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(p. 515) Appendix—Brexit supplement 

(p. 515) Appendix—Brexit supplement

Adam Biscoe

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date: 09 August 2020


In the period since becoming the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Theresa May often stated that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. At the time of writing in early May 2019 these often repeated and strident phrases had come back to haunt her and the Brexit process. It had become increasingly uncertain what Brexit would mean. Of the various scenarios for the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union (EU) ranging from ‘no deal’, ‘hard Brexit’, ‘soft Brexit’ (including remaining in a Customs Union) to a second confirmatory public vote and revoking Article 50 (meaning the UK would remain as a member of the EU), all were still possible outcomes nearly three years after the referendum. A ‘bad deal’—described by Theresa May as remaining in a customs union or some other form of being a rule taker but not a rule maker in the EU—that is a ‘soft Brexit’—was eminently possible, if not likely.

The Brexit process entered a new phase in November 2018: the United Kingdom Government and Michel Barnier, the European Council lead negotiator on Brexit, agreed in principle what became known as the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and Political Declaration (PD). The WA defined the transition period (up to 31 December 2020) when the UK would continue to be bound by the same obligations and any new ones introduced by the EU but would lose all voting rights and decision-making power within the EU institutions. The most contentious aspect of the WA has been the so-called ‘Irish Backstop’. This aimed at avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Eire in the event that no alternative arrangements had been negotiated by the end of the transition period. It would create a single customs territory between the UK and the EU, while placing Northern Ireland in a closer customs arrangement with the EU with privileged access to the European single market (see Box 27.4 p.415 Chapter 27). The Political Declaration, a relatively short non-legally binding document set out the broad principles governing the post-transition relationship. Twenty months after triggering Article 50 in March 2018, the British Government had until the 29th March 2019 (Brexit Day) to pass the necessary legislation through the House of Commons.

The phase of Brexit between November 2018 and early May 2019 was characterized in Westminster by parliamentary deadlock, breakdowns in cabinet collective responsibility, defections from political parties, government resignations, no confidence votes in the leader of the Conservative Party and separately the Government, attempts by Parliament to seize the Brexit agenda and the emergence of new political parties. Outside Westminster, some aspects of every-day government were interrupted, businesses continued to complain about the problems of uncertainty caused by the lack of clarity over the future relationship between the UK and the EU, the Scottish Parliament voted to reverse Brexit and there was an increase in terrorist activity in Northern Ireland. Many citizens, meanwhile, had signed petitions, taken to the streets in pro- and anti-Brexit marches while others expressed their frustration that nearly three years after the referendum, the UK had not left the EU. The EU 27, the 27 countries that would continue to make up the European Union in the form of the European Council, remained true to its decision to refuse to re-open the WA or offer additional legally binding statements on the temporary nature of the Northern Ireland Backstop. During this phase however, the Council did agree to two British requests for an extension to Brexit Day, while insisting that the UK participate in the European Parliament Elections (EP Elections) if it had not left the EU by the 22nd May 2019.

A new phase in Brexit: Parliamentary Deadlock

Any sense of elation felt by the UK Government and the European Council on negotiating the WA and PD was soon to dissipate as the task began of getting the British Parliament to ratify them. Dominic Raab, the Cabinet Brexit Secretary appointed a few months earlier, along with a number of other members of Cabinet opposed to the version of Brexit contained in the two documents, resigned from government. The Prime Minister appointed her third Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay and promised the House of Commons a ‘meaningful vote’ (Institute for Government 2019) on 11th December 2018.

After three days of debate in the House of Commons in December 2018, with the prospect of defeat as a result of many Conservative Brexiteers, including the European Research Group (ERG) and the ten Democratic Ulster Unionist (DUP) MPs, whom Mrs May relied upon for her majority in the House of Commons, threatening to vote against the WA and PD, the Government postponed the first meaningful vote until January 2019. Opposition to the WA within (p. 516) the Conservative Party and the DUP centred on the Irish Backstop. In the intervening period, Theresa May promised, not for the last time, to get legally binding reassurances from the EU that the Irish Backstop would be temporary.

On 12th December 2018 Theresa May comfortably survived a vote of no confidence by Conservative Party MPs in her leadership of the Party by 200–117 votes. Conservative Party rules meant that there could not be another challenge to Theresa May’s leadership of the Party for at least twelve months—that is until December 2019. MPs and the electorate took a break from Brexit over the Christmas recess.

On the eve of the rearranged meaningful vote in January, the President of the European Commission Jean Claude Juncker and the President of the European Council Donald Tusk wrote a joint letter to the Prime Minister confirming that the backstop was ‘intended to only apply temporarily’ and that they would work towards a final agreement with regard to post-transition relations with the UK as quickly as possible They made clear, not for the last time, that the WA was not open for renegotiation and that there could be no further reassurance on the matter. This letter, however, was not enough to persuade the majority of opposition party MPs, the DUP or members of the ERG, to vote with the Government in the first meaningful vote on the 15th January 2019. The Government lost the vote by 230 votes, a result which has been widely described as the largest defeat in history for a sitting government.

The following day, the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, called a vote of no-confidence in the Government. Theresa May survived the vote as many Tory MPs, including members of the ERG, who had voted against her Brexit plan the previous day and DUP MPs, rallied behind the PM.

In early 2019 there followed weeks of manoeuvring in Parliament as the Prime Minister tried various strategies to persuade MPs from all parties, including her own, to support the WA. A fund of £1.6bn was promised for towns and cities that had been ‘left behind in recent years’ and happened to largely be vote leave constituencies. Promises to protect workers’ rights in the future were offered to entice Labour Party MPs to support the WA. Theresa May also tried various approaches to the EU in search of some sort of legally enforceable time limit on the Irish Backstop. Various Government Ministers, including the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox were sent to Brussels in an effort to persuade the European Council to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, but ultimately to no avail. It was also at this time when, in perhaps one of the more bizarre events of the whole Brexit saga to date, the Government whipped its own MPs to vote against what had previously been Government policy in favour of what was known as the Brady Amendment. This demanded that the WA be reopened and that the Irish Backstop be replaced by unspecified ‘alternative arrangements’. The British political process seemed to resemble a ‘merry go round’ much to the dismay of British and European businesses, the British electorate and the EU 27.

The Government brought the WA and PD back to the House of Commons for a second meaningful vote on 12th March 2019, only 17 days before the UK was due to leave the EU. Perhaps in an effort to put pressure on MPs to vote for the Agreement or face the humiliation of not leaving the EU on Brexit Day Jean-Claude Juncker explained in a letter to the Prime Minister that the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc had to be completed before the May 2019 elections to the European Parliament, or it would ‘be legally required to hold the elections’. Seemingly unperturbed, MPs including members of the ERG and the DUP again rejected the Agreement by 391 to 242. Although the second meaningful vote on the WA and PD was lost by a smaller number of votes (149) than the first meaningful vote (230) this was still a significant defeat for the Government.

As in many Parliamentary democracies, in recent decades the executive branch of government in Britain has come to dominate the legislative branch of government, with parliament often unfairly described as largely a rubber-stamping chamber. The failure of the May Government to get the Withdrawal Agreement through the House of Commons on two occasions and no likelihood of success in the near future emboldened back-bench MPs to try to seize the initiative and so reverse to some extent the imbalance between the May Government and the House of Commons. Over the next few weeks this took a number of forms, including on the 13th March 2019 MPs voting in favour of a non-binding parliamentary motion by 321–278 votes to reject the possibility of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. However, as Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chair of the ERG forced the Speaker of the House of Commons to confirm, this was not a binding vote on the Government and the trajectory remained for the UK to leave the EU on 29 March 2019—with or without a deal.

(p. 517) The following day the Government offered its MPs a free vote to extend Brexit Day beyond 29th March 2019. In another bizarre moment in the Brexit process Stephen Barclay, the Brexit Secretary, told MPs that ‘It is time for this house to act in the national interest, it’s time to put forward an extension that is realistic’ before personally voting against the proposed extension. In the event 413 MPs, including most Labour MPs who did not have a free vote, voted for the extension. Of the 202 mainly Conservative and DUP MPs who voted against the Government were eight Cabinet Ministers, none of whom felt compelled by either their conscience or the Prime Minister to resign for apparently breaking Cabinet collective responsibility in voting against Government policy.

There followed some relatively positive news for the Government later that week, when the European Council Summit agreed to the first ‘flextension’ to Brexit, giving the UK options as to when it might leave the EU. The March 29 2019 deadline could be moved by two weeks to 12th April 2019, if the UK Parliament voted in favour of the WA and PD. Alternatively, Brexit could be delayed until 22nd May 2019, but no longer, the Council Summit Conclusions stated, as otherwise the UK would have to hold elections to the European Parliament. In an attempt to hedge its bets against a long extension, later that week the Conservative Party invited its existing Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to consider running in the EP elections in May 2019.

The Prime Minister hoped the extension would need to be for only a few weeks, while a new strategy was implemented to get the House of Commons to support the WA. The irony that MPs should keep voting until they came to the right decision was not lost on those MPs and members of the electorate supporting a second referendum, who had been consistently told by the Prime Minister and others that their proposal was anti-democratic, as they needed to accept that they had lost the first vote and should just accept the 2015 referendum result.

Materially little had changed between the second and proposed third meaningful vote; what had changed was the politics. Members of the ERG and the DUP were seemingly more aware of the possibility that one of the alternatives to not accepting the soft Brexit contained in the WA, was that Brexit would be delayed for a significant amount of time or even lost altogether. The former leading Brexiteer Cabinet Minister Esther McVey, while noting that the May deal was a bad deal, indicated that she would vote for it anyway, thus repudiating the notion that ‘no deal was better than a bad deal’.

May’s calculations on a third meaningful vote failed to take account of the willingness of the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, to help re-balance the relationship between the executive and the House. He ruled that a third meaningful vote on the WA and PD was not possible unless the proposal put to the House of Commons was ‘substantially different’ from the previous version. Speaker Bercow, who had becoming quite a broadcast celebrity as a result of his ‘Order Order’ and the ‘Ayes to the Right’, referred to parliamentary convention going back to 1604 to justify his decision, much to the fury of the Government.

The following week was another tumultuous one in British politics, but resulted in little change in the Brexit situation. Parliament voted on Monday 25th March 2019 by 329–302 to set the agenda for Commons business and a series of indicative votes later that week. This was a clear sign of a weakened executive giving way to the legislative branch of government to try to move Brexit along. There followed seven indicative votes ranging from Confirmatory Public Vote to Customs Union and European Free Trade Association to the European Economic Area. None gained a majority, but some were only narrowly defeated including a Customs Union by 6 votes (House of Commons Library 2019). There was another round of indicative votes the following week, this time on only four topics. Again, none received a majority, but the Customs Union was defeated this time by only three votes and the Confirmatory Public Vote by 12 votes. Climate Emergency protesters in the form of Extinction Rebellion took the opportunity to demonstrate in the Public Gallery of the House of Commons, further illustrating the public’s frustrations with the Brexit process as more important issues were seemingly crowded out by Brexit. Nik Bowles, a former Cabinet Minister and Conservative MP, announced to the House of Commons his resignation from the party because ‘My party refuses to compromise’, and that he would sit as an Independent Progressive Conservative. With the House of Commons failing to pass any of the indicative votes, backbench MPs may have missed their best opportunity to seize hold of the Brexit process once and for all.

To circumvent the Speaker’s refusal to allow a third vote on the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, a meaningful vote on the WA alone was held in the House of Commons on the date that (p. 518) the UK had been scheduled to leave the EU, Friday 29th March. Perhaps, nervous that Brexit may be lost altogether the ERG Chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg, told the BBC: ‘I think that we have got to the point where legally leaving is better than not leaving at all’. However, he added that he wouldn’t ‘abandon the DUP because I think they are the guardians of the union of the United Kingdom’. In the end the DUP refused to support the WA and so did many Conservative MPs and so the Government again failed to get Parliamentary support for the WA. The Government lost the third meaningful vote by 344 to 277 votes.

With Parliament still deadlocked, Theresa May chaired a marathon seven-hour cabinet meeting on the 2nd of April 2019. Cabinet Ministers and their advisors reportedly had to hand in their mobile phones to prevent leaks of the discussions and were not permitted to leave Downing Street until after the Prime Minister had given a televised address announcing the Government’s new approach to Brexit. May told her audience that she would be asking the European Council for a further extension to Article 50, while proposing talks with the Labour Party to seek a way out of the Parliamentary deadlock.

On the first of these matters, Donald Tusk suggested that a further extension to Article 50 should be for up to a year; however some European Council members, notably President Macron of France argued that such a long extension should not be assumed and would only continue the uncertainty faced by business and EU governments caused by the inability of the British Parliament to pass the WA. Nonetheless, at its emergency Summit the European Council agreed an extension until 31st October 2019, but allowed for the UK to leave at the end of any intervening calendar month should the House of Common pass the WA in that month.

The lack of willingness to give a carte blanche extension was illustrated by two aspects of the European Council Summit Conclusions. Firstly, it was made clear ‘that the extension cannot be allowed to undermine the regular functioning of the Union and its institutions’ and stipulated that unless it had ratified the Withdrawal Agreement by the 22nd May the UK must participate in EP elections on 23 May. Failure to do so would mean Brexit would be on 1 June 2019. Secondly, perhaps unsettled by views expressed by Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, the former Foreign Secretary and frontrunner to replace Theresa May as Prime Minister, that if the UK did not leave the EU for an extended period the UK Government under a new leader might ‘force the European Council to re-open the Withdrawal Agreement by obstructing the day to day workings of the EU’, the Council Conclusions noted:

The commitment by the United Kingdom to act in a constructive and responsible manner throughout the extension in accordance with the duty of sincere cooperation and expects the United Kingdom to fulfil this commitment and Treaty obligation in a manner that reflects its situation as a withdrawing Member State. To this effect, the United Kingdom shall facilitate the achievement of the Union’s tasks and refrain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the Union’s objectives, in particular when participating in the decision-making processes of the Union.

If more evidence was needed of the imbalance between the EU and the UK government in the negotiations over Brexit, the Summit Conclusions provided it.

Cross-Party Talks

With regard to the second aspect of the Prime Minister’s new strategy, the offers of meaningful discussions with the Labour Party were fraught with difficulties for both sides. Since the 2016 Referendum there had been repeated calls for cross-party talks on Brexit, and these increased following the 2017 General Election when the Conservative Party lost its majority. Indeed, following defeat of the first meaningful vote Theresa May reached out to other Parliamentary Party leaders in a half-hearted attempt to gain cross-party support for the WA. The talks soon fizzled out, partly because Jeremy Corbyn complained that Chuck Umunna shouldn’t have been invited as his new political grouping was not a Political Party as yet.

On the Government side, Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson said ‘It is very disappointing that the cabinet has decided to entrust the final handling of Brexit to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party,’ adding ‘It now seems all too likely that British trade policy and key law-making powers will be handed over to Brussels—with no say for the UK.’ The Prime Minister’s decision to talk to the Labour Party prompted the executive of the 1922 Back Bench Committee of Conservative Party MPs to consider changing the rules governing leadership contests. This could have meant that the 12-month rule between contests be reduced to six (p. 519) months. If this had been agreed, Theresa May could have faced another no confidence vote by Party MPs by the middle of June. Meanwhile rank and file members of the Party made clear their dislike of discussions with the Labour Party and called for a special vote of confidence in their party leader.

Labour faced a number of dilemmas of its own in entering into discussions with the Government on breaking the parliamentary impasse. In the period since the Referendum, Corbyn had had two main objectives—to deliver Brexit and not to be held responsible for Brexit (Berry 2019). The Party had long been divided over whether to support Brexit or not. A number of Labour MPs from Brexit voting constituencies, some of whom voted with the Government in the meaningful votes on the WA, had repeatedly warned that not implementing Brexit would be considered as an act of bad faith by many traditional Labour voters, which would affect Labour’s future electoral prospects. Meanwhile, opinion polls consistently indicated that the majority of Labour voters were in favour of a second referendum and/or revoking Article 50.

Divisions on Brexit within the Labour Party came to the fore in February 2019, when eight of its MPs resigned and formed ‘The Independent Group’ (TIG), later renamed as Change UK. They argued that under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership the party had become ‘institutionally anti-Semitic’ and was ‘complicit in facilitating Brexit’. Another Labour MP resigned from the Party a few days later, but did not join the new Group. On the 20th February three Conservative Party MPs joined TIG arguing that the Conservative Party had become hostage to the ERG.

Prior to the UK Local Elections on 2nd May 2019 both Labour and Conservative negotiators apparently stuck to their long-standing viewpoints. The Government was reported to have shown little concrete interest in anything that didn’t resemble the existing WA and PD. Meanwhile, the Labour Party kept pushing for a Customs Union and guarantees on British worker’s rights in the future, a seemingly incomprehensible request as a future Parliament cannot be bound by the decision of its predecessor and future Conservative Prime Ministers are unlikely to shy away from repudiating any agreements reached by Theresa May.

The Conservative Party lost 1.300 council seats in the Local Elections, while Labour lost 80 seats. Anti-Brexit parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the Greens significantly increased their number of councillors. Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn interpreted the results as an instruction from the electorate to urgently complete their talks on some form of soft Brexit and get a majority of MPs to vote for the WA. The Prime Minister called on Jeremy Corbyn to put aside his differences and agree a deal, while not making clear which aspects of long-standing government policy would be traded in return. Some commentators alternatively suggested that the likely dire EP Election results for the two largest political parties had spurred the leaders to make a fresh attempt to find common-ground on a soft Brexit before election day on 23 May 2019.

It was also likely, however that a breakthrough in the talks between Labour and the Government would not be enough to persuade a majority of MPs to vote for the WA before EP election day. The Observer Newspaper reported on 5 May that 104 opposition MPs, the majority being Labour, were prepared to vote against any deal made by May and Corbyn if there was not a guarantee of a second referendum. Ahead of EP election day, there remained one other possible, although highly unlikely, outcome: Parliament reversed its position and voted to leave the EU without a deal.

In Parliament, then, the immediate period after the WA and PD were agreed by the European Council and the UK Government was characterized by all sorts of often novel political and constitutional proceedings including re-balancing of the executive-legislative balance, House of Commons Speaker interventions and the formation of new political parties. Yet, the reality was that at the beginning of May 2019 there was no more certainty as to whether Brexit would be ‘hard’, ‘soft’ or occur at all than when the WA and PD were agreed in principle in November 2018.

Beyond the Palace of Westminster

Outside of the Palace of Westminster, the uncertainty of the likely outcome of the Brexit process during this phase of Brexit has had considerable impact. Across the road from the Palace in Whitehall, thousands of civil servants were moved from their regular jobs to help prepare for a ‘hard Brexit’, and in some cases, back again once a ‘no deal’ Brexit was voted against by Parliament. The opportunity costs for the work normally done by the seconded civil servants has not been formally assessed by Government or elsewhere, but media reporting and anecdotal evidence suggests that it is significant.

(p. 520) Planning for a ‘no-deal Brexit’ has incurred significant real costs for government (to say nothing of those for Euro-27, and businesses and consumers across Europe). The most high profile and perhaps expensive one-off cost of planning for a ‘no-deal’ Brexit came when the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, commissioned additional ferry capacity to alleviate problems anticipated with cross-channel trade in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. In February, the Minister signed a £13.8m deal with Sea Borne Freight, a new company that had no ferries and no experience of running a ferry company; within weeks it became clear that the company would not be able to provide any capacity to alleviate trade in car parts and health products, for example. It later transpired that other contracts signed with other ferry companies and subsequently cancelled would cost the tax payer £50m. The High Court later ruled that the way in which these contracts had been procured broke regulations and as a result the Government would have to pay Euro-Tunnel £33m in compensation. It was perhaps indicative of the weakness of the Prime Minister and of the inability of the Official Opposition that Grayling was not forced to resign for the failings of his Government department. Other examples of government stasis resulting from Brexit preparations were apparent in postponed decisions regarding the future funding of higher education and the way forward following the failure of plans for privatizing parts of the probation service.

In the lead up to the referendum Brexiteers emphasised that Brexit would allow Britain to negotiate its own trade deals with third countries, and it was anticipated that these countries would be queueing up to make deals. Prominent Brexiteer Liam Fox, appointed Cabinet Minister for International Trade, was to be responsible for negotiating such deals. As a further sign of the inability of government to progress Brexit and non-Brexit matters, as Brexit Day approached, Fox was forced to admit that of the first 40 deals envisaged, very few would be ready by the time the UK was due to exit the EU.

Public opinion

The British public remained divided in more ways than one during this period of Brexit. On the one hand, many had become somewhat addicted to the politics of Brexit, awaiting the next event in what had become a living political and constitutional crisis in the UK. On the other hand, many members of the public expressed frustration with politicians, urging them to ‘just leave the EU’, one way or the other. Brexit had perhaps made many Britons more politically aware however; anecdotal evidence in pubs and public spaces indicated that Britons were debating the merits or otherwise of Brexit. Further evidence of this was participation in marches for and against Brexit. On 23 March 2019 an estimated one million people took to the streets of London in support of a further confirmatory public vote. A week earlier a much smaller group of marchers started a walk from North East England to London with the aim of arriving on what was then expected to be Brexit Day. Meanwhile, a pro-Brexit petition at the end of March 2019 attracted 500,000 signatures while an anti-Brexit Revoke Article 50 petition attracted six million signatures, the largest in British history. Both were debated in Parliament, but the impact was drowned out by the media focus on votes on the Withdrawal Agreement. Political commentators opined that the UK had become a less tolerant more introspective society as the Brexit negotiations had progressed.

During this period opinion polls did not indicate a significant shift in voting intentions from those in the 2016 referendum. One poll suggested that most voters had become surer about their EU referendum vote, with only a small minority on both the leave and remain side saying they were less sure (YouGov 2019). Even so, one experienced pollster estimated that ‘even without anyone changing their mind’ the changes in the composition of the electorate resulting from generally pro-EU teenagers too young to vote had come of age, while older generally leave voters had died, would potentially swing the result in a new referendum. (Kobie 2019

At the time of writing, just after the UK Local Elections on 2nd May, opinion polls indicated that Theresa May’s handling of the Brexit negotiations were likely to cause a major swing away from the Conservative Party in the EP elections. The rump of the UKIP Party and the new Brexit Party, formed by Nigel Farage MEP, were predicted to be major beneficiaries of the swing, potentially winning up to 30% of the vote. They were also likely to benefit from Brexit voting Labour voters dissatisfied by the Party’s unwillingness to wholeheartedly support Brexit. The failure to agree an electoral alliance between pro-EU parties proposed by the Liberal Democrats meanwhile looked likely to (p. 521) split the remain vote in the elections. Nonetheless, the outcomes of the Local Elections suggested that Change UK (the new name for the group of Labour and Conservative Party MPs who left their parties to form TIG in February 2019), the Liberal Democrats and the Greens were likely to be the main recipients of remain voters who, opinion polls, suggested were the majority in the electorate.

Businesses had long argued that the worst part of Brexit was not knowing whether there would be a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit and, perhaps most importantly, when Brexit would occur, if at all. Yet, on the surface the British economy during the first part of 2019 had defied the nay-sayers’ expectations of near economic collapse as Brexit Day approached. The Office for National Statistics reported that Gross Domestic Product continued to grow during the first months of 2019. Meanwhile, unemployment rates as defined by the ONS continued to decline while wages increased faster than inflation (ONS 2019). The Stock Market and the £ Sterling have remained largely stable in this latest phase of Brexit.

Scotland, which voted to remain in the EU in the 2015 referendum, saw a symbolic vote in favour of remaining in the EU passed by a majority of Members of the Scottish Parliament. In late April, the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon set out plans for another referendum on Scottish Independence before 2021, if the UK left the European Union. The shooting dead in Northern Ireland by the New IRA of the journalist Lyra McKee in April 2019, labelled a terrorist incident by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, heightened concerns of a return to violence in the island of Ireland. The killing, it was suggested had been a precursor of what could happen if a hard border was to be re-established between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Eire if there was no satisfactory agreement on Brexit (O’Grady 2019).

The European Council

During the period from November 2018 to May 2019 the European Council held three special meetings to consider Brexit while other planned meetings often included discussions on Brexit. Yet, the conclusions resulting from the Summits demonstrated a high degree of unanimity and consistency between the EU 27. At the first special meeting on 25 November 2018 when the EU 27 leaders signed off the WA and PD with strong expressions of sadness and regret that this would mean that the UK would be leaving the EU, they made clear there could be no re-opening of the agreements as they were the best that could be agreed. This view was echoed by European Parliament President Antonio Tajan. In spite of repeated efforts by the UK Government to reverse this position, especially on the Irish Backstop, the Council remained steadfast on this and in April both President Macron and Chancellor Merkel had bi-lateral meetings with the Irish Taoiseach, reiterating their support for Eire as the country most likely to be affected by a no-deal Brexit. Throughout the period, EU leaders stepped up their preparations for a no-deal’ Brexit while taking every opportunity to stress that this wasn’t their preferred outcome.

There were some indications of differences of opinion on Brexit in the European Council. Just prior to signing-off the WA and PD, French and Spanish politicians sought to reintroduce to the negotiations national concerns about fishing rights and Gibraltar respectively. Greater disagreement was apparent prior to the April 2019 Summit to agree the second extension to Brexit. The President of the European Council had been quick to advocate a long extension on receipt of the letter from Theresa May requesting the second delay to Brexit Day. President Macron of France cautioned against such a long extension and advocated strict guarantees so that the UK ‘as an exiting member state’ could not fully take part in or disrupt key European Council or Commission decisions on the future of the EU. Macron emphasized that Brexit must not distract from the immediate development of the EU. At the end of the Summit, the Council Conclusions closely resembled the wishes of the French President in granting a maximum six month extension and imposing tight limitations on the role the UK might play in EU decision-making during that period.

Potential UK participation in the 2019 EP Elections had long been a point of discussion between the EU and the UK government. Dismay over gridlock in the UK Parliament in January 2019 prompted the European Commission President to remind the UK government and parliamentarians that any extension to Brexit Day beyond the end of May would necessitate UK involvement in the elections. This was reiterated in the Conclusions of the Council Summit Conclusions in April 2019 when the second extension up to 31 October 2019 was agreed. At the time of writing in early May 2019 the UK government had taken the (p. 522) necessary decisions to participate in the EP Elections later that month.


In the six months after the WA and PD were published in November 2018 little had changed in the Brexit process. The outcome of Brexit—hard/soft/or not remained as uncertain in early May 2019 as it had been at the beginning of this phase of Brexit in November 2018. Yet, during this period the British political system had turned itself in-side out. After three failed meaningful votes MPs remained gridlocked on Brexit and there was no obvious consensus between them. Talks between the Government and the largest opposition party showed no signs of progress. Similarly, public opinion showed no signs of significant change on Brexit with the electorate continuing to be divided, although two new political parties had been created. The economy continued on a positive trajectory and business got on with coping with uncertainty as to the nature and timing of Brexit. The European Council said it had completed its preparations for a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, and watched-on for signs that the British would resolve their situation. Perhaps most remarkably, Theresa May was still Prime Minister in spite of repeated calls by many of her own MPs and lay party members to resign. The outcomes of the EP Election in the UK were likely to have a vital impact on the political situation, but it remained uncertain how this would help resolve the Brexit process.