MPs may need to sit in parliament between Christmas and new year to pass any Brexit deal in order to meet the deadline for the end of the transition period on 31 December.
The EU is hoping talks will be concluded to allow ratification by the European parliament on 28 December. If talks go on longer, it is possible for any deal to be “provisionally applied” to avoid a chasm of no deal until the agreement is ratified, to allow time for MEPs to scrutinise and pass the deal early in 2021. Otherwise contingency measures could be arranged to bridge the gap.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has told ambassadors and MEPs in Brussels that a post-Brexit trade and security deal could be sealed as early as this week after Boris Johnson made a key concession over the weekend on regulatory standards.
However, MEPs are likely to be far from happy at the lack of time for scrutiny and for translation of the deal. It will need to be accepted by all EU member states and the commission has accepted there will need to be a “very flexible, fast process”.
If a deal is clinched this week, Downing Street hopes to hold a vote early next week before the Christmas break, the date of which has not been set. However, there are still difficult negotiations take place around fishing rights, which EU sources have said could drag on longer.
Though time is extremely short, parliament can work quickly to pass legislation if a deal is done. Downing Street has confirmed MPs will have a vote if a deal is reached.
“If a deal is agreed, it will require legislation to come into force,” a No 10 spokesman said. “MPs will therefore of course get a vote on any deal before this legislation receives royal assent and becomes law.”
Some Conservative MPs – even hardline Brexiters – would be likely to view a very short extension pragmatically to allow time to ratify a deal. The former cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith, who has been critical of any concessions to the EU on level playing field negotiations, said: “If push comes to shove, they can give themselves a bye post-31 December of a month while the sides sort out their legislation, as long as these issues are sorted satisfactorily.”
Labour has all but confirmed that its MPs will be whipped in favour of backing a deal. Speaking to LBC on Monday, Keir Starmer said the party was clear that a deal was in the national interest if the alternative was no deal. “We’ll look at a deal if they get it,” the Labour leader said.
The decision by Labour to back a deal – even if a substantial number of MPs abstain – will give the prime minister some room for manoeuvre in negotiations knowing he will have no issues in parliament passing the deal.
If there is no deal then MPs will not get any automatic right to vote on the decision to leave without trading terms on 31 December.
A number of Conservative MPs have had conversations in recent days about whether any parliamentary steps could be taken to prevent no deal – after MPs mounted audacious bids in parliament last year to pass legislation to force extensions, enabled by some flexibility from the Speaker at the time, John Bercow.
However, with Johnson’s substantially increased majority and a new Commons Speaker in place, it is unlikely there are any parliamentary moves that could stop a no-deal Brexit.