The Calendar of History Marks the 21st Century
Even by the standards of the near three and a half years since the UK’s EU referendum in 2016, October was a momentous month for Brexit.
In the run-up to the scheduled date for the UK’s departure at Halloween, Boris Johnson’s government finally sealed a new exit deal with the EU – but a missed deadline in the British parliament forced the prime minister by law to seek another Brexit delay.
European leaders agreed to the request for a three-month extension, while UK lawmakers finally agreed to an early general election in December to try to clear the path ahead.
Here is a blow-by-blow account of the key events:
October 2: More than two months after becoming prime minister, Boris Johnson tells the Conservative Party conference in Manchester he will send “constructive and reasonable proposals” for a new Brexit deal to the EU. A revised UK exit plan is duly sent to the European Commission the same day; the prime minister also writes to its president, Jean-Claude Juncker. The plan proposes an overhaul of the controversial backstop guarantee for the Irish border. It is received politely in Brussels, but the Irish prime minister says it does not “fully meet the agreed objectives of the backstop”.
October 3: As EU leaders digest the UK plan, it becomes increasingly evident that it is problematic. The UK proposes a complicated system involving technology and trusted trader schemes to avoid Irish border checks. Northern Ireland will stay partially aligned to the EU single market. But a consent scheme that gives the hardline unionist DUP an effective veto goes down badly. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn calls the plan a “rehashed version” of previously rejected proposals. Northern Ireland businesses don’t like it either.
October 4: Government papers submitted to a Scottish court say the prime minister will obey the law and ask the EU for another Brexit extension, if a parliamentary deadline for approving a new deal is missed. It contradicts Johnson’s insistence that he will not request another delay.
October 5: The European Commission says the UK proposals “do not provide a basis” for a Brexit deal.
October 8: UK-EU negotiations all but collapse amid a day of acrimony as Johnson’s office gives a negative account of a conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. European Council President Donald Tusk tweets accusing Johnson of playing a “stupid blame game”. Ireland unveils a €1.2 billion fund to cope with a no-deal Brexit.
October 9: Jean-Claude Juncker condemns the “blame game from London” in a speech to the European Parliament, but refuses to rule out a deal.
October 10: British and Irish prime ministers Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar meet in northwest England for a private meeting. Suddenly the mood lifts as they announce they can see “a pathway to a possible deal”. Details remain under wraps but Donald Tusk tweets that he has received “promising signals” from the Taoiseach.
October 11: EU and UK negotiators Michel Barnier and Stephen Barclay meet in Brussels as both sides agree to intensify Brexit talks. The race is on to try to reach a deal by an EU summit in under a week’s time.
October 13: Barnier briefs EU diplomats on Sunday and says “a lot of work remains to be done”. Johnson tells his cabinet a “significant amount of work” is needed to reach a deal. The talks continue.
October 14: The Queen’s Speech takes place in the UK parliament. The monarch reads out the government’s agenda for the next parliamentary term. Critics say it is a pointless exercise, given the imminent Brexit deadline and the government’s lack of a majority.
October 15: The government is dealt a blow after Northern Ireland unionists from the DUP, which has backed it in parliament until now, say they cannot support the UK Brexit plan “as things stand”.
October 17: Johnson and Juncker simultaneously announce dramatically that the EU and the UK have struck a deal. It comes as EU leaders gather for a European Council summit. The agreement replaces the Irish backstop, meaning the whole of the UK will leave the EU customs union – a success for Johnson. But the PM caves in on his plan for Northern Ireland, which will have a regulatory frontier with Britain. The DUP say they will not back it. Attention switches to whether Johnson can get his deal through the UK parliament.
October 19: The House of Commons meets on a Saturday for the first time since 1982. The PM had hoped to win its backing for his deal. But MPs vote to withhold their approval until the laws to implement Brexit are in place. This means the Benn Act comes into force: because parliament has not approved a deal or a no-deal exit by this date, the PM is obliged to seek a three-month Brexit delay from the EU. Johnson duly sends a letter to Brussels but leaves it unsigned. On the same day, hundreds of thousands of people march in London for another Brexit referendum.
October 20: EU ambassadors meet briefly to consider the UK request. The European Commission has said it “takes note” of the UK parliamentary vote, but EU leaders make it clear they are looking to the UK to clarify its next steps.
October 21: Johnson is refused permission to bring a straight “yes or no” vote on the deal to parliament. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow rules the motion was essentially the same as the one brought on Saturday. The government publishes its bill to implement the Brexit deal.
October 22: The Commons holds its first debate on the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. It passes its first hurdle, achieving a majority of 30 at the second reading. However, MPs reject by 14 votes the proposed three-day timetable, described as woefully inadequate for such an important matter. Boris Johnson says the government will “pause” the legislation. European Council President Donald Tusk says he will recommend that the EU27 accept the UK extension request.
October 23: Boris Johnson tells parliament he awaits the EU’s decision on a delay. Germany says it is open to a short-term extension. But France has been pushing back, saying any extension must have a good reason.
October 24: Boris Johnson suddenly calls for a general election on December 12 – and sends an open letter to Jeremy Corbyn saying he will allow parliament more time to approve the exit deal if MPs back the snap poll. The European Parliament backs a “flexible extension” that could end before the end of January. France again calls for more clarity from Britain.
October 25: Meeting on Friday, EU27 envoys to Brussels agree to a Brexit extension, but decide to delay a decision on the details until after the weekend.
October 26: DUP leader Arlene Foster tells her party conference it cannot support the agreement as it creates a customs border in the Irish Sea. The Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party (SNP) send a letter to Donald Tusk to say that if the EU grants an extension to January 31, 2020, they will back a general election on December 9.
October 28: Tusk says the EU has agreed to offer the UK a Brexit “flextension” until January 31. Boris Johnson confirms that he is forced to accept it. The government stands down its no-deal Brexit preparations, and puts on hold its advertising campaign for an october 31 departure. The PM’s latest call for an early election fails in parliament. The motion passes but falls well short of the two-thirds majority needed under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
October 29: Jeremy Corbyn lifts Labour’s opposition to an early election, arguing that the extension means a no-deal Brexit is “off the table”. The government tries again in parliament, via a bill that needs only a simple majority but runs the risk of being amended. By a large majority, MPs finally back a general election on December 12. Donald Tusk – due to stand down as European Council president – confirms the EU27 have formally adopted the Brexit extension. He bids goodbye to “British friends”, adding “please make the best use of this time”.
October 30: Johnson and Corbyn trade barbs at the last PMQs before parliament is dissolved for the election campaign.
October 31: The last Brexit deadline arrives. Despite Boris Johnson’s previous repeated assertions that Brexit will happen on Halloween, “no ifs or buts”, “come what may”, “do or die”… the UK is still in the EU.