Brexit timeline: key dates for the UK’s departure from the EU

The UK is currently barrelling toward a no-deal Brexit. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged the UK will leave the EU on October 31 'do or die', and those trying to stop him are running out of time.

G7 summit – 24-26 August

Following separate meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Boris Johnson will make his debut as UK prime minister on the world stage at the G7 Summit in Biarritz, France. It is set to be an awkward encounter for Johnson as he will be meeting with both the leaders of the UK’s estranged European partners and those he hopes to kindle a new relationship with, particularly US President Donald Trump.  

'The UK risks being stuck uncomfortably between a United States it disagrees with and a Europe it will struggle to influence,' Thomas Raines, head of the Europe Programme at London-based think tank Chatham House, told Reuters.  

Johnson will have to decide whether he will continue to threaten the EU that the UK is ready to leave without a deal, or whether to extend an olive branch to try and convince the EU that he honestly prefers the UK leaves with a deal – just not the one offered to his predecessor Theresa May, which was voted down three times.  

Johnson wants to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement that was agreed with May and rip out the Irish Backstop, which remains the number one barrier to a deal being passed in the UK parliament. However, the EU has said the Withdrawal Agreement is not up for renegotiation and that it will not budge on the backstop. The UK Parliament will not support the deal in its existing state and It will be a case of who blinks first: Johnson is happy to leave without a deal and the EU, rightly convinced that the UK has more to lose from a hard Brexit, is prepared to let that happen – but both have said it isn’t their preferred choice. Then there will be a blame game, whereby Johnson will try to send a strong message that if the UK leaves without a deal it is because the EU refused to budge, not because of his stubbornness. From the EU’s perspective, it doesn’t understand why the UK thinks it is the responsibility of the bloc – which didn’t vote for the UK to leave – to put forward proposals. Johnson has not put forward any new proposals to replace the backstop to the EU since taking office.  

While eyes will be on Johnson and the response of EU leaders, there will be many that will not want Brexit to consume the entire summit, especially when there are a multitude of other major issues to address: whether that be the US-China trade war, the Iran nuclear deal, or the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong.  

The Irish backstop and Parliamentary arithmetic

The primary cause of the deadlock between the UK and the EU is the Irish backstop. The backstop is an insurance policy that seeks to keep the peace on the island of Ireland in the event the pair cannot agree on a future trade deal before the end of 2022, which is the latest that the transition period can extended. This would keep the UK in a ‘single customs territory’ with the EU, and Northern Ireland would have to adhere to some additional rules in order to avoid some form of border appearing with the Republic of Ireland.  

The current Conservative government is propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, which is against the backstop because it treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK. The fact the government only boasts a majority of one in parliament with the backing of the DUP means the opinion of this small band of 10 members of Parliament (MPs) is very significant. However, the split in Parliament leads some to believe that a Withdrawal Agreement would fail to gain enough support among MPs even if the backstop was removed.  

The Parliamentary arithmetic has not changed since May’s deal was shot down for a final time, leaving little hope that the existing Withdrawal Agreement can be saved. It is worth remembering that three-quarters of MPs voted to remain in the EU while nearly 52% of the public voted to leave, even if some have since changed their view or ‘accepted the result of the referendum’.  

House of Commons returns from Summer recess – 3 September

The House of Commons started its summer recess on 25 July and is set to return on 3 September. Over 100 MPs called on Johnson to recall MPs early because of the tight Brexit deadline, which he has ignored because it is not in his interest. There will be just 43 working days left before the end of October and Johnson has weaponised time by running down the clock.  

What to expect?

Prepare for an explosive week when members of parliament return. MPs on all sides of the argument will begin to launch the strategies they have formed during the break. Brexiteers will try to ensure that 31 October is the day the UK leaves the EU while Remainers and those against a ‘hard Brexit’ will renew their efforts to block any attempt to leave without a deal, including by bringing down the government.  

Vote of no confidence

The leader of the opposition Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, has vowed to table a motion of no confidence as soon as he believes it will secure the necessary support, knowing that he only gets one shot. Corbyn is not expected to call for the vote immediately when the summer recess ends, but he will have to table it sooner rather than later if he is to oust Johnson before the end of October.  

If Johnson loses a vote of no confidence, then he will be ousted as prime minister but will remain in the role until an alternative government can be formed. If a new government can command a majority within 14 days of Johnson losing the vote of no confidence, then it will take charge of the country.  

However, if no single party or coalition can command a majority within that timeframe then an early general election will be called. It is important to realise that there are rules that require notice of 25 working days before an election can be held. This means it is virtually impossible to hold a vote of no confidence, wait for the two-week cooling-off period, and then a further five weeks preparing to hold an election before time runs out on 31 October.  

If Johnson survived a vote of no confidence then this would only embolden his plans for the UK to leave the EU with or without a deal at the end of October and represent a serious setback for those against a no deal. Therefore, Corbyn must get the timing right.  

Calls for a ‘unity government’

As the UK does not have time to hold a general election to install new leaders before the 31 October deadline, there have been calls for a cross-party ‘unity government’ to take over if Johnson is ousted. There would still be time to put the brakes on a no-deal Brexit if opposition parties can install new leadership immediately after the vote of no confidence and avoid weeks of (potentially fatal) delays that could see the UK sleepwalk out of the EU without any elected government in place.  

Although it is a rational and sensible approach, and one that plays to the idea of healing the deep divisions in the country as a whole, it has already hit something of a brick wall. The new leader of the anti-Brexit party, the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, has suggested the most senior members of the House of Commons (the Conservative’s Ken Clarke and Labour’s Harriet Harman) could lead a cross-party government. But that idea needs the support of Labour, which has thrown cold water on the idea that Corbyn, as leader of Her Majesty’s opposition, wouldn’t lead the next government. For now, it is nothing more than another thing MPs can’t agree on.  

UK political party conferences – September to October

UK political parties have their annual party conferences booked in during September and early October. Brexit will remain the dominating topic, but all parties will be keen to show off their other ideas to capture the public’s eye, focusing on areas such as housing, healthcare and welfare. Johnson has already set the precedent to other parties by announcing several initiatives surrounding domestic matters like tax and policing, leading many to believe the prime minister is preparing the Conservatives for an early election. 

The Conservatives will hold their annual conference from 29 September to 2 October , after Labour’s between 21 September to 25 September. The Liberal Democrat’s conference will be held on 14 September to 17 September, while the Brexit Party is taking its conference on a tour of the country beginning in Colchester on 2 September and ending in London on 27 September. 

Will there be an early general election in the UK?

It may seem odd that Johnson is thinking about calling an early general election, especially considering the misjudgement of his predecessor’s decision to call an early vote in 2017. But he has no mandate from the public and his government’s majority could not be more fragile – with just one MP needed to rebel to potentially stop the government in its tracks.  

More importantly, if Johnson calls a general election then he controls the timeframe. If he calls the election the he gets to pick the date it is held (remembering that there needs to be at least 25 working days’ notice before the election can be held). It is almost certain that he would look to hold any election after 31 October, possibly allowing the UK to leave the EU beforehand.  

This is why opposing politicians feel the need to call for a vote of no confidence as it is the only way of taking control of the timetable and limiting Johnson’s ability to let the UK leave the EU with no deal.  

This means there are two ways the UK could hold an early general election (the other being after a successful vote of no confidence), but the possible result could be markedly different depending on which one prevails.  

EU Council meeting – 17-18 October

The EU Council meets in Brussels for two days every quarter to discuss major issues impacting the bloc and this will be the last such meeting before the UK’s 31 October Brexit deadline. If there is an opportunity for a last-ditch deal to break the deadlock and avoid a no deal at the end of October, then this may be it. 

If Johnson is still prime minister and there are no signs that a deal can be reached by this point, then it is highly unlikely that anything will change as both sides are refusing to budge. If Johnson’s government has been ousted and a new one quickly replaces it, then this could be a landmark meeting whereby a new, more pro-European UK government could pitch its idea to revise or even abandon Brexit altogether.  

However, if Johnson has been ousted but opposition parties fail to agree on who should take charge, wasting weeks by forcing a general election, then the situation could become complex. Johnson would remain in charge, but his ability to make big decisions becomes limited. The EU could also become incentivised to prevent a no deal at the end of October in the knowledge that Johnson is on his way out and a more moderate government is on its way in.  

It is worth mentioning the possibility that Johnson does agree to a short extension, however unlikely. If a new deal has been agreed in principle but yet to be ratified then some believe Johnson, despite his hard line, will warm to the idea of a short delay.  

Brexit Day? – 31 October

From the EU’s perspective, the current state of play means the bloc requires the UK to make a decision by 31 October: leave without a deal, ratify the Withdrawal Agreement, or revoke Brexit altogether and stay in the EU. From the UK’s current perspective, it is leaving on 31 October regardless if there is a deal in place or not. For now, it adds up to a no-deal Brexit - but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen. The date has already been delayed twice (from the original 31 March deadline and then the second one on 12 April), and there are other possible outcomes.  

No-deal Brexit

No-deal Brexit is the default position and the only outcome that is technically set in stone. If the deadlock among MPs persists and there is no extension in place by the end of October then the UK is set to leave the EU without a deal. This is why Johnson is keen to run down the clock and let no deal happen on its own. There have even been suggestions that the prime minister could take the unprecedented step of proroguing Parliament (shutting it down) in an attempt to stop MPs from preventing a no-deal Brexit from happening. His ability to do this and whether it would be enough to stop the emotional resistance against no deal is still being debated.  

If the UK does leave at the end of October with no deal, then it is important to stress that there will be no transition period. Some emergency measures will kick in, such as a ringfenced deal to temporarily keep flights going between the UK and the EU whatever happens, but otherwise trade between the pair will largely fall onto World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. Johnson has said free movement of people will stop from day one.  

The Irish backstop will also not apply and there will be no framework to govern how the border between Northern Ireland (now out of the EU) and the Republic of Ireland will work – creating a precarious situation for the island and the Good Friday Agreement.  

However, it would allow the UK to focus on discussions about future trade with the EU rather than on the divorce (talks on future trade can’t happen until the UK has formally left, or has agreed to leave but is still in a transition period). However, abruptly leaving the bloc with little contingency plans in place is hardly the best way to kickstart a new trading relationship, and some question whether the EU will want to hold trade talks if the UK leaves under a hard Brexit.  

An extension to Brexit?

Securing another extension is key if the UK is to avoid a no-deal Brexit. The existing Withdrawal Agreement will not be revived no matter who is in charge, and there is no time to start negotiating a new deal from scratch. Whatever route the UK needs to go down – a general election or new negotiations with the EU – it will need more time to do it.  

The EU’s stance has always been that it is willing to agree to extensions if it believes there is a viable chance that a deal can be ratified within that timeframe. The parliamentary arithmetic in the UK has not changed, but a change in leadership could be enough to convince EU leaders to grant a new extension. However, they are likely to push the pressure onto the UK by insisting the UK puts forward proposals about what it actually wants rather than waiting for the EU to put yet another deal on the table, particularly after the first one was outright rejected.  

Ratify a Withdrawal Agreement

It is highly unlikely that the existing Withdrawal Agreement, having been voted down three times, will suddenly find support among MPs, and there is little hope of renegotiating a new or amended deal while Johnson remains in charge.  

Again, some believe the Irish backstop needs to be either scrapped or heavily amended, such as providing a definitive way for the UK to leave without the EU’s approval. Others think solving the stand off regarding the backstop is not enough to rally MPs round a deal.  

If some form of Withdrawal Agreement was ratified before the end of October, then the UK can still leave the bloc. Based on the current deal agreed by May, the UK would benefit from the transition period but be threatened by the backstop. The transition period would cease at the end of 2020, but it can be extended to the end of 2022. The idea is that a deal on future trade would be in place by the end of the transition period, including how to govern the Irish border, but the backstop would come into play if no agreement on future trade was in place.  

Hold a second Brexit referendum

This would only be possible if a new government takes over and stops the UK leaving the EU at the end of October. If a new government can win the confidence of the House of Commons then it could propose a second Brexit referendum is held, but it is more likely that a general election would be held first. Once again, an extension would be required because there isn’t enough time do all of this before the current deadline.  

Labour has said it would call a second referendum if it won a general election and said it would campaign to remain, having finally narrowed its Brexit policy after three long years. However, if Labour managed to seize power from the Conservatives after Johnson lost a no confidence vote, therefore avoiding an election, Corbyn does not plan to hold a second referendum, but instead will try to negotiate his own deal with the EU.  

Revoke Brexit

Labour’s contradictory view on how to handle Brexit depending on how it gets into power demonstrates the divisions between parties opposed to a hard Brexit, with the Lib Dems, for example, insisting the UK should stay in the EU.   

If Johnson is ousted, then a new UK government could unilaterally revoke Article 50 to keep the UK in the EU.  

Special summit of the EU27 – November? 

The leaders of the remaining 27 European countries are due to meet soon after the UK has left the EU, with expectations for a summit to be held in November assuming Brexit occurs at the end of October. The UK government says 'trade and future relations talks will begin between the UK and EU' at the summit, but most are pessimistic the EU will be in the mood to talk to the UK so soon after a hard Brexit.  

If an extension is agreed and Brexit is delayed beyond the end of October, then it is likely talks about the UK’s withdrawal will continue at the summit.  

New European institution leaders take charge – 1 November

Another major feature of the special summit will be the introduction of the new leaders of the EU institutions that were elected (by members of the European parliament, MEPs) earlier this year. The president of the European Council Donald Tusk will make way for the current prime minister of Belgium, Charles Michel. President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker will be replaced by Germany’s defence minister Ursula von der Leyen. Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell Fontelles, will become the EU’s new chief of foreign policy, and the president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, will be succeeded by Christine Lagarde from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  

Such sweeping changes at the top of the EU is significant amid Brexit. If the UK leaves without a deal at the end of October, then these new leaders will have to decide how receptive they are to discussions about future trade with the UK and take charge of negotiations.  

If the UK is still in the EU when these new leaders emerge then it could be a different story. Some argue the new leaders may be willing to reopen discussions about the Withdrawal Agreement (but again, this would require the UK to secure an extension), while others think the EU’s stance won’t change even if the leaders have.  

Bank of England interest rate decision – November?

If a hard Brexit is completed at the end of October, then prepare for some intervention by the Bank of England (BoE) when it makes it monetary policy decision in November. To date, the BoE’s actions have been on the assumption that the UK will leave with some form of deal. Or, in other words, the BoE has not been preparing the country for no deal and will have to change course if it happens.  

Will the BoE raise interest rates after a no-deal Brexit?

The BoE unanimously agreed to keep interest rates at 0.75% at its last meeting in August (as part of its target to keep inflation at around 2%), but is coming under pressure to cut rates after the UK economy shrank for the first time in nearly seven years. With the UK economy already deteriorating before Brexit has even happened, many expect the BoE to cut interest rates in November if the UK has left the EU with no deal in order to encourage spending. However, the official line from the BoE is that interest rates could go 'in either direction' depending on the economic effect of Brexit.  

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