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Even with a majority, getting Brexit done on deadline will be no mean feat

6 Nov 2019
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Saturday sitting in the House of Commons to debate the renegotiated Brexit deal on 19 October 2019. UK Parliament (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Holding a general election only six weeks before the new end-January Brexit deadline, and with a recess to fit in too, could mean the new Parliament facing a tight timetable. The challenge will be especially great for MPs elected for the first time on 12 December.

Dr Brigid Fowler, Senior Researcher, Hansard Society
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Senior Researcher, Hansard Society

Dr Brigid Fowler

Dr Brigid Fowler
Senior Researcher, Hansard Society

Brigid joined the Hansard Society in December 2016 to lead its work on Parliament and Brexit, as well as contribute to its ongoing research on the legislative process, parliamentary procedure and scrutiny, and public political engagement. From 2007 to 2014 she was a Committee Specialist for the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, where she led on the Committee’s EU-related work. In the first six months of 2016 she was on the research team of Britain Stronger in Europe. She has also worked as assistant to an MEP in Brussels and as an analyst and researcher on EU and European affairs in the private sector and at the University of Birmingham and King’s College London.

After completing BA and MPhil degrees at the University of Oxford in PPE and European Politics, respectively, she spent the first part of her career focusing on the politics of post-communist transition and EU accession in Central Europe, and completed her PhD at the University of Birmingham on the case of Hungary. She has given media comment, appeared before select committees and published several journal articles and book contributions.

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Originally published in The Times Red Box on 6 November, 2019

For MPs elected on December 12, the bad news is that Brexit might end up stealing Christmas. This is because of what’s involved in getting a new Parliament up and running while trying to meet the new January 31 deadline for Brexit.

The government has indicated that the new Parliament will meet for the first time on Monday December 16. The House of Commons Library puts this (by one day) as the quickest post-election assembling of a new Parliament since 1918.

Taking previous Christmas and new year sitting patterns as a rough guide, and assuming normal Monday-Thursday sitting patterns only, there will then probably be no more than 20 parliamentary sitting days before the UK’s next default no-deal Brexit date at the end of January.

Once the new House of Commons has convened, all 650 MPs will then need to be sworn in, a process that usually takes at least three days. A big question for that pre-Christmas week, affecting both Houses, is whether it will include the State Opening or whether that will slip to January.

The Queen’s Speech debates and votes normally last five or six sitting days. As we saw last month, the government can interrupt the debate for other business. But if not completed before Christmas, the Queen’s Speech debate will take time away from the main parliamentary business in January: determining whether or not the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) will be passed to enable the UK to leave the EU with a deal at the end of the month (assuming the European Parliament also signs off), or whether a new Brexit approach is to be adopted by a new government.

If the Conservatives under Boris Johnson win a working Commons majority, on a clear 'this deal' prospectus, the way ought to be clear for passage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and UK ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement by January 31.

As the Parliament will be new, the Bill will have to begin its passage from scratch. However, procedurally, passing a bill even of the WAB’s length and complexity in three or four weeks is doable, although far from ideal, and 2019 has evidenced the flexibility of parliamentary sitting and legislative timetables when politics demands.

If Labour secures a majority, it has promised to seek to renegotiate Johnson’s revised Brexit package and hold a referendum. And if neither main party secures a majority, the first post-election days and potentially weeks could be taken up with coalition or confidence and supply negotiations, eating into time in January.

Whatever the election outcome, the situation will be particularly challenging for new MPs. This makes the degree of Commons churn an important factor for January’s proceedings. It can take several weeks before new MPs are assigned offices at Westminster, and it takes time to recruit staff. Most new MPs will also be very unfamiliar with parliamentary and legislative procedure.

Yet, whereas their 2017 predecessors at least had three months to get accustomed to their new role before considering the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, the WAB’s possible imminence could thrust the 2019 intake within days into scrutinising one of the most complex and important constitutional bills in decades.

One of the government’s (unsatisfactory) arguments for an accelerated WAB timetable has always been the amount of time MPs have already spent debating Brexit — but that was in the 2017-19 Parliament. An interesting feature of any WAB proceedings will thus be whether new MPs struggle to participate, or on the contrary demand the opportunity to make their voices heard.

Even returning MPs have conducted little detailed scrutiny of the revised Brexit package so far, and it is hard to imagine candidates in any but the very safest seats poring over it during the election period. MPs who get elected on December 12 and wish seriously to scrutinise Brexit policy in January are likely to have to spend their Christmases with it.