Where's my Brexit? How 31 October became Non-B Day - and how people reacted
Gary Parkinson

There's always a palpable build-up to the last day of October in the UK. Shops and houses are draped in pumpkin orange and witch-hat black; previously under-appreciated vegetables are scooped out and internally lit for starring roles on windowsills; and small children near a fever pitch of excitement at the imminent temporary lifting of the parental ban on two of childhood's finest things: staying up late and eating far too many sweets. 

During 2019, though, 31 October has had a much bigger build-up, dominating political discourse for most of the year. On 10 April, European Council President Donald Tusk announced Halloween as the new deadline for the UK to leave the EU. 

Theresa May signs the letter invoking Article 50 back in March 2017 (Credit: Christopher Furlong/Pool Photo via AP)

Theresa May signs the letter invoking Article 50 back in March 2017 (Credit: Christopher Furlong/Pool Photo via AP)

A brief history of phantom cliff-edges

"New" deadline? Well yes: this wasn't the first date by which Brexit was supposed to have been concluded. The original deadline was 29 March, two years after the then prime minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, formally starting the first-ever voluntary exit of the EU. 

It may not have escaped your notice that 29 March came and went without Brexit happening, as May struggled with a double problem: negotiating a deal acceptable to the EU, then selling it to a UK parliament most of whose members hadn't wanted to leave. The former was accomplished in November 2018, but May was unable to win parliamentary approval, her party's majority having been crucially whittled down by her snap general election in 2017, which was designed to strengthen her hand but actually weakened it.

May's March deadline was initially extended by a fortnight to 12 April, but after parliament three times voted down her bill, the EU granted a "flextension" to a maximum of 31 October, with Tusk intoning "Please do not waste this time." 

The first half of the extension, though, saw  May's Conservative party gearing up for a leadership contest. It took until 23 July for Boris Johnson to be elected the party leader - and thus the prime minister responsible for making Brexit happen.

Donald Tusk: still waiting (Credit: AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

Donald Tusk: still waiting (Credit: AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

Broken promises… and some which might be better broken

Never short of confidence, Johnson won largely on promises of completing Brexit, and repeated soundbites from Johnson and his allies hammered home the message. 

During his leadership campaign Johnson said Brexit would happen on 31 October "come what may, do or die" and his first speech as leader on 24 July underlined his determination to "come out of the EU on October the 31st, no ifs or buts." 

As speculation mounted about a delay, he repeated the "ifs or buts" line on 2 September, the day before insisting "We will leave by 31 October in all circumstances." On 5 September, asked again about a delay, he replied "I'd rather be dead in a ditch."

His newly-selected cabinet of pro-Brexiteers backed him up, while Johnson tied to renegotiate the deal with the EU. Back in June and backing Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg had tweeted "If we don't leave the EU by 31st October there will be no Conservative Party left". On 8 September, Sajid Javid insisted "We will leave on October the 31st." On 20 October, Michael Gove used the equally insistent but rather more colloquially expressed "We are gonna leave on October the 31st."

However, 31 October has arrived and Britain hasn't left (yet - the actual deadline is 11pm local time), largely because Johnson was forced by parliament to request an extension to 31 January, and the EU agreed. Despite the "do or die" and "dead in a ditch" rhetoric, not to mention the macabre trappings of the Halloween date, the prime minister appears to be very much and alive and nowhere near any ditches.

That hasn't stopped #DieInADitchDay trending on Twitter, with one tweet showing a ditchside sign saying "reserved for Boris Johnson." Many Remainers took the opportunity for a little light mockery mixed with their usual hope of a second referendum, now coupled to the mechanism of a defeat for Johnson's Conservatives at the upcoming general election. 

It wasn't only gleeful Europhiles who joined in, with hardline Brexiteers also calling out Johnson's failure to deliver. Nigel Farage's Brexit Party took a lighter tone with a mocked-up doormat delivery notice: "Sorry we missed you, we will try to redeliver your Brexit by 31st January 2020. We apologise for any inconvenience. Regards, Parliament." Meanwhile, the controversial Leave.EU campaign struck a darker tone, tweeting "and they say politicians don't keep their promises" above a cartoon of a distinctive blond mop atop someone apparently digging his own grave. 

Politicians and public alike have marked the date (Credit: Brexit Party)

Politicians and public alike have marked the date (Credit: Brexit Party)

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

But Johnson is not the only public figure left rueing time's ruthless onward march. In September, prominent Brexiteer Mark Francois asserted that "if we don't leave on the 31st of October, this country will explode." Inevitably, this led to much mockery on Twitter, where the trending hashtag #BritainHasExploded accompanied a variety of images, from perfectly normal high streets to an empty box of teabags, a tipped-over traffic cone, a fork in the knife drawer, a magpie smoking a cigarette and even an incorrectly-alphabetized CD collection

On 4 October, right-wing publicity-magnet and apparent apostrophephobe Katie Hopkins tweeted "We are out on 31 Oct. If I am proved wrong I will drink a pot of tea naked in the Apprentice losers cafe with Farages face on each nipple." Again, as this piece was published there has been no such sighting yet...….

Talk is cheap, but not everything is. The Royal Mint had produced three million celebratory 50p coins stamped with the date; on Tuesday the Mint announced they will now be melted down and recycled. (For the record, there had been plans to produce a 29 March coin, too.)

Toss a coin: Plans for a new 50p have been put on hold more than once (Credit: HM Treasury)

Toss a coin: Plans for a new 50p have been put on hold more than once (Credit: HM Treasury)

The Treasury insisted that cost will be met by the Mint itself, but the same cannot be said for the $129m spent on the government's "Get Ready For Brexit" campaign, which was "paused" this week. Similarly, Operation Yellowhammer - the government's preparations for no-deal Brexit - was stood down this week after the EU agreed a further extension to 31 January. 

Technically, it might not take that long: as this is another flextension, Britain could leave the EU before the end of January if the government can persuade parliament to let it. However, the 12 December general election means that once again, half the time granted will be taken up with other things: having waited for the first three months of the previous extension while the Conservatives elected a new leader, now the country will busy itself with potentially electing an entire new parliament of 650 to see if they can sort it out, one way or another. 

Let's leave the final word to Professor Alex De Ruyter, Director of Birmingham City University's Centre for Brexit Studies. As Brits struggle to come to terms with the fact that their world is no longer completely rebooting on 1 November, what should they look out for when - if - it finally happens? Will planes plummet from the sky as the sky turns green and water runs uphill? No, says the professor, rather deflatingly: "I don't think the average person would notice anything different on 'B-day'."