EU Affairs

Course No Deal – Who Makes a Last-Minute Manoeuver?


Under Boris Johnson, the British ship is heading in the direction of a “No Deal”. It is questionable who will be able to reach into the rudder spokes. The European Union’s hands are tied, unless it bends and accepts excessive demands. All hopes lay therefore with the House of Commons.


83 days until Brexit; the countdown is on again. The ticking clock has lost much of its horror since it has almost run out twice and was then rewound again. How can the UK’s uncontrolled divorce from the EU be prevented this time? There still seems no way out.

The recently retired Prime Minister Theresa May rarely flirted with the option of a no deal departure. She conducted tough negotiations with the EU and tried, risking her own political survival, to advance the negotiated outcomes through the British Parliament. Her threat to MEPs that there was only “her deal or no deal” was never credible.

After the withdrawal agreement had been rejected three times in the House of Commons, May asked the EU to extend the deadline, as expected. Throughout the negotiations, she was in close contact with her European counterparts and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier. With May at the helm, one could always be pretty sure that the no deal countdown was only a theoretical one.

With new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, things are different. During the party’s internal election campaign and the first days in the new office, he firmly committed himself to “leaving the UK on 31st October without ifs or buts”. This is important to “restore confidence in democracy”. “The buck stops here”. A withdrawal without an agreement is ultimately the last resort to deliver on these promises.

However, Johnson does surprisingly little to reach an agreement with his European partners. He formulates impossible demands and leaves the talks in Brussels to his Adlatus, Brexit Minister Stephen Barclay. The first foreign head of government Johnson met this week was Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas – an EU prime minister, albeit perhaps not the most important interlocutor to work on a solution to the tricky Brexit situation. One gets the impression that a no deal in Johnson’s strategy is not a last resort, but the real goal.

There is currently much speculation about the supposed intentions of the new British head of government. Some believe that Johnson is planning to push through Brexit without an agreement, in order to resolve both the political crisis in Westminster and the social divide in the UK. Particularly cynical supporters of this theory also suspect that Johnson would, in this case, set a new election date for immediately after Brexit. At this point, the Brexit party, the most dangerous political force for the conservatives, would have lost its raison d’être. At the same time, the full chaos of the uncontrolled Brexit would not yet be apparent, as the traffic jams in Dover and Calais would take a few days to grow to full length.

Others believe that Johnson is counting on someone to stop him in time. This someone, preferably the rebels of his own party or the whole parliament, could then blame Johnson for the unsuccessful exit.

Whatever the motives of the new British captain are, it is clear that he has set a course on which the British ship is heading straight for the cliffs. All hopes for a successful last-minute manoeuver lay with the House of Commons.

Boris Johnson has a one-seat majority there, thanks only to the support of the ten members of the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Johnson, who did not have to survive a parliamentary vote to be appointed prime minister, also knows that some of his own party’s MPs are remainers. This means that they would vote with the opposition, if necessary to prevent a resignation without an agreement.

However, what possibilities does Parliament have? It is not enough for a majority of House of Commons deputies to vote against a no deal Brexit, as happened in March. Rather, a majority must be found to adopt an alternative path. Possible would be a provision to force the government to revoke Article 50 of the EU Treaty. This would mean that the Brexit watch would not be rewound but completely stopped. However, such a radical decision would be perceived even among Brexit opponents as a betrayal of the result of the referendum and is therefore highly unlikely.

It is more likely that a majority of the members of parliament will be persuaded to oblige the government to apply for a further extension. Such a law, however, would hardly be effective. Moreover, the final decision would remain in the hands of the European Council. The remaining 27 EU heads of government would then have to decide whether they wanted to grant a further extension to a British government that could present itself as uncooperative as possible. One recalls the declaration of intent of Conservative MEP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has since been promoted to group leader, to be “as difficult as possible as an EU member” in the event of a further extension of the deadline.

Since this week, a completely different scenario has been inspiring the imagination of the Brexit opponents. At the beginning of the new session, the opposition parties could call for a no-confidence vote against Boris Johnson and possibly even win it with the votes of a few Tory rebels. The deputies would then have fourteen days to form an alternative government majority, which they would probably not find. Johnson would then have to call new elections, although he would be free to choose the date. His chief strategist, former director of the Leave campaign Dominic Cummings, has already made it clear that Johnson would ignore the outcome of a no confidence vote until the Brexit deadline has passed.

Should Johnson actually refuse to give up office, many remainers hope for support from another authority: no one less than the Queen would then theoretically have the power to dismiss the Prime Minister. The Queen’s position on Brexit has been known at least since her appearance with a European hat in the House of Lords in 2017. Whether Elisabeth II would actually be willing to actively interfere in politics for the first time in her 67-year tenure remains uncertain.

These scenarios show that one now needs a good amount of fantasy in order to imagine the avoidance of a no deal exit. The bookmakers are however more optimistic. The odds for a departure without a deal are still a bit higher than for an extension or a revocation of Article 50.



Sebastian Vagt

European Affairs Manager