Boris Johnson and the British Opposition Struggle for Brexit Traction as October Looms

9 MINS READSep 10, 2019 | 09:45 GMT
Pro-Brexit protesters stage a rally outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Sept. 9, 2019.

Pro-Brexit protesters stand with "We Voted Leave" placards among signs calling for "Brexit Now" and EU flags outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Sept. 9, 2019.

  • The United Kingdom will probably hold a general election by the end of the year, but the government and the opposition will fight to select a date that benefits them.
  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson will look for ways to circumvent legislation forcing him to ask for a Brexit delay, but he could eventually resign or face a no-confidence motion if he refuses to enforce it.
  • Even if the opposition prevents a no-deal Brexit in late October, a hard-line Tory government could still try to make it happen later in the year or in early 2020.

The struggle between the British government, which has promised to make Brexit happen Oct. 31 no matter what, and the British Parliament, where a majority of lawmakers oppose a hard exit, has only intensified. While British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has lost several votes in the House of Commons and faces legal and legislative challenges to his political strategy, his rivals lack a common agenda to defeat him and a coherent message to deliver in a general election. 

The Big Picture

A disorderly Brexit in October would lead to higher tariffs for trade between the European Union and the United Kingdom, cut off Britain's financial sector from EU markets, and lead to congestion at ports and airports in the United Kingdom and Europe, to name just some of the most prominent consequences. Opposition parties in the British House of Commons still have a few options to postpone Britain's exit date in late October, but the prospect of a hard Brexit at some point in the coming months remains real.

On Sept. 9, Johnson and his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, failed to reach an agreement on alternatives to the Irish backstop — the legal arrangement that would keep the Irish border open after Brexit. This failure strongly suggests that a deal for an orderly Brexit remains far from certain. Later the same day, a law requiring that the British government ask the European Union to delay Brexit until Jan. 31, 2020, if no deal has been reached by Oct. 19 received royal assent from the queen, meaning it is now enforceable. But fragile though Johnson's position is, the prime minister is not devoid of options in his bid to finally take the United Kingdom out of Europe.

Legal and Electoral Disputes

On Sept. 3, Johnson's government lost its majority in the House of Commons after a Conservative member of parliament switched to the Liberal Democratic Party. Then, on Sept. 4, the government announced that 21 Conservative lawmakers would not be allowed to represent the party in the next general election because they voted with the opposition on the bill forcing the government to ask for a Brexit extension. 

Johnson is now pushing for a general election in mid-October since opinion polls suggest that the Conservatives stand a decent chance of winning one — and the new Conservative majority could well be more of one mind on the issue of Brexit. An election before the current Oct. 31 Brexit deadline means Johnson would be facing an electorate that has not experienced any economic disruptions from the British exit from the European Union

Unfortunately for Johnson, however, British law requires the approval of two-thirds of the House of Commons before early elections can happen, meaning the opposition can block a snap poll. Labour and the rest of the opposition parties fear a general election before an EU summit scheduled for Oct. 17 — when the United Kingdom will have its final chance to reach a deal with the bloc or at least ask for another Brexit extension — would allow a new Conservative government to repeal the law requiring a Brexit extension. For this reason, Labour has so far blocked the Johnson government's efforts to hold an early election. At this point, an early election in November or December seems more likely than a pre-Brexit vote.

Labour plans to wait until the European summit to decide its next moves. Legal experts assisting Labour believe that Johnson would face serious legal consequences — including possible arrest — if he refused to request a Brexit delay. Stories have in fact recently emerged in the British media suggesting that Johnson is indeed looking for ways to circumvent the law. For example, Johnson could ask the European Union for a delay without offering any justification in hopes that Brussels would reject the request, or he could simply send a second letter to the European Union saying that London does not actually want an extension. Some legal experts, however, believe these attempts will fail, and that British courts would compel the government to enforce the law.

British law requires the approval of two-thirds of the House of Commons before early elections can happen, meaning the opposition can block a snap poll.

Should the opposition's legal push to force Johnson to uphold the law fail, Labour and its allies could still trigger a no-confidence motion against him. If a majority of lawmakers vote against the prime minister in such a vote, then Parliament would have 14 days to appoint a replacement. But should Parliament fail to select a new prime minister within that period, a general election would ensue, and Johnson would have control over when such an election would happen, meaning he could schedule it for after Oct. 31 without asking the European Union for a delay. 

As a result, the safest way for the opposition to avoid a hard Brexit would be to appoint a new prime minister after a no-confidence vote, but Labour and the Liberal Democrats are still debating who that should be. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn believes that he should replace Johnson, but the Liberal Democrats and Conservative rebels disagree. They have countered with names such as Ken Clarke and Harriet Harman, the longest-continuously serving male and female members of parliament, respectively. These older lawmakers are relatively noncontroversial since it is assumed they would not want the premiership beyond serving as the head of a caretaker government tasked with asking the European Union for more time and organizing a general election. 

The opposition's strategy assumes, however, that the European Union would, in fact, grant the United Kingdom an extension if asked. The assumption is relatively safe, considering that the European Union also has a vested interest in avoiding the economic disruptions of a hard Brexit. In particular, Brussels wants to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; a no-deal Brexit would make a hard border more likely. Even so, the European Union will ask London for a valid reason for an extension — something a general election could well provide — meaning early elections would up the odds of an extension.

Johnson's Options

Johnson may have lost his majority in Parliament, but that does not mean he has run out of options. He has already suspended Parliament until Oct. 14 in an attempt to reduce his rivals' room for action against him and to show the European Union he is serious about his threat to allow a no-deal Brexit. Johnson could try to prolong the suspension until after Brexit day, which would neutralize any attempts to hold a no-confidence motion against him, but a British court could block him.

Johnson could also ask his own lawmakers to propose a no-confidence motion against him. This would trigger the 14-day period Parliament has to choose a replacement prime minister, leading to two possible outcomes each beneficial to Johnson. Should the opposition appoint a new prime minister who then asked the European Union for an extension, Johnson could use this as confirmation of his accusations against the Labour and the Liberal Democrats of surrendering to Brussels. But should the opposition fail to appoint a new prime minister, Johnson would get his wish for a general election, in which he would present his fellow Conservatives with a coherent strategy to make Brexit happen.

While an eleventh-hour agreement cannot be ruled out, EU officials have said that so far, the British government has not made any meaningful proposals for an exit deal in mid-October. 

Johnson could also resign before the European summit, or shortly after it. If he quit office but kept his job as Tory leader, then Parliament would most likely try to find a new prime minister, and failing this, hold a general election. 

And Johnson still has one more option: to agree to an exit deal with the European Union. A complete renegotiation of the existing withdrawal agreement is unlikely, especially considering how little time remains to draft a new deal. More realistically, Johnson could hold another vote in Parliament on the existing exit deal, or on a slightly adjusted version of the existing deal. On Sept. 4, the House of Commons approved a motion calling for the reconsideration of the deal that former Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the European Union in late 2018 to avoid a hard Brexit. The stakes are much higher now than they were a few months ago, when the Commons rejected this very deal on three occasions. May's deal, however, provides for the Irish backstop — which keeps the United Kingdom in a customs arrangement with the European Union until a better solution is found, meaning British lawmakers would struggle to approve the deal.

One potential alternative would be to return to the original version of the backstop, which only kept Northern Ireland in a customs arrangement with the European Union. May asked the European Union to include all of the United Kingdom in the backstop as a concession to the Democratic Unionist Party, the small force in Northern Ireland that supported her government in Parliament but opposed granting Northern Ireland a separate legal status from the rest of the United Kingdom. But now that Johnson has lost his majority, support from the Democratic Unionist Party is not as crucial, giving Johnson more room to consider a Northern Irish-only backstop. While an eleventh-hour agreement cannot be ruled out, EU officials have said that so far, the British government has not made any meaningful proposals for such a deal in mid-October. 

The October Battles

With Parliament to be suspended until Oct. 14, crucial Brexit decisions will be made in the days surrounding the Oct. 17 EU summit. Johnson's rivals still have a few options to block a hard Brexit, which means that the country can still avoid a no-deal departure. But while the prime minister's position is fragile, the risk of a hard Brexit is not gone. Even if his rivals win the current battle and block a hard Brexit in October, a general election will happen at some point before the end of the year, which a reinvigorated Johnson could win and then take the United Kingdom out of the European Union at some point in early 2020.

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