U.K.: Johnson's Brexit Plans Suffer a Setback

4 MINS READSep 24, 2019 | 17:16 GMT
The Big Picture

In its Fourth-Quarter Forecast, Stratfor said disputes between the British government and the opposition would escalate but that they would ultimately avoid a no-deal Brexit. A Sept. 24 British Supreme Court ruling declaring the government's prorogation of Parliament unlawful will give the opposition a few more opportunities to try to avert a no-deal Brexit. While the court's decision represents a political defeat for the government, it does not substantially alter the fundamental aspects of the Brexit process — or the possibility that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union without a deal.

What Happened

Boris Johnson has taken a hit, but not a hammer blow. On Sept. 24, the United Kingdom's Supreme Court ruled that the prime minister's decision to suspend Parliament until Oct. 14 (just three days before a crucial EU summit on Brexit and just more than two weeks before the scheduled Brexit deadline of Oct. 31) was unlawful. The suspension would have deprived lawmakers the chance to pass additional legislation blocking a no-deal Brexit, or the opportunity to oust Johnson with a no-confidence motion before the EU summit. It also would have limited the window for lawmakers to consider whatever agreement Johnson may have reached with the European Union in the interim. In proroguing Parliament, Johnson sought to prevent the House of Commons from conducting its constitutional functions without reasonable justification, the high court ruled. Following the ruling, Parliamentary Speaker John Bercow asked for the legislature to reconvene on Sept. 25.

Why It Matters

The ruling is embarrassing for Johnson — and has long-term consequences for the relationship between prime ministers and Parliament — but it does not significantly change the Brexit timetable. For one, the Supreme Court's decision did not strip the prime minister of his power to suspend Parliament; instead, it only said that the current five-week suspension was irregular. This means that Johnson could still offer a new justification to try to suspend it again, although it probably would be for a much shorter period to prevent another legal defeat. The governing Conservative Party's annual conference, set for Sept. 29 to Oct. 2, may give Johnson an excuse to suspend Parliament for a few days. He could also use the ruling to demand an early general election, since he no longer controls a majority of seats in the Commons. However, such a vote requires support from the opposition, which is skeptical of holding an election before the Brexit deadline that could result in a pro-Brexit government.

The ruling is embarrassing for Johnson — and has long-term consequences for the relationship between prime ministers and Parliament — but it does not significantly change the Brexit timetable.

More importantly, Brussels and London are still far apart on a withdrawal agreement that both can support. Last week, the British government proposed keeping the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland open after Brexit by maintaining EU agricultural and food standards in the north. While this represented a timid attempt by Johnson's administration to seek a negotiated solution to the Irish question, it is still far from the European Union's demand to maintain the customs arrangement between the European Union and the United Kingdom — or at least Northern Ireland — until the sides find a permanent solution. 

Where Does the Opposition Go From Here?

Opposition parties will use the court ruling to portray Johnson as a leader who is willing to break the law to make Brexit happen. They can also try to pass additional legislation trying to prevent a no-deal exit, but it is the government that will conduct the negotiations in Brussels, not the Parliament. Additionally, the opposition remains divided on a no-confidence motion against Johnson. Before the parliamentary suspension, lawmakers approved a law forcing Johnson to seek a Brexit extension if London and Brussels cannot cobble together a deal by Oct. 19. 

The opposition's strategy is to wait for Johnson to attend the meeting of the European Council on Oct. 17 before making its next move. If, after failing to clinch a deal with the bloc, Johnson still refuses to ask for a Brexit delay, then his rivals will consider a no-confidence motion against him. The opposition, however, has yet to agree on who should replace Johnson if the no-confidence motion succeeds. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn insists that he should become prime minister if Johnson is ousted, but the Liberal Democrats and rebel Tories categorically oppose this idea. In the end, Johnson's legal setback has not substantially changed the balance of power in the battle between the government and the Commons. 

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