To the surprise of most observers, Boris Johnson and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar emerged from a meeting on the Wirral on 10 October 2019 and announced that they could see a pathway to a deal. The UK had conceded that there would be no customs border on the island of Ireland and that instead there would effectively be a customs and regulatory border between Great Britain and the island of Ireland. The EU / Ireland conceded in effect that the backstop would be time-limited by democratic consent every four years.

After several days of intensive talks, the UK and the EU agreed a revised Withdrawal Agreement on 17 October 2019 with the principal change being the replacement of the Northern Ireland backstop a new Northern Ireland only Protocol.  There were a number of significant differences with Mrs May’s agreement, which enabled it to gain the support of a significant number of Brexiteers, while entirely alienating the DUP and immediately losing its support.

Northern Ireland would be part of the UK customs territory but in effect be part of the EU customs territory for most practical purposes. Northern Ireland would remain subject to EU regulatory rules in relation to goods but not otherwise.

Special arrangements equivalent to those previously floated in the earlier customs proposals. Controls were to apply to goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland destined to move on to the Republic of Ireland or EU markets. Customs like processes would apply.

Northern Ireland would remain in the UK customs territory for the purpose of any future customs deals. If more favourable rates applied under such deal, Northern Ireland traders could be reimbursed the EU customs tariff on imports provided the goods did not leave NI.

The Northern Ireland Protocol was to be a permanent solution and status for Northern Ireland subject to the consent of the Northern Ireland assembly every four years after it commenced, by a simple majority and thereafter every four years. If a majority of unionists and nationalists supported it, the period might continue for eight-year until further consent was required. In the event that consent was not given for renewal, there would be a standstill period in which new solutions would be required to be found to avoid a hard border and maintain the mutual commitments of the Good Friday agreement.Importantly from the Brexit supporting wing of the Conservative Party’s perspective, Great Britain was not tied to the EU customs union and was free to enter its own trade agreements.

The corresponding level playing field provisions in relation to employment environmental and other regulatory standards were no longer in the Withdrawal Agreement and accordingly not legally binding. They were moved to the Political Declaration and were expressed in broader language.

The UK government tabled motions to approve the Withdrawal Agreement in Parliament convening a special meeting of Parliament on Saturday, 19 October 2019. The government motion was amended to require the approval of the full implementing legislation by Parliament by the exit date effectively requiring the Prime Minister under the Benn legislation passed in September to request an extension of the exit day to 31 January 2020. The Prime Minister reluctantly sent the required request for consent.

On 21 October 2019 UK government introduced the implementing legislation to give effect to the Withdrawal Agreement in UK domestic law. It was a complex detailed piece of legislation with several powers for Ministers to implement the agreement by orders which would amend primary legislation. On 22 October 2019, the house of commons supported the legislation at second reading (in principle only), but the accelerated timetable proposed to get legislation passed by 31st October was rejected by parliament, and the legislation was paused.

On 24th October by Minister Johnson asked opposition leader Jeremy Corbin to support a government motion for a general election on 12th December requiring two-thirds majority under the Fixed Term Parliament act.

On 28 October 2019, the European Council agreed to the request for consent for an extension of the exit deadline to 31 January 2020. The same day the government’s motion for an early general election was defeated. UK government withdrew the legislation and proposed to set a general election for 12th December regardless of the Fixed term Parliament Act. With the Brexit extension now confirmed, the Labour Party agreed to legislation which passed both houses. Parliament was dissolved on 6th November 2019.

Just before the deadline for nominating candidates, the Brexit Party announced that it would not run against the Conservative Party in any of 317 seats which it had won in the previous general election. Boris Johnson announced that he would not extend the transition period beyond the end of 2020 and that he would seek a Canada style free-trade agreement, apparently in return although it was denied by both, that any deal had been done.

In a handful of cases, the Liberal Democrat Greens and was nationalists agreed not to run against each other and against certain former Conservative Party members who were re-standing as independent remainders. Outside of these few instances, there was no pact between the main candidates.

Consistent with polls throughout, the Conservative Party won a landslide victory giving a majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons. The Labour Party had its worst election since 1935 losing 60 seats. The Conservative Party gained seats in many Labour Party strongholds in northern England that had been held by Labour for eight decades.

The Liberal Democrats who had expected to win dozens of seats came back with one less than in the 2017 general election. The leader Joe Swinson, who at the start of the campaign sought to be prime minister, lost her seat.

The Scottish Nationalist Party gained 13 seats winning 48 of the 59 seats in Scotland. For the first time in its history, Northern Ireland returned more nationalist MPs than Unionist MPs with the DUP winning eight seats, Sinn Fein seven seats, the SDLP two seats and Alliance one seat.

The Conservative Party percentage was 1.2% higher than in 2017, but with Labour dropping 7.8% it gained a significant number of seats under the first past the post electoral system. The Liberal Democrats gained 4.2% of the vote but fell back from 12 to 11 seats.

On 20 December 2019, following the Conservative Party victory in the election, the House of Commons passed the second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill by a margin of 358-234. The Bill was referred to a committee of the whole house on 7 January 2020. The provisions of the earlier legislation providing for parliamentary scrutiny of the withdrawal negotiations with the EU were withdrawn

The bill passed the House of Lords and receive Royal Assent on January 2020. It was approved by the European Parliament on 29th January 2020. The United Kingdom left the UK on at 11 pm on 31st January 2020, and the transition period under the Withdrawal Agreement began.


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