The UK and Brussels are currently engaged in a waiting game – only no one is sure who is waiting for whom. EU leaders had been expected to announce the terms and length of an Article 50 extension this Friday. However, that decision has been put on hold in light of Boris Johnson’s call for a general election – with MPs voting on a motion on Monday. Speaking in Brussels following a meeting of ambassadors, Michel Barnier – the EU’s chief negotiator – said ‘no decision’ had been made on a way forward. A decision is likely to be made on Monday or Tuesday.
EU leaders want to wait and see what happens with the election vote. However, opposition leaders – notably Jeremy Corbyn – want to wait and see what happens with the extension before making up their minds about an election. It follows that more delay and indecision appears to be the order of the day. Corbyn is under pressure from Labour MPs to withhold support for an election – with some of his MPs arguing that the threat of no deal is still real and others simply saying the party will lose, so it’s best to put it off.
At present, Johnson does not have the numbers for a Fixed-term Parliaments Act motion to pass the Commons – without the details of an extension being known that looks unlikely to change. Government figures hope that the fact opposition leaders are unwilling to agree to an election will help their case that a short extension is best. Emmanuel Macron is thought to be in favour of a short two week extension that would focus minds towards passing Johnson’s Brexit deal. This is not the majority view but the hope is indecision in Westminster could lead other EU leaders to reconsider.
With Johnson lacking the votes, is an extension this side of Christmas unlikely? There’s still a reasonable chance of one. This morning Jeremy Corbyn suggested an election could occur earlier than the Tories’ preferred date of 12 December. The SNP have also hinted at this. Aside from the details of the extension, one of the big issues opposition MPs have with Johnson’s proposals is that they don’t want to look as if they are helping or working with the Conservatives. It follows that if an extension is agreed there is a chance that the rebel alliance could coalesce around an alternative date such as 5 December and then call for Johnson to back it.