The governing Conservative Party lost its parliamentary majority on 3 September with a number of MPs defecting to the pro-European Liberal Democrat Party. This has left the UK government in a weakened position as it tries to prevent lawmakers from blocking its Brexit plans.
Once the parliamentary majority had been lost, opposition and rebel Conservative MPs quickly moved to force the Prime Minister to delay Brexit by changing the law to require him to seek an extension from Brussels, if no exit deal has been agreed between the UK and the EU by the end of the European Council meeting which is scheduled for 17-18 October.
Hilary Benn, Alistair Burt and other MPs published the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill on 4 September as part of a legislative strategy to avoid (or at least to delay) the UK’s departure from the European Union in the absence of a ratified withdrawal agreement. The Bill was pushed through the houses of parliament in advance of the proposed prorogation of parliament and given royal assent on 9 September.
The Act gives the UK Government until Saturday 19 October to do either of two things. It could seek and secure the approval of MPs for either:
(a) a withdrawal agreement or
(b) leave the European Union without a withdrawal agreement
If by the end of 19 October the House of Commons has done neither of these things, the Prime Minister must then have sought from the European Council an extension of Article 50 for a further four months – until 31 January 2020.
If at any time after 19 October a withdrawal agreement is approved by the Commons, or the Commons decides the UK should leave without a deal, the Prime Minister can withdraw or modify his Article 50 extension request.
If the European Council offers a further extension until 31 January 2020, subsection 3(1) of the Act compels the Prime Minister to inform the European Council that the UK agrees to the extension.
If the European Council offers a further extension, but to a date other than 31 January 2020, under subsections 3(2-3) the Prime Minister has two choices. Either he can:
(a) agree to that extension or
(b) ask the House of Commons (within two calendar days) whether it wishes to approve that extension
the Bill also gives Parliament, and the House of Commons in particular, an on-going role in scrutinising progress towards the securing of a deal between the UK and the EU. The Government must publish a report on 30 November explaining what progress it has made in this regard. MPs would then, by 5 December, be asked to ‘approve’ that report.