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Brexit: why is there another delay and a UK election? | Euronews answers

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Brexit: why is there another delay and a UK election? | Euronews answers
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This article originally published on Monday (October 28) has been updated.

EU leaders have approved another extension until January 31, 2020 after the UK failed to ratify a divorce deal in time and requested another delay.

This was supposed to be the week that finally saw the United Kingdom leave the European Union. Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent the summer and much of the autumn promising that Brexit would happen on October 31.

Meanwhile British lawmakers have backed a pre-Christmas general election to try to break the impasse in parliament.

Here is a guide to the latest decisions and the thinking behind them.

January 31: the new Brexit ‘flextension’

EU leaders agreed on Monday (October 28) to delay the UK’s departure beyond the end of October. Brexit will now take place on February 1, 2020 – or earlier if the divorce deal is passed by the British and European parliaments. If the agreement is ratified, the UK will leave on the first day of the following month: either December 1 or January 1.

The “flextension” is seen as a compromise. Most EU leaders wanted to extend the UK's membership until January 31, as this met the UK’s request for a three-month delay.

France had reportedly argued for a shorter extension; senior officials and ministers had said the UK had to give a good reason for another delay and wanted to concentrate politicians’ minds. However, although the decision needed unanimity among EU leaders, it was always thought highly unlikely that France would wield its veto.

Despite Boris Johnson’s repeated pledges that the UK would leave the EU at Halloween, he was obliged by law to seek a delay in the absence of parliamentary approval for the revised Brexit deal by October 19.

Read more: Brexit 'flextension' formally adopted as Tusk bids goodbye to 'British friends'

December 12: why did MPs reject then back Johnson’s election call?

On Tuesday (October 29) British lawmakers dramatically approved an early UK general election in December. It came after the Labour Party's shadow cabinet approved the move, following earlier backing by two other opposition parties, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party.

Labour said that in the light of the Brexit extension granted by the EU, its pre-election condition that a no-deal Brexit be taken "off the table" had been met.

On Monday the prime minister failed to secure parliamentary backing for an early poll on the same day. He has now succeeded at his fourth attempt in five weeks to send the country to the polls.

The first vote, under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, needed the support of two-thirds of lawmakers to be approved. The result fell well short of the required numbers. The ruling Conservatives have no majority in parliament, and – until Tuesday – Labour was opposed to the idea. Opposition parties largely abstained.

Boris Johnson responded to the result by saying he would try again via another route on Tuesday, via a bill that requires only a simple majority of MPs.

The government's chosen date of December 12 was contested but eventually approved by lawmakers.

Read more: New Year's leave? Deadlocked UK to hold snap election on December 12

Why did the government not opt for a simple-majority bill in the first place?

The government tabled its previous votes for an election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. To help understand why, Euronews spoke to Maddy Thimont Jack, Senior Researcher with the Institute for Government.

"Passing a bill is open to amendment and takes longer. It has to go through the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and receive Royal Assent. Although a move via the Fixed-term Parliaments Act needs a two-thirds majority there can be no amendments. Once passed the government can dissolve parliament. A bill on the other hand would be more complicated," she said.

"The danger with a bill lies in the possibility of amendments. In theory there could be amendments on the date, on disenfranchised voters, or on the practicalities… Once amendments are passed and the bill gets to the committee stage it becomes the property of the House. The government cannot withdraw it, but could vote up voting against it at the final stage, as a last resort."

Several amendments were tabled – including an attempt to bring forward the election date by three days. But the government's proposal of December 12 was passed – a Thursday, in line with UK election tradition.

Why did the Liberal Democrats and SNP prefer December 9?

Although the two dates are only three days apart, the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party (SNP) argued strongly for the earlier date.

The advantage for the anti-Brexit parties of the earlier date is that the UK’s EU membership would definitely still be in play, as there would not be enough parliamentary time to push the withdrawal deal through. They wanted to be sure of contesting an election offering the possibility that Brexit could be stopped.

The Liberal Democrats also argued that the earlier election date gave students, registered to vote in their university towns, a greater chance to vote before they left for the Christmas holidays. This was called into question, given term times and the fact that many students are registered in their home towns, often a long way from the university.

Parliament is dissolved automatically 25 working days before a general election, so with a December 12 election, MPs would technically have until November 6 to examine the EU withdrawal bill.

Lawmakers rejected the government's previous planned fast-track timetable, and the government has given assurances that it will not seek to rush through the legislation.

However, many opposition MPs do not trust the prime minister to stay true to his word. Johnson has repeatedly appealed to “get Brexit done” – and the ideal situation for him would arguably be to hold an election having delivered on his promise to secure the UK's departure from the EU.

The earlier date would have meant parliament being dissolved almost immediately, preventing the government from trying to push through the EU withdrawal bill.

A vote on December 9 could also have allowed time for parliament to start up again this month. With a December 12 election the process may have to wait until January – by which time the new looming Brexit deadline might add to the pressure on MPs to pass the deal, or again face a possible no-deal exit.

Read more: Why does Boris Johnson want a December election?

A December poll – good or bad timing?

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn had said Labour did not want an election until a no-deal Brexit was ruled out. He said on Tuesday that he now believed that this condition had been met, given the EU's agreement to a three-month delay.

Critics have argued, however, that a guarantee against no-deal is impossible to achieve – as even if the UK leaves the EU with an agreement, another no-deal “cliff-edge” would loom next year during crucial negotiations on future trade.

A further reason given for Johnson's eagerness for, and Corbyn's earlier resistance to, an early election is that the ruling Conservatives have been consistently ahead of Labour in recent opinion polls.

Opponents of a general election at this stage on either date argue that the crucial issue of Brexit should not be mixed up with other matters facing the country.

A pre-Christmas election is risky for all parties: a poll so close to the holiday period may be unpopular with voters.

In previous snap elections – called earlier than the scheduled date – they have also shown a tendency to punish parties in power. Theresa May famously lost the Conservatives' majority when her early dash to the country backfired in 2017. In February 1974 the Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath called an early election hoping to win a new mandate. He too lost his majority, and was ousted from power by Labour following another election later in the year.

Read more:

Could a fourth Brexit extension follow a general election?

Brexit Guide: Where are we now – and how did we get here?

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