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Can the Opposition Unite to Stop a Hard Brexit?

6 MINS READAug 15, 2019 | 19:06 GMT
This photo shows British Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson appears at a public event in Birmingham, England, on July 26, 2019, just days after he succeeded Theresa May as British prime minister.

(TOBY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)
The Big Picture

Most members of the House of Commons oppose a hard Brexit, but British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could plausibly make one happen regardless. The fight between Johnson's allies and opponents will intensify as the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline nears, with the decisive phase coming in September and October. While a hard Brexit is not inevitable, the chances that one will occur have risen since Johnson took office. 

The United Kingdom's Parliament is in the middle of its summer recess and British politicians are plotting their strategies for dealing with Brexit when lawmakers resume work in the first week of September. Prime Minister Boris Johnson insists that he will take the United Kingdom out of the European Union on Oct. 31, even if that means exiting the bloc without a deal. The Conservative Party leader's position is that London can only reach an exit agreement with Brussels if the latter agrees to scrap the controversial Irish backstop, a concession that EU leaders have adamantly refused to consider. 

In the meantime, those opposed to Johnson's plan for Brexit at any cost, including all opposition parties and some rebels from the governing Tories, are looking for ways to avoid a hard Brexit. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is considering holding a no-confidence motion against Johnson. That vote would have a reasonable chance of passage considering that Johnson's government controls just a single-seat majority in the House of Commons, meaning it would take only a small rebellion among Conservative lawmakers to topple the government. But members of Johnson's team said the prime minister is determined to make Brexit happen on time. Even if he loses the no-confidence motion, they argued, he could still schedule a general election after Oct. 31 to ensure that Brexit occurs on that date. (Under British law, after losing a no-confidence motion, the prime minister advises the queen on the best date for a general election.)

The legalities of allowing Brexit to happen in the middle of an electoral campaign are under debate. Some legal experts argue that this would violate electoral rules that prevent the government from making crucial policy decisions during reelection campaigns. Others argue, however, that the policy decisions surrounding Brexit have already been made, and thus Brexit would only be the natural outcome of existing legislation requiring the United Kingdom to exit the European Union on Oct. 31. If Johnson schedules the election for after that date without first asking Brussels for a delay pursuant to Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, his rivals would likely challenge his decision in court. Johnson's rivals may even ask the queen to ignore the prime minister's suggested date and set the date herself, but that's a last-resort option that British politicians will try hard to avoid.

Challenges to Labour's Plan

Corbyn sent a letter in August to the leaders of the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party (SNP), Plaid Cymru and the Greens as well as to rebel Conservative members of parliament asking them to work together to topple Johnson and avoid a hard Brexit. In it, Corbyn proposed a temporary government that he would lead charged with asking the European Union to delay Brexit and with organizing a general election. While this offers clarity on Labour's goals for its no-confidence motion, those working against Johnson face major problems related to timing, goals and Johnson's replacement.

Those working against Boris Johnson face three major problems related to timing, goals and Johnson's replacement.

The timing of the no-confidence motion: By law, when a British prime minister loses a no-confidence motion, Parliament has 14 days to appoint a replacement. If it fails to do so, a general election must be held. Labour wants to hold the no-confidence motion as soon as possible, preferably in September, so it can appoint a new government — and if that does not happen, hold a general election in October. Labour believes that if Johnson loses the vote in early September, it will be harder for him to justify an election in November, after Brexit. But the rebel Tory members of parliament know that voting against the Conservative leader would probably lead to their expulsion from the party. Therefore, they see the no-confidence motion as the last resort. They are more inclined to wait until October to move against Johnson, exhausting every other option for stopping a hard Brexit before taking that route. 

The goal of the no-confidence motion: The opposition parties see the no-confidence motion as a way to thwart a no-deal Brexit. But beyond this basic goal, their aims diverge. The Liberal Democrats said they do not want a general election, but rather another referendum on Brexit. The Independent Group for Change, a group of pro-remain members of parliament, made similar comments, suggesting they would not support any political moves that fail to secure a "people's vote." But at this point, Labour is only offering a referendum during the campaign for the next general election. 

Johnson's replacement: The most efficient way for the opposition to stop a no-deal Brexit would be to oust Johnson and appoint a new prime minister so that Johnson cannot control the date of a general election. But this is easier said than done. In his letter, Corbyn offered opposition parties something they could easily accept: A temporary government tasked with asking the European Union to delay Brexit. But he coupled that with a proposal that many of them cannot accept: His assumption of the premiership. Corbyn is a divisive figure in the United Kingdom, and most opposition parties — and particularly the rebel Conservative lawmakers — do not want him to replace Johnson. As a result, Labour and the rest of the opposition would likely have to agree on a different replacement to successfully appoint a government within the 14-day period.

Upcoming Battles in Parliament

The ongoing disputes between a government willing to tolerate a hard Brexit and a Parliament determined to avoid one will only increase in September. Johnson's rivals stand a good chance of triggering a successful no-confidence motion against him, but to do so they will first have to agree on a common strategy and shared goals for what comes next. Johnson's rivals have an additional problem: The government, not Parliament, schedules elections and negotiates with the European Union. So while lawmakers still have legal and political options to fight a hard Brexit, a disorderly exit in late October cannot be ruled out.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this analysis misstated when Corbyn sent a letter to the other leaders of the parliamentary opposition asking them to work together to topple Johnson and avoid a hard Brexit.

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