When the UK’s new prime minister takes over from Theresa May next Wednesday, he might immediately come to regret taking on this unenviable job.
The new occupant of 10 Downing Street has only one task: To succeed where May failed and deliver Britain’s departure from the EU.
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, the men vying to replace her, both say that not only can they secure a brand new Brexit deal, but that they will also be able to convince enough lawmakers in the House of Commons to vote it through.
Even on the face of it, it’s an improbable claim. The latest Brexit deadline is October 31, which ostensibly gives a new British government just over three months to achieve what May failed to do in three years.
But dig down into the detail, and the reality is that there’s even less time. Take into account the parliamentary recess (lawmakers need vacations, too). Then add the three weeks or so that the House of Commons doesn’t sit in the fall to allow political parties to hold their annual conferences. Throw in weekends, and that leaves about 30 days of parliamentary time to force through a vote on the deal and all of the associated legislation that’s required to get the UK out of the EU.
So how do the two leadership hopefuls plan to do better than May?
Both men claim that they can get Brussels to change the deal struck by May with the EU, formally known as the Withdrawal Agreement. In order to win over the Brexiteer rebels in their own Conservative Party, this new deal would need to either scrap or change a controversial section of the agreement called the Irish border backstop.
Brexiteers claim that if London took a harder line and threatened to leave the EU without a deal, Brussels would be scared into backing down. But there is very little indication that the EU is in any mood to give a new prime minister any meaningful concessions. Some are grasping straws from the words of Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming EU Commission President, who said that she would extend the Brexit deadline if there are “good reasons” for doing so. Brexit Party MEP Lance Foreman tweeted that this showed the EU was scared of a no-deal outcome and that it “strengthens our leverage in negotiations.”
Maybe this is true, or maybe it’s wishful thinking. The only certainty is that von der Leyen will not be in post until November 1, which eagle-eyed readers will notice is very much after October 31. Besides, it is not up to her. Any extension would have to be agreed by the other 27 member states of the European Union.
If the EU refuses to make any changes then both men have said that they are prepared to leave without a deal – to the concern of people all over the political spectrum.
Of the two candidates, the favorite, Boris Johnson, has been the most vocal about a no-deal Brexit. He has repeatedly said that his aim was to leave the EU “do or die” on October 31. And without a deal that parliament can swallow, that means no deal.
We’ve been here before. Despite knocking down May’s deal three times, parliament has also made it clear that it will do everything in its power to stop no deal becoming a reality. And while the power to prevent this doesn’t rest with parliament, it’s to date been unthinkable that a prime minister would seriously drag parliament out against its will.
However, that was before Boris Johnson was only days away from taking office. There are real concerns among the UK’s lawmakers that in order to stop them sabotaging Brexit on October 31, Johnson will suspend parliament, making a no-deal Brexit inevitable.
As recently as this week, British media reported that Johnson’s campaign team were discussing a plan to bring a Queen’s Speech before parliament in early November.
Here’s why that’s significant: A Queen’s Speech – in which the monarch sets out the government’s legislative agenda – marks the start of a new parliamentary session. Traditionally, parliament doesn’t sit in the days leading up to a Queen’s Speech. So if a Prime Minister Johnson wants to hold the event in early November, lawmakers would vacate parliament in those crucial days before October 31, therefore robbing them of the opportunity to stop a no-deal Brexit.
It’s a plausible plan, but would be a very high-risk strategy. Johnson would in effect be challenging the House of Commons to initiate the only other option in the parliamentary armory – to collapse his government.
At the moment, it’s touch and go. It would be nothing short of extraordinary for members of the governing party to conspire with the opposition to vote down their own government. But these are extraordinary times. And to avoid doing so, the new PM might need to call a snap general election to cement both authority and a majority in the House of Commons.
And it’s here that we come back to a Brexit extension for “good reasons.” If there’s no functioning government in London, it’s hard to see that even the most hardline of the EU27 (including French President Emmanuel Macron) would allow the UK simply to crash out with no deal.
So, a renegotiated deal? A suspended parliament and a forced no deal? A cap-in-hand request for the UK’s fourth Brexit extension? A general election? Or an unprecedented demolition of the government?
The only thing we can say for certain is that the next PM will have an absolute nightmare on their plate from the day they take office. And they won’t have much time to wake up from it.