U.K.: Johnson Corners Brexit Foes and the EU Alike

4 MINS READAug 28, 2019 | 21:28 GMT
The Big Picture

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's decision to suspend Parliament intensifies pressure on the British opposition and the European Union by narrowing the window of opportunity for avoiding a hard Brexit on Oct. 31, increasing the chances of one occurring on that date. His rivals in the British Parliament and the governments of the European Union still have a few cards to play in their effort to prevent a disorderly Brexit.

What Happened

On Aug. 28, Queen Elizabeth II accepted a request from Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government to suspend parliamentary sessions between Sept. 9 and Oct. 14. During that stretch, London has said, it will continue to hold negotiations with the European Union over a Brexit deal, meaning that if there is an agreement, the British Parliament would have two weeks to approve it before the Oct. 31 deadline. Johnson's critics, however, accuse the prime minister of suspending the Commons to limit lawmakers' chances of preventing a no-deal exit. 

Pressure on the Opposition

Johnson has promised to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union by Oct. 31, even if that means leaving without a deal. In response, opposition forces led by the Labour Party agreed on Aug. 27 to consider legislation forcing the government to seek an extension. However, the suspension will reduce the time available to pressure the government to postpone the exit date, forcing Johnson's rivals to look for alternative strategies. 

Although their time is running out, opposition lawmakers are not bereft of options. They will probably challenge the decision for a parliamentary suspension in court — although their case has little chance of success since the government has the legal prerogative to do so. Lawmakers could also attempt to schedule parliamentary sessions between mid-September and mid-October to bypass the suspension. With the summer recess ending Sept. 4, parliamentarians would have to act quickly before the suspension takes effect.

Johnson's rivals could also target him with a no-confidence motion. Since the government holds just a single-seat majority in the House of Commons, the motion would stand a decent chance of passing. If Johnson loses that vote, Parliament would have 14 days to appoint a new leader; failure to do so would trigger a general election. Even so, the advantage would rest with Johnson, as he could still ensure a hard Brexit by scheduling snap elections after Oct. 31 without seeking a Brexit extension. There have been signs that Johnson is already preparing for a general election. Even without a successful no-confidence vote, the prime minister could call snap polls to preempt his rivals. And at a time when the Brexit Party has been siphoning support from the Tories, abrupt elections would give Johnson the chance to portray himself as having tried to honor the result of the Brexit referendum despite the obstinacy of lawmakers in the Commons.

A no-confidence motion will only halt a no-deal Brexit if the United Kingdom's fragmented opposition parties can agree on a new prime minister.

As a result, a no-confidence motion would halt a no-deal Brexit only if the United Kingdom's fragmented opposition parties could settle on a new prime minister — requiring them to put aside their differences and devise a coherent strategy. The suspension of parliament could help unite the opposition, but obstacles remain. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn recently proposed that he lead a short-term government that would seek a Brexit extension before calling a general election. But the Liberal Democrats, who also oppose Johnson's plans, do not want Corbyn to become prime minister; instead, they have suggested that a consensus candidate should lead the country to a deal with the Continent. Rebel Conservative lawmakers, whose support will be essential in a no-confidence motion, also reject a Corbyn premiership. Again, however, the parties have only small windows of opportunity to settle on an alternate leader before the Sept. 9 suspension or immediately after parliamentary sessions resume Oct. 14.

A Message to the EU

At the same time, Johnson's decision to suspend Parliament could be calculated to pressure Brussels into a compromise exit deal, as it emphasizes that the increasing chances of a hard Brexit, which would damage the bloc's economy. A last-minute agreement with the European Union remains possible, especially considering that the European Council will meet on Oct. 17. But for London and Brussels to reach an eleventh-hour deal, they would need to find a way around the conundrum of the so-called Irish backstop, which the British government wants to scrap but which the European Union vehemently defends. By increasing the chances of a hard Brexit, Johnson may be trying to force the bloc to concede on the backstop, a risky strategy considering that the European Union has shown little indication so far that it would be willing to scrap the clause. Given that, the room to negotiate the United Kingdom's departure from the bloc is narrowing inexorably.

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