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Paradise Lost? How the UK missed the exit deadline.

Laura Hutchinson, Head of UK Political Intelligence | Dods Monitoring

4 min read

How has the Article 50 deadline been missed? Dods Monitoring's Laura Hutchinson explains. 

We will deliver Brexit and the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union on 29 March 2019.” This is what Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons in November 2017. So how has this deadline, stated so often and firmly by the Government, been missed and what is going to happen next?

How has the Article 50 deadline been missed?

“I have no desire to suffer twice, in reality and then in retrospect.” Sophocles - not Theresa May - but she might be forgiven for not wanting to relive the steps that have led to this delay. Arguably, some were beyond her control: the option given on the 2016 EU referendum ballot gave no indication of what Brexit would look like, and therefore there has been no agreement on what it should be. Any Brexit deal would have come up against fierce opposition, and any Prime Minister would have had a difficult hand, but a series of avoidable events did lay the ground for this delay.

Red lines

We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration all over again. And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.” May used her first conference speech as leader to signal her Brexit red lines – no customs union, no single market membership. These restrictions, laid out before negotiations had begun and reiterated throughout the process, left May and the EU with very little room for manoeuvre. Without access to a customs union, the EU have been forced to insist on the insurance policy of the Irish backstop which has been the downfall of the deal.  

General Election

May’s shock decision to call an early General Election was a pivotal moment. With a majority of only 12, May needed to strengthen her hand to avoid making compromises to stave off backbench rebellions. The logic: at the time was sound with the Tories around 20 points ahead and Labour engulfed by a Corbyn popularity problem. The result: disastrous. A badly executed campaign caused May to lose the majority and forced her into the precarious position of relying on votes from the unionist DUP to keep her in office.

Meaningful Vote

It is worth remembering, this delay to Article 50 is not a case of May failing to obtain an agreement with the EU – it is instead down to a failure of the Government to get it through the House of Commons through a ‘Meaningful Vote.’ This Meaningful Vote was not in the Government’s plans. When the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill was introduced to Parliament in July 2017, it gave the Government unilateral power to negotiate, conclude and implement the Withdrawal Agreement without needing the legal approval of parliament. However, opposition MPs and Tory rebels forced the then Brexit Secretary David Davis to confirm that the “agreement will hold only if Parliament approves it.” What became known as Parliament’s ‘Meaningful Vote’ has been a thorn in the side of the Prime Minister. It has caused countless U-turns, humiliations and means that the deal it took two years for her to negotiate, cannot be implemented.

What next?

If May cannot pass her Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, and MPs cannot break the impasse through more indicative votes on Monday, then the Government and Parliament will have almost completely run out of road. The options that remain would be to leave without a deal on 12 April; or to request a lengthier extension and enter European Parliamentary elections. May has stated she is not prepared to request a lengthier extension as Prime Minister, and this week fired the starting gun on her own departure. The EU would need confirmation from the UK that a lengthier extension would have a clear purpose – meaning that the chances of another General Election or referendum could be on the horizon.


Laura Hutchinson is a Principal Political Consultant at Dods Monitoring specialising in Home and Foreign Affairs. To view a 1-month look ahead at what’s to come in the Brexit timeline, click here

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