Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said Monday that EU leaders had agreed to the United Kingdom’s request for a “flextension” until the end of January. The “flextension” gives the UK the option to depart the EU earlier, if the UK Parliament can ratify the new Brexit deal and generally just make a decision on Brexit. The extension still needs to be formalized in writing, according to Tusk.
Though UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed that he would take the UK out of the EU by October 31 “do or die,” the UK is set to accept the delay offer. That’s because the same law that forced Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ask the European Union for a delay against his wishes also requires him to accept a January 31 extension if offered.
In that sense, this news that Brexit is about to be postponed for the third time is pretty anti-climatic. The EU has wanted to avoid (and did not want to be blamed for) a costly no-deal Brexit and all the trade and economic disruption that would likely ensue, so it was expected to grant a delay. It was not so much a matter of if, but of exactly how long.
That would normally be a promising sign for getting the Brexit legislation done, perhaps even before January. But Johnson has put that legislation on hold, for now.
Instead, he’s looking to use the extra time to try to get a general election on December 12, which the prime minister argues will break the parliamentary stalemate over Brexit and give him the chance to return a majority to Parliament that wants to get his version of Brexit done.
The question now is whether Parliament will go along with his plan. Because of a 2011 law known as the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, a two-thirds majority of members of Parliament (MPs) must vote in favor of an election. Johnson has tried to call an election twice before, but the opposition parties have resisted until this point. They essentially wanted to wait until Johnson was forced to ask for this extension, thus betraying his promise that he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask for a Brexit delay.
But now, even with a delay, Johnson’s December election plans are still in doubt. The main opposition Labour Party sees an election as risky, as Johnson’s party remains more popular — and so far, it doesn’t look as if Johnson’s broken Brexit promise will hurt him. (Though ask former Prime Minister Theresa May how much things can change.)
The pressure is certainly on Labour to go for an election now. They got the Brexit extension they desired. They’re in the minority, and there’s no working majority in Parliament. It doesn’t help that other opposition parties are now angling for an election, including the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats.
The Liberal Democrats, in particular, have gained popularity over their resistance to Brexit, and they want an election now so they can still run on a platform of stopping the UK-EU divorce. That won’t work as well if Brexit happens.
Still, most reports suggest that Labour will abstain (so, at least not voting against it). That would still deny Johnson the votes to get an election.
Which is why the very unlikely partners of the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, and Johnson might be cooking up an alternative plan to get an election by December 9 (a few days earlier than Johnson’s December 12 date). They’re proposing to amend that 2011 act that’s prevented Johnson from calling elections. New legislation would only require a simple majority, making it much easier to get an election.
The Brexit “flextension” looks to be set. But now it’s up to Parliament to decide whether MPs will use this time to actually debate and pass the Brexit legislation — or to focus on what’s sure to be a tense, Brexit-centric election campaign.