Macron Backs Brexit Delay as Johnson Faces Vote on Election

(Bloomberg) --

French President Emmanuel Macron will agree to a Brexit extension, easing the risk of the U.K. leaving the European Union without a deal on Oct. 31, according to a French government official

Macron has agreed a delay until Jan. 31, said the official, who asked not to be identified. With other member states already supporting the move, France’s backing paves the way for EU diplomats to sign off on an extension during talks in Brussels on Monday. The draft proposal under consideration includes an option for the U.K. to leave earlier -- on Nov. 30 or Dec. 31 -- if both sides ratify the divorce deal.

A three-month Brexit extension would buy time for Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he seeks an early U.K. election to break the impasse in British politics. Macron spoke with the British leader over the phone on Sunday afternoon.

Stymied twice in his efforts to force an early general election, Johnson accused opponents of holding the U.K. “hostage” by refusing to support his agenda for leaving the EU based on a draft exit deal sealed this month. He looks unlikely to win a vote in the House of Commons later on Monday.

Macron Backs Brexit Delay as Johnson Faces Vote on Election

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn reiterated Sunday he would not support the government’s bid for an election on Dec. 12 unless a no-deal Brexit is completely ruled out -- and said that would require more of a guarantee than just a three-month extension by the EU. Labour’s stance suggests Johnson will fall short of the two-thirds majority he needs in Parliament to trigger a vote.

All the same, Macron was convinced that an election is increasingly likely after his conversation with Johnson, the French official said. Macron had blocked the EU’s attempt on Friday to delay Brexit for three months, insisting on a one-month extension to Nov. 30.

Amid the party maneuvering, the government will consider “all options” to trigger an election if Parliament continues to block Brexit, a U.K. official said Sunday.

Earlier, the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party presented a proposal to secure an early election via an amendment to the fixed-term law, which could be passed by simply majority. The two parties, both strongly in favor of staying in the EU, offered to back the bill if the election were set for Dec. 9, three days before Johnson’s preferred date.

Advantageous

The Liberal Democrats and the SNP could gain from an election held before Brexit is delivered. An earlier date would make it more likely that students, who are among the most pro-EU voters and a natural constituency for both parties, will still be at their universities to cast ballots.

Government ministers rejected the proposal. Conservative Party Chairman James Cleverly called it a “gimmick” that opposition parties could use to thwart Brexit by stopping Parliament from debating the divorce deal.

“They have obviously made it clear that they have no intention of wanting Brexit to be done, no intention of wanting the Withdrawal Bill,” Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan told Sky News. “It is important for the sake of the country that we bring this uncertainty to an end.”

Risky Changes

Macron Backs Brexit Delay as Johnson Faces Vote on Election

Labour, which has been criticized by some of its MPs for not matching the Liberal Democrats’ full-throated opposition to Brexit, joined the government in ruling out the plan.

Corbyn said the Liberal Democrat move was a “stunt” and that his party’s stance on an early general election has not changed.

No Guarantees

The U.K. government hasn’t laid out a Plan B if it fails to secure an election on Monday, though Johnson’s office has previously said it would focus on its domestic agenda rather than trying again to ratify the Brexit deal. It said the legislation is paused until MP agree to an early election.

Parliament’s fragmentation over Brexit could give rise to an alternative maneuver: the opposition or Johnson himself could trigger a no-confidence vote in the government, which requires a simply majority to succeed.

Party leaders then would have 14 days to form a new government that can win a confidence vote with Johnson’s Conservatives given the first shot as the party with the most seats. But Labour could also try, or some sort of national unity government might be formed. If no government can be formed, Parliament will be dissolved triggering an election.

Confidence Test

The SNP’s leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford, made it clear that his party was prepared to seek a confidence vote if necessary to remove the Tories from office.

Given the risks, Johnson was still trying to focus MPs’ minds on Monday’s vote.

Parliament has “run its course” and must agree to a Dec. 12 election, he said in comments released Saturday. “If they refuse this timetable -- if they refuse to go the extra mile to complete Brexit -- then I will have no choice but to conclude that they are not really sincere in their desire to get Brexit done.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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