A week from now leaders of the European Union’s 27+1 Member States will have sore heads after a long night. Friday 19th October will be the second day of the European Council at which the fate of the Brexit negotiations is to be decided. However hard it is, decide something they must.

Further delay – on the EU side at least – serves no purpose. No extra summit in mid-November, no prevarication until December. Theresa May needs a Withdrawal Agreement now – for the sake of both sides.

Why the imperative?

Because Parliament in the UK is paralysed, with no end of the paralysis in sight. There is nothing that a few extra weeks can do to alleviate this. No fudge that can magically fill the central overlap of this diagram from Nicolai von Ondarza’s detailed analysis of the UK’s parliamentary predicament. Plus with just 168 days until the end of the Article 50 period there is also no time to return to the drawing board to radically reformulate the withdrawal agreement.

The 10 MPs from the DUP reject any form of Northern Ireland-specific backstop solution, or anything that treats Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK. The 40-odd MP strong Brexit hard core of the European Research Group reject anything that would keep the UK in a Customs Union or Single Market post-2020 (they’d prefer No Deal). Meanwhile 20-odd Tory MPs around Anna Soubry and Kenneth Clarke reject anything that takes the UK out of a Customs Union. Try making a majority on the government benches in those circumstances!

There are rumblings that May is seeking to appeal to Labour MPs with her plan, but for that to work she would need to attract a few dozen MPs over to her side, and as Mike Gapes rightly outlines here, she is not going to find the numbers for that.

That the Commons is paralysed this way poses a unique conundrum in UK politics. It is not that the Commons can always decide, but normally it can take a decisive vote to do nothing – look at the never-ending stream of reports and commissions into Heathrow expansion as an example of this, rather than actually committing to building.

But Brexit, operating under the constraints imposed by Article 50 and the 29 March 2019 deadline, is different. A decision is needed from the Commons, because failing that means the UK ends up with a No Deal Brexit – and that is something that no-one other that Brexit revolutionaries want.

The sooner that both sides see this and understand this the better. There is no majority in the House of Commons for any one form of Brexit. And out of that stalemate a number of different ways forward can emerge – an extension to the Article 50 period, the UK advancing towards No Deal Brexit and panic ensuing, or opponents of May’s deal adding criteria (a People’s Vote?) as the price for backing the Withdrawal Agreement.

All of these routes forward are fraught with difficulty and come with major downsides. But an orderly route towards a Withdrawal Agreement that the House of Commons will approve is not possible now.

So, Heads of State and Government at next week’s European Council: please agree a Withdrawal Agreement with May that she can then take back to London and try to sell. It will soon become clear that she cannot, but there are then still 150-odd days until the end of the Article 50 period, allowing something other than a catastrophic No Deal Brexit to be hammered out.

UK politicians need to be confronted with the seriousness of the predicament – the European Council next week can ensure they are, and sooner rather than later.

[UPDATE, 12.10.2018 1820]
I was confronted on Twitter by someone who ought to know better that this post means the EU must concede on Ireland to please May. To make it clear – this could not be further from the truth. A backstop to keep the Irish border open and without checks will without doubt be part of the proposed deal. May could get a few embellishments to keep the DUP happy, but not much more – as The Guardian is reporting this afternoon. May, I reckon, will go for that though.


  1. The Withdrawal Agreement is 90% completed says Michel Barnier, and only the backstop has yet to be decided. So, what’s the deal and what happens at the end of the transition period if the deal isn’t finalised by then?

    Firstly, let’s consider the deal that is already decided. When was it decided? Before Chequers or after? Why is it shrouded in secrecy if it’s already decided?

    Secondly, let’s ask about the end of the transition period. What happens next if the deal we presently know nothing at all about isn’t finalised by then? The backstop comes into play, but what happens to the rest of the UK? If the UK goes onto WTO rules, Northern Ireland will be annexed with special EU status. Why is this not being discussed?

    Thirdly, let’s look at the backstop. What measures can Northern Ireland take to remove its special status? Is there an A50 equivalent for special status states within the EU? Is it unreasonable to offer special status that cannot be removed at the request of the country holding such a status? According to the GFA, Constitutional Matters, paragraph (iii), the status of Northern Ireland cannot be changed without the express wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. Why is this not being discussed?

  2. Alan Fisher

    Why not give Southern Ireland a vote stay in the Eu or rejoin the United Kingdom I’m not sure how that would work their after if st all ?

  3. Alan Fisher

    Great Britain was the back bone of the so called Eu now the British people have had enough of pumping money in to their prisonist eu & illegal immigrants pillaging our nhs & benefitsthey want us to pay a divorce bill if us brits go abroad we need insurance & we would be shipped out at our cost than them give financial help to us let alone housing we’ll hang on we want a Eu rebate for all the years of what we put in, plus whatever the great British put forward they turn their back on us oh and Ireland is British territory don’t forget that, and as for the existing 27 nations be careful you don’t step out of line or you’ll end up having to go through what their doing to the uk🇬🇧 So you lot keep bending over do as your told and maybe you’ll get bailed out by the two top countries running your show,

  4. Patrick

    Surely this should read “please don’t give the UK a withdrawal agreement”? I don’t see why the EU should help the UK out of its hole, especially as doing so will only empower those responsible for the current predicament. The best solution is for the UK to crash out with no deal and be faced with the consequences they sought to deny during the referendum campaign. The economic and political shock of no deal will be enough to end a large number of the zealots’ careers and pave the way for a younger, more pragmatic generation to hold a referendum on re-entry.

  5. The only way a Withdrawal Agreement is going to work in the UK’s favour would be for the EU to abandon the NI backstop – but that is not going to happen as the EU will always side with a member country’s interests in such a situation, in this case Eire. The choice is May’ s alone and she needs to face off against the DUP and the Tory Ultras in order to avoid a No Deal scenario, there is nothing the EU can do for her.

  6. If May/UK goes for Ireland backstop (per UPDATE) then there is nothing for EU side to “give”. The deal would be done.

  7. What we need is not whatever deal Theresa May can do with the EU Council (doesn’t the EU Parliament and national Governments also have a say?) or whatever can somehow be “hammered out” in the next 150 days. No, after the UK Parliament rejects the Brexit deal we need a new referendum with a genuine choice between the no-deal brexit the Brexiter wreckers clearly want- but were afraid to put to the public in 2016 – and the more constructive option of staying in the EU.

    If we vote to stay in the EU that’s fine, if not…well perhaps it’s time for the UK to learn a hard lesson.

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