Europe wants Boris Johnson to extend the Brexit transition period. But does the Conservative Party? And, for that matter, does the prime minister? Coronavirus has an effective monopoly on Whitehall’s time and energy for the foreseeable future: certainly up to and including 30 June, the date by which the UK government must request an extension beyond the current 31 December deadline.
The same is true of the governments of the EU27 – several of whom are led by parties whose European Parliament grouping, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), demanded a delay to the end of the transition on 30 March. Their argument for an extension is threefold: they contend that negotiations over a trade deal involve too many officials and are too sensitive be conducted virtually; that the UK’s timetable was already too ambitious before the pandemic; and that to plough on and leave the single market and customs union on 31 December would be an act of an economic self-harm at any already testing time.
Whitehall, meanwhile, has its own axe to grind. The majority of civil servants who had otherwise been working on transition have been redeployed to teams overseeing the response to Covid-19. On these grounds alone many believe an extended transition should be inevitable. Some ministers agree with them. Yet Downing Street – for now, at least – has made it clear, both publicly and privately, that there will be no discussion on an extension. The few officials still charged with enacting the government’s Brexit policy have been told by key figures in cabinet that nothing has changed.
Of course, the prime minister might yet decide that something must change, but the decision is not his alone. The Withdrawal Agreement Act, passed in January, made any extension of the transition illegal. It looked like an unforced error at the time. The fate of Theresa May was, if nothing else, a cautionary tale on the wisdom of setting hard deadlines on negotiations with the EU that one cannot be sure of meeting. If Johnson does conclude that he must U-turn, then the law will need unpicking before 30 June, if not before the EU Council summit of 18-19 June.
At that point, it is what the Conservative Party in the Commons thinks that will matter. Only 40 MPs are required to rebel to overturn the Prime Minister’s majority – and while events might have distracted them from Brexit, their commitment to delivering it in the agreed form and timetable remains, in many cases, undimmed. And while opinion is far from unanimous, there is a surprising amount of support across the party – and across Leave-Remain lines – for avoiding an extension.
Opponents of an extension deploy four arguments. The first is the most simple: the government has already said it will not delay, and has legislated to that effect. The second is similar: negotiations have not yet been formally suspended. The third is a mirror of the EPP’s case for an extension: some Tory MPs believe that the disruption caused by Covid-19 is an argument against extending the transition, rather than for it. As one puts it: “What’s an extra queue at customs after months of rules and checks to stop the spread?” Finally, the fourth is perhaps the most popular: that the EU27 will be in no position to negotiate as a unit after months of economic hardship and internal tensions. One minister who believes an extension is inevitable summarises them thus: “We would have to change the law. And then there is an argument about wasting a crisis, and not prolonging the agony.”
Yet the European Research Group is not yet pushing for that outcome – not yet, anyway. Several of its MPs have made their peace with the likelihood of an extension should the government wish to seek one. In that scenario, they believe they will lose the fight and risk “looking mad” if they agitate for a no-deal outcome in the middle of an extended pandemic. As one source puts it: “By June, we will know whether this is a six- or 18-month crisis.” In the latter case, even some hardline Eurosceptics see little incentive to act. Ministers will hope that is indeed the case should events force their hand.