have to take part in European elections and, when the EU has also ratified, we would be able to leave at 11pm on 31 May.’ Her point – since picked up by ministers – was to ram home to Leave supporting MPs that ‘the date of our departure from the EU, and our participation in the European parliamentary elections’ was down to them.
But is it realistic to think this timetable can be met? Can the government deliver? In my view, this would require a level of legislative aggression from government, and a certainty of numbers, not seen in this parliament.
Ratification of May’s deal by the UK – as set out in the EU Withdrawal Act – is dependent on the Commons approving the negotiated withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship (through what has become known as the ‘meaningful vote’), as well as passing a Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB), which implements the deal.
Even if somehow there was a miraculous breakthrough in the domestic Brexit negotiations on the first day back after recess and May secured a majority for some sort of deal, there would still be just four weeks for the implementation Bill to pass through parliament. If parliament stayed open at the weekends, that’s a maximum of 29 days, with no gaps between each legislative stage.
Politically, however, it seems highly unlikely that we will see this breakthrough, with either indicative votes or a Labour-backed deal, before the local elections on 2 May. Both of these routes would probably lead to the government supporting the UK staying in the customs union, breaking a manifesto commitment, which means it would be unwise for them to have a vote on the eve of local elections on 2 May. Maybe I have missed some tactical advantage, but I suspect a delay until 6 May is likely, leaving in reality just 17 days until Theresa May’s self-imposed deadline. By comparison, an earlier Brexit Bill spent a total of 37 days in parliament, spread out over months.
With only 17 days to get through parliament, MPs and Peers would have to agree to a fast-paced timetable for the bill. And while they’ve recently shown an appetite to pass highly controversial legislation in just a couple of days, one suspects this approach would not extend here. MPs and Peers will ask themselves why they should rush when the official Brexit extension runs until 31 October, and if they really care if European elections go ahead. If they favour more prolonged scrutiny, or are Remain-leaning, then they may reject or substantially amend any timetable proposed by the government.
In many ways, this may come as a relief to the government: although they want to force Brexiteer MPs to back May’s deal before the European elections, the tempo described above would see the Bill bent out of shape pretty quickly. Amendments would come thick and fast, with little time for the government to assess the policy implications and negotiate compromises. Factor in that the Prime Minister also suggested that the Bill could become a ‘forum… to resolve some of the outstanding issues in the future relationship’ and you would have a recipe for a very rough ride.
At best, I think the government will make all the right signals about sticking to this ambitious timetable, and rail against those that make it impossible, but unless they secure Labour’s backing, I would be surprised if they were really planning to take Britain out of the EU by 31 May.
Nikki da Costa is senior counsel at Cicero and former director of legislative Affairs at Number 10.