Opponents of a no-deal Brexit just got royally outflanked.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s wheeze of getting the Queen to order a five-week suspension of Parliament means his critics have much less time than they thought to prevent the UK leaving the European Union without a deal on October 31.
Downing Street, however, believes it has taken a decisive step towards achieving Johnson’s stated aim of taking Britain out of the EU by the end of October.
Why did Johnson suspend parliament?
Before today, the preferred option of lawmakers who oppose a no-deal Brexit was to pass a law requiring the government to seek an extension to the Brexit deadline and hold a second referendum, should negotiations with the EU fail to result in a deal.
Those legal moves – cemented at a highly unusual display of opposition unity in the office of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Tuesday – were due to begin when Parliament returns from its annual summer break on September 3.
The anti-no-deal brigade planned to block the traditional three-week break for the main parties’ annual conferences, which was due to begin around September 14. Time, and House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, were on their side, they believed.
But Johnson’s move now means they’ve only got a handful of days to engineer the required legislation before the suspension approved by the Queen – which cannot be voted down – takes effect.
That could force them to fall back on Plan B – a vote of no-confidence in the government. The trouble is, for that to succeed, they need Conservative lawmakers to vote against their own party, which was always thought to be a tall order. No surprise, then, to hear all the howls of “constitutional outrage.”
What’s the Queen’s role in all of this?
British governments usually arrange for a new parliamentary session every year or so. According to convention, this happens when the Privy Council, a body of senior politicians who act as the Queen’s official advisers on the exercise of her limited executive powers, request that she “prorogue” (or suspend) parliament.
It would be an act of extraordinary rebellion on the part of the monarch to decline such a request. After all, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when James II was overthrown and replaced by his daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange, was fought over the fundamental issue of the supremacy of parliament. Indeed, the Queen accepted Johnson’s request and approved the five-week suspension of parliament Wednesday.
The new session will begin with the State Opening of Parliament and all of its associated pageantry (carriage processions, trumpets and the like). At the center of it all is the Queen’s Speech, when the monarch reads a text that lays out her government’s legislative priorities for the upcoming session. In reality, the speech is written by Downing Street and on October 14 Her Majesty will simply be a mouthpiece for Johnson.
How does it all play out?
Typically, the Queen’s Speech is followed by several days of parliamentary debate. And while Johnson has hitherto been happy to tear up the norms of British political life, this is a tradition that will suit him very well. Brexit will be at the center of the government’s legislative program and the debate on the Queen’s Speech allows Downing Street to bat off claims that its maneuverings are designed to stifle parliamentary discussion of this momentous event.
Helpfully, the timetable coincides with the next EU Council, on October 17 and 18. If Johnson returns from this event brandishing a new Brexit deal, he will hope to ram it through Parliament in the two weeks left until Brexit day. And after that? A swift general election, riding the wave of Brexit triumph, to cement his authority?
But if negotiations with the EU fail and Johnson sets a path to no-deal, things could look very different. The trouble for his opponents is that, by this point, their room for maneuver would be severely limited.
Even if they could muster enough support to pass a vote of no confidence at that late stage, UK law sets out a two-week window for a new government to be formed, or a general election to be called. Meanwhile, the Brexit countdown clock would continue to tick.
That seems to be concentrating minds. Those who previously expressed skepticism about launching a confidence vote next week – before Johnson had time to seal a new deal with the EU – already seem emboldened. Dominic Grieve, a Conservative MP who resigned as attorney general under Theresa May, and who has been one of the leading critics of a no-deal Brexit in his party, told the BBC that a confidence vote next week is now more likely.
Why is a no-deal Brexit so divisive?
When Johnson was leading the campaign to leave the European Union in the months before the 2016 referendum, the prospect of the UK leaving the EU was a distant one. In fact, leading members of the Leave campaign specifically ruled it out, it was official government policy to negotiate a deal, should the UK vote in favor of Brexit.
But, as Theresa May’s government engaged in increasingly tortuous negotiations with the EU, the terms of departure became ever more divisive. Critics of her deal said it didn’t represent a decisive enough break with the EU, as it envisaged years of close cooperation and continued alignment with EU standards, in order to maintain strong trade links. The most ardent Brexiteers began to argue that no deal was the only way to conclude a clean break.
Businesses, moderate Brexiteers and pro-Remain politicians oppose a no-deal exit. The government’s own estimates predict chaos at ports, with no customs rules in place and confusion over immigration arrangements. The pound would fall, the economy would tank and it would take months, if not years, to resolve, they argue.
What does Boris Johnson really want?
Everything that Johnson has done so far in government has been to one end – achieving Brexit on October 31, in his memorable words, “do or die.”
Suspending parliament has a singular effect. It dares the no-dealers to show their hand. Even if they take the bait and call a vote of no-confidence next week, and even if Johnson loses, he still holds all the cards.
If no-one else can win a confidence vote in the House of Commons – and there’s no sign that anyone else could – legislation provides for the sitting Prime Minister to call a new election on the date of his choice.
Were he feeling bullish, Johnon could schedule a general election on, say, November 1, allow Brexit to happen by default and defy opponents to stop him. (Quite what Buckingham Palace would have to say about that plan – which could more justifiably be called a constitutional outrage than today’s arrangements – is anyone’s guess.)
All in all, Johnson, seems very pleased with himself, pointing out that under his plan, Parliament will be sitting in the run-up to Brexit and the whole affair is perfectly in order.
Whatever happens, it’s clear that next week will be very bumpy indeed — and, as ever with Brexit, only the rashest of pundits would attempt to predict the outcome with any degree of certainty. Time to buckle up.