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The UK general election on 12 December 2019 returned a significant win for the Conservative Party—their largest since the 1980s. The primary objective of calling the early general election was to break the parliamentary deadlock on Brexit, which the government’s new majority is certain to achieve, at least in the short term. This majority should enable the Prime Minister to get the Withdrawal Agreement ratified and achieve the UK’s withdrawal from the EU by deadline of 31 January 2020, but what happens next? EU leaders have cautiously welcomed the result, calling for Parliament to move swiftly to approve and ratify the Withdrawal Agreement so that the UK and EU can move into the next phase of Brexit negotiations, focussing on the future relationship. In this analysis, Kieran Laird, partner and head of constitutional affairs in the Gowling WLG Brexit Unit, Richard Eccles, partner at Bird & Bird, Nick Wrightson, senior associate and Sarah Burton, associate at Kingsley Napley, and Adam Cygan, Professor of Law at the University of Leicester, discuss the general election result and its implications for Brexit.
The 2019 general election returned the Conservative Party to government with a parliamentary majority of 80 seats. Citing the result as an ‘overwhelming mandate’, Prime Minister Boris Johnson repeated his pledge to ‘get Brexit done on time, by 31 January, no ifs, no buts’. Here is a reminder of the results:
Party / Seats won
Conservative Party – 365
Labour Party – 203
SNP – 48
Liberal Democrats – 11
DUP – 8
Sinn Féin – 7
Plaid Cymru – 4
SDLP – 2
Green Party – 1
Alliance – 1
While the election was taking place, EU27 leaders convened for the December European Council. The Prime Minister did not attend the summit, which focussed primarily on climate change.
EU leaders cautiously welcomed the election result, calling for Parliament to move swiftly to approve and ratify the Withdrawal Agreement so that the UK and EU can move into the next phase of Brexit negotiations, focussing on the future relationship The EU27 leaders also discussed Brexit preparations and arrangements for the negotiations on future EU-UK relationship, which are to be led by Michel Barnier on the EU side.
The Special European Council (Article 50) adopted conclusions reiterating its ‘commitment to an orderly withdrawal on the basis of the Withdrawal Agreement and calls for its timely ratification and effective implementation’ and inviting the European Commission to submit draft guidelines for the next phase of negotiations for their ‘swift’ adoption.
The Special European Council conclusions confirm the EU27’s commitment to structured and transparent negotiation in the next phase of Brexit talks, and while the EU27 have confirmed their ‘desire to establish as close as possible a future relationship with the UK in line with the Political Declaration’ and ‘based on a balance of rights and obligations and ensure a level playing field’ they also reinforce the need to adhere to the EU’s previous negotiating guidelines, statements and declarations.
Here is a quick reminder of the Conservative Party’s election manifesto pledges on Brexit:
‘Get Brexit done’
After election day and before 25 December 2019:
Begin passage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill through Parliament in order to complete the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement in January 2020.
By or on 31 January 2020:
The UK leaves the EU and enters the implementation period in accordance with the Withdrawal Agreement
Transitional arrangements between the UK and the EU for the implementation period, with the UK treated as a Member State for many purposes, staying within the EU single market and customs union, and subject to the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union.
The UK and the EU begin trade negotiations with a view to entering a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2021.
The UK also begins negotiations for an FTA with the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Japan to be completed within the next three years. Legislation introduced on trade, agriculture and fisheries, plus legislation to ‘ensure high standards of workers’ rights, environmental protection and consumer rights’.
31 December 2020:
Implementation period completion day—post-Brexit implementation period end-date will not be extended. (In the absence of a finalised FTA at the end of the implementation period, the economic relationship between the UK and the EU would default to World Trade Organization (WTO) terms).
Focus on ensuring full economic benefits of Brexit across the UK, with Northern Ireland businesses and producers retaining unfettered access to the rest of the UK.
To revisit the party’s full manifesto, click here.
The immediate implication is that the government will be in a position to secure the UK’s withdrawal from the political institutions of the EU in January 2020, with focus returning initially to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and the legal mechanisms for implementing the Withdrawal Agreement already endorsed by the EU. For background reading on the deal, see: Brexit Bulletin—UK and EU announce a new Brexit deal, LNB News 17/10/2019 39.
Attention will then turn to the wider legislative agenda, including the various Brexit Bills which failed to complete their passage in previous Parliaments. Kieran Laird tells lawyers to expect a ‘a flurry of Bills’, and continued friction between Westminster and the devolved administrations:
‘The obvious legal implication is that the UK will leave the EU at the end of January 2020. In the short term that will mean a lot of focus on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and how it interacts with the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, to give domestic effect to the Withdrawal Agreement.
Once the UK is out of the EU, Parliament will have time on its hands that it has not had over the previous two years to turn its attention to the raft of other issues that have been relatively side-lined by the disputes over Brexit. We should expect to see a flurry of Bills next year on issues that have been waiting in the background (pensions reform, for example) and building on promises made in the Conservative manifesto.
In terms of further legislation around Brexit we will also see the return of the stalled Trade Bill, Agriculture Bill and Fisheries Bill, as well as new legislation on immigration to introduce the promised points-based system.
At the constitutional level, aside from Brexit, we are likely to see friction between England and Scotland as the SNP use their gains to push for a new independence referendum and it will be interesting to see whether the promised White Paper on English devolution makes an appearance. After Mr Johnson's recent experience of a zombie government held in place by a hostile Parliament, we will pretty definitely see the end of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011.’
In the short term, lawyers will be monitoring the continued progress of the domestic legislative preparation for Brexit, including the return of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. Professor Adam Cygan notes that although MPs rejected the government’s expedited timetable for the Bill in the last Parliament, the Prime Minister should have more control this time around:
‘This Bill must be passed before the UK leaves the EU, if the UK is to leave the EU with deal. It is very likely that this Bill will be introduced before the Christmas recess and given the government's majority of 80 seats it will not have any trouble in securing its passage through both Houses. This will mean that the UK leaves the EU on 31 January 2020 (or possibly earlier if the government can secure this).’
For previous analysis on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, see:
• Withdrawal Agreement Bill: Ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement
• Withdrawal Agreement Bill: Implementing the transition period
• Withdrawal Agreement Bill: Sovereignty, special status and the Withdrawal Agreement
• Withdrawal Agreement Bill: Parliament’s role in the future UK-EU relationship
• Withdrawal Agreement Bill: Implications for devolved institutions
First published in LexisPSL.
To continue reading, and to read similar content on Brexit, Covid-19 and other market developments affecting lawyers, please consider a free trial to LexisPSL: click here.
For the latest updates on Brexit negotiations and developments in the domestic preparation, see: Brexit timeline. For updates on Brexit legislation see: Brexit legislation tracker.
For guidance on keeping up to date on Brexit, including details of Brexit news updates, analysis and highlights, plus instructions for setting up daily/weekly alerts via email and RSS, see: How do I sign up for Brexit alerts?
Further reading, including News Analysis and links to various key policy documents and publications is available in our Brexit subtopic, see: Brexit—overview. For further updates and guidance specific to individual practice areas, see: Brexit toolkit.
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