Deal or No-Deal? Parliament and PM Johnson Square Off Over Brexit
In August, United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised Queen Elizabeth II to prorogue Parliament for five weeks beginning Sept. 9. Parliament will reopen on Oct. 14 after the queen’s speech - a signaling of a new parliamentary session that outlines objectives for the upcoming session. This change of session is significantly complicated by a looming deadline which the world is watching: The U.K.’s exit from the European Union, commonly known as “Brexit,” will take effect on Oct. 31 and the U.K. still has yet to devise a withdrawal agreement with Brussels.
Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament has come with extreme backlash. While he says this move is an altogether standard one (which it technically is — Parliament typically adjourns and reconvenes every autumn), he appears to be suspending Parliament to allow time to run out on the Brexit debate and ensure a “no-deal” Brexit at the end of October.
A no-deal Brexit means the U.K. would immediately leave the EU on Oct. 31 without an agreement on the terms of the split or the relationship between the two entities afterward. The U.K. would no longer be part of the customs unit and the single market — two systems that are designed to eliminate tariffs between EU members — and it would no longer contribute to the EU budget. In order to prevent a no-deal Brexit, the government of the U.K. must pass a plan for Brexit, ask for another extension on the decision from the EU, or cancel Brexit in its entirety.
Although Johnson prorogued Parliament for five weeks, the legislative body would have been on recess for three of those weeks anyway. The current session of Parliament is the longest since the English Civil War in the mid-1600s, having started in June 2017 and being held open as a result of Theresa May’s determination, and subsequent failure, to pass a deal for Brexit.
Nonetheless, the possibility for reaching an agreement on Brexit is decreasing with time. With Johnson suspending Parliament and a controversial decision at hand, his motive for doing so is easily perceived as authoritarian and an abuse of British democracy.
Johnson is clearly an advocate for Brexit. In a letter to colleagues, Johnson wrote that he intends “to bring forward a new bold and ambitious domestic legislative agenda for the renewal of our country after Brexit.” However, Johnson is commonly misrepresented as being in favor of a no-deal Brexit.
Johnson has indicated a desire to reopen Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty (which outlines the steps necessary for a country to voluntarily leave the EU), particularly because he wants to avoid the so-called “Northern Ireland backstop,” which is the clause in Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement that led Parliament to vote it down three times. The backstop prevents a hard border from forming between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — a border which has a violent history — and also means the U.K. would stay in the EU customs unit. But because Johnson lacks further support for reversing this clause, he has turned to leveraging a no-deal Brexit.
In 2016, a plurality of British citizens voted to “leave” the EU (without consideration of a withdrawal agreement) for reasons ranging from British sovereignty and high levels of immigration, to economic opportunity for new trade deals, and protection from pan-EU economic hardship similar to that of the 2008 financial crisis. With a no-deal Brexit, the transition after leaving the EU is expected to be tumultuous despite nation-wide preparations for adjustment as the prospect for no deal becomes increasingly likely.
Despite Parliament’s lack of support for a no-deal Brexit, that does not mean members of Parliament are against Brexit itself. Members, regardless of views on Brexit, can agree a no-deal Brexit would be the least-supported scenario because of all its implications.
Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Opposition since 2015, is supportive of Brexit but wants a softer exit; this would possibly include things like the U.K. remaining in the customs union. However, the EU has nearly no reason to allow the U.K. to partially withdraw from the trade bloc. By allowing a soft Brexit, the EU’s legitimacy would crumble; every member country would want to reap the benefits without having to contribute to the budget - and could you blame them?
The British government is essentially gridlocked. Johnson is strongly pushing for a no-deal Brexit now, and Parliament is advocating for at least a withdrawal agreement but is unable to work on one for a few more weeks. Johnson is unable and unlikely to garner a majority of support in the House of Commons as support is dwindling and the ruling by the Scottish court that his move was unlawful is further painting him as a roadblock in the U.K.’s democracy. He has effectively managed to silence his opposition in a bold move to further his Brexit agenda without a signature democratic backing by the government, much less the U.K. citizens.
Last week, the U.K. Supreme Court unanimously voted that Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament was unlawful. This signals a shift toward judicial review similar to that of the United States’ system of checks and balances. The U.K. functions on unwritten precedents and traditions that treat Parliament as the supreme law of the land. If the courts interfere with Parliament’s decisions, there will be a new precedent set which raises legal rule to a similar status as tan conventional rule. Parliament has now passed a law that requires Johnson to request an extension on Brexit if there is no deal; however, Johnson says this will not be the case.
Johnson now faces calls for a vote of confidence - which, if lost, would oust him from office nearly two months into his position. Opposition lawmakers and even some Conservatives said they are willing to move toward a vote of confidence so long as a no-deal Brexit is ruled out.