In Theresa May’s own words, we’re hurtling into the “toughest phase” of the Brexit negotiations, when the government will need to secure a deal despite deep divisions within the Tory party, and impatience from Brussels.
With a mere six months to go until the exit date – March 29, 2019 – the next two months are crucial, when May will need to get support for her plan domestically, and gain approval of all 27 European states.
So, after two years of bungling and bluster – are we finally about to find out exactly what kind of Brexit we’re going to get? And what happens next?
First things first. The EU leaders meet for a high stakes summit on October 18, but the omens are not good.
Brussels has rejected May’s Chequers plan, which commits the UK to abiding by EU rules for goods in order to avoid friction on the Irish border.
EU leaders say it can not agree to this as it would give the UK access to the single market while allowing it to avoid free movement of people – a founding principle of the bloc.
The Brussels negotiating team, therefore, has demanded May turn up with a revised plan.
May meanwhile has said the EU must compromise and move its position – which would keep Northern Ireland inside the EU’s customs union while the rest of the UK leaves – as this would create a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
A Deal By October?
Unlikely. Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has admitted, in the understated way of ministers, that an agreement might “creep beyond” this initial deadline.
Signs emerged at Tory conference that despite May’s previous insistence it was Chequers or nothing, the eventual deal could be different. Sir Graham Brady, the powerful senior backbencher, said there was a “strong belief” in May’s top team that “there will be an agreement reached based somewhat on Chequers”.
So it is widely expected that a deal will not be achieved in October. A special summit has been scheduled in November to rubber stamp any deal.
To boot, the EU famously likes to sign deals at the last minute, in the early hours, when everyone is tired.
So, a deal by December – during a summit on 13 and 14 – is seen as the last chance for an agreement to be reached, as it will take at least three months for each of the EU member countries to ratify it in time for the deadline in March.
Any deal must also be backed by a “super majority” of EU leaders, representing at least 20 of the 27 remaining member states and 65% of their population. It must also be approved by a vote of the European Parliament.
When A Deal Is Reached – What Then?
If a deal is reached with the EU, May will crucially also need to put it to a vote in the Commons. This is where it gets tricky, again...
Tory Brexiteers, led by Boris Johnson, claim to have enough MPs on board to vote it down in parliament. And many would prefer a no-deal Brexit to what is on offer.
Tory Remainers are also not keen, and a handful even want a second referendum. Three ministers are said to be considering resigning to back the campaign.
Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, warned May on Wednesday that if any deal placed increased customs checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK she would pull her support for the government. The PM only has a majority in the Commons thanks to the DUP’s support.
“The red line is blood red, it is very red,” Foster said starkly.
What About Labour?
Last but not least, Jeremy Corbyn confirmed at Labour’s conference last week that his party is all but certain to vote against May’s deal. The Labour leadership sees sinking the agreement in parliament as a mechanism to force a general election.
Indeed, the Chequers brand name is now so toxic May did not use the word in her conference speech, although a senior Tory source insisted after her conference speech that “the prime minister will be saying the word Chequers in future”.
Corbyn did offer a lifeline to the prime minister, however. In his speech to the Labour Party conference he said he would vote in favour of her deal if it meant the UK remained in a customs union and jobs, workers rights and environmental standards were protected.
Whether a deal is signed or not, at 11pm in London on March, 29, 2019 – midnight in Brussels – the UK will leave the EU.
That’s unless May is toppled and replaced by Boris Johnson, who has said he would like to delay Brexit until possibly the end of October 2019 to negotiate a different deal with Brussels.