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After reluctantly accepting the EU’s offer of a 31 January Brexit extension and falling short of a two-thirds majority for an election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, Boris Johnson abandoned all attempts to get his Brexit deal through the Commons.
Instead, the prime minister tabled a short bill to change the law in order to hold a poll on 12 December – a move that would require only a simple majority and so could be passed with the backing of the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish National party.
In the event, both abstained after their preferred date of 9 December was rejected – but the Labour party, declaring the opportunity a “once-in-a-generation chance to transform our country”, backed it and it sailed through by 438 votes to 20.
At the fourth time of asking – and rather than granting MPs more time to scrutinise an agreement that they had passed with a majority of 30 at second reading – Johnson had the election he wanted, Britain’s first December poll since 1923.
The prime minister warned his forces it was going to be a hard campaign, however, and got an early reminder of just how hard when Nigel Farage gave him a two-week deadline to drop his Brexit deal or face a Brexit party candidate in every seat.
With Farage’s party plainly set to challenge the Conservatives for every leave vote it can, Johnson felt the need to apologise to Tory members for not taking Britain out of the EU on 31 October – as he had promised to do “come what may”.
He also is unlikely to have welcomed the public interventions in the UK campaign of Donald Trump, who has twice said he hopes the prime minister, a “wonderful guy”, and Farage should come together on a united political platform.
Labour, which is promising to negotiate a new deal with Brussels within three months if it wins and put it to a referendum in six, is determined for once to show unity: “The debate on Brexit is over,” Jeremy Corbyn told his fractious shadow cabinet.
Polls, meanwhile, put the Conservatives well ahead (although they did so, too, of course, in 2017). But tactical voting could be a game-changer, with the People’s Vote campaign preparing to start spending a £1m war chest despite a continuing conflict within the organisation.
Most serious analysts and commentators warn strenuously that voter volatility, the revival of the anti-Brexit Lib Dems, the emergence of the pro-no-deal Brexit party and – as ever – the unpredictable effects of Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system mean this will be an election of quite exceptional complexity.
It would take a fool, therefore, to predict the result. But it is worth bearing in mind that victory for Johnson can only be an absolute majority in the Commons, since there is no reliable alliance he can build for his deal. Victory for the rest could mean simply getting enough seats between them to deny him that majority.
Looking further forward, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator who has just been appointed to lead the bloc’s taskforce on future relations with the UK, issued a timely reminder that ratification of the exit deal was only the start of Brexit.
That future relationship still has to be hammered out – in 11 months unless the transition period is extended, which experts consider inevitable – and Barnier warned British companies could expect barriers to trade with the EU if the government seeks to abandon EU social, environmental and consumer standards.
His new watchword: the EU will be happy with an agreement that features “zero tariffs, zero quotas … and zero dumping”.
Best of the rest
Major infrastructure projects stall amid Brexit uncertainty.
Juncker: Boris Johnson told “so many lies” in EU referendum campaign.
Johnson “knew about Vote Leave’s illegal overspend”, says MP.
Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal “would cost UK economy £70bn”.
Brexit uncertainty hits UK manufacturing sector.
End anxiety of UK citizens in EU, government urged.
Sinn Féin to stand aside for remain candidates in three constituencies.
The Guardian’s editorial said the election would be all about Brexit, whose future now rests on the result of the general election in six weeks’ time:
Boris Johnson has had a major impact on his party. He has triggered and presided over a transformation of the Tories into a rightwing nationalist party. What was once a broadly based movement of the centre-right is now a political sect, defined by a single issue, Brexit, which increasingly places the party on the wrong side of history. The exodus this week of centrist Conservative MPs who have had enough is eloquent testimony to that. The upshot, as Iain Duncan Smith boasted this week, is stark. The Tories, he said, “are the Brexit party now”. As many have pointed out, a general election is an election about everything. Jeremy Corbyn, launching Labour’s campaign on Thursday, will fight it on austerity. The SNP will fight it on Scottish independence. In Northern Ireland, the election will, as ever, be about the union. None of these is a secondary issue. Yet Duncan Smith’s words identify what this election is most irrevocably about. It is about whether the UK will leave the EU and end its commitment to Europe, or whether it will not. If the Conservatives form the next government, Johnson will move quickly to get his Brexit deal into law. Yet his deal is worse than Mrs May’s and far worse than Britain’s current terms of membership. By 2029 the economy would be 4% smaller than it is forecast to be if Britain remains. Scotland could be pushed out of the UK and the Irish peace process destroyed. The Tory right, strengthened by this week’s retirements, will be within touching distance of the small-state, light-regulation Britain they crave. These things could be the realities of 2020s Britain if Johnson wins next month. The task on 12 December is to stop him.
A political scientist explains why it would be foolish for anyone to predict the election outcome: