Next Steps for the Withdrawal Agreement Bill

The first priority for the new Government, following the General Election on 12 December, is going to be Brexit. Whether to "get it done" for the Conservatives, "get it sorted" by renegotiating and holding a confirmatory vote for Labour, or to "stop Brexit" for the Liberal Democrats, Brexit will be top of the list because 31 January is a hard deadline. Any minority Government needs to agree its Brexit stance with its coalition partner or partners, and then put its position to Parliament.

If Labour or the Liberal Democrats are in Government, their first move will be almost certainly to try to agree an extension with the EU, to stop an otherwise de jure no-deal exit at the end of January. A Conservative Government would draw on its renewed mandate to push the Withdrawal Agreement Bill ("WAB") through Parliament, giving effect to the revised Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Boris Johnson in September. The extension granted last month by the EU does allow for the UK to leave the EU before the end of January 2020, but only on the last day of a calendar month and it can only do so in accordance with the constitution, which means through the WAB. There will be no Parliament until after 12 December, and so there is no prospect of the WAB moving forward this month. We could see rapid movement in Parliament in the weeks following the election, but even then, it is almost impossible to imagine Royal Assent for the WAB being given before the end of the year.

We set out below the likely Parliamentary timetable based on the days following General Elections in the previous few decades. Based on this, the earliest the Parliamentary process for passing the WAB could begin would be 31 December 2019 in the event of no Recess, and 17 January 2020 if MPs and Peers do have the usual two-week break.

Post-election procedural timeline

Thursday 12 December: General Election.

Tuesday 17 December: By convention, MPs return to the House of Commons the Tuesday following a Thursday General Election for the re-election of the Speaker of the House, however recently the Speaker may have been initially elected.

Wednesday 18 December – Friday 20 December: Swearing-in of MPs and Peers. This can take three to four days; the length of time set aside is a matter for the Speaker. Once swearing-in is complete, the House of Commons adjourns until the day of the Queen’s Speech.

** In previous years, Parliament's Christmas Recess has begun on 20/21 December and continued for around 13 working days until 7/8 January. Given the narrow timeframe leading up to the latest Brexit deadline of 31 January, it is possible that the Government might opt not to go into Recess. The rest of the timeline gives example dates reflecting one scenario where there is no Recess and another where there is a Recess of the typical two-week length. **

Monday 23 December/Thursday 9 January: Queen's Speech. This is typically followed by up to six days of debate. The number of days spent debating the Queen's Speech is a matter for the Government. This timeline assumes an expedited period of just four days of debate.

Monday 30 December/Thursday 16 January: If Parliament follows the post-election procedural timelines of the previous two elections, this day will be given to the election of three Deputy Speakers.

Tuesday 31 December/Friday 17 January: The Parliamentary process for passing the WAB could begin on this day.

Timeline for approval of the WAB

In October, the Government tried to push the WAB through the House of Commons in just three days in an attempt to meet the 31 October deadline. Even with a strong majority, it is unlikely a new Government would try to do this again, particularly if there was no reason for the short period of time. In any case, once the WAB passes through the House of Commons, it is possible the House of Lords could slow the process for it to become law. Assuming a Conservative majority Government did push for the same timeframe of just three sitting days, and the House of Lords was entirely compliant, the shortest the WAB could go through the House of Lords would be three further sitting days.  The WAB would then receive Royal Assent and become law the following day. The WAB could therefore theoretically become law at the earliest on Wednesday 8 January, assuming no Christmas Recess, or Monday 27 January assuming a Christmas Recess of the usual length.

Political appetite for a Recess

A Conservative Government would be much more likely to agree to a Recess than not. One of the advantages of a Recess to a newly-elected Boris Johnson would be less Parliamentary time to amend or jeopardise his Withdrawal Agreement before the default of a no-deal exit. If there is no majority, or there is another form of Government, we may well see Christmas being put on hold to show the EU a stronger sufficient commitment to action within any further extension.

In the meantime …

Whether there is a recess or not, there is no time for businesses to lose ahead of the 31 January cliff-edge. Organisations should study the commitments being made in the manifestos, once they have been published, and in the detail of the current WAB, to identify challenges and opportunities. As soon as we know who will be in Government it will be important to show the new administration how election pledges can be honoured, or interpreted, whilst minimising disruption to operations and maximising future growth. All of the parties have committed to higher levels of public spending, and so underneath the political poetry a strong economy will still be important to the next Prime Minister.

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