LONDON — Proponents of Brexit, the United Kingdom’s delayed exit from the European Union, have long argued it would allow the country to take back parliamentary sovereign powers ceded to the EU.
So much for that: On Wednesday, the Conservative government of recently installed Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans to suspend Parliament for up to five weeks this fall to limit its ability to stop a no-deal Brexit from happening.
Brexit and The Irish Border
The gambit caught Johnson’s foes flat-footed and howling that his move to extend the Commons’ upcoming hiatus was an outrageous power grab and circumvention of Parliament, and legal challenges will almost certainly be mounted to stop it. But while the government’s plan may be pushing the limits of constitutional convention, some experts say it’s just this side of legal.
“It bends the rules, but probably doesn’t break them,” says Robert Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester.
While a large majority of PM’s are opposed to crashing out of Europe without an agreement — an outcome that most economists and business leaders say will devastate the economy, cause the pound to plummet, clog ports and cause shortages of medicines and food — they’ve been unable to agree on a way to stop it, in part because opponents are scattered among several parties.
“They all agree on what they’re against,” Ford says, “but they can’t agree on what they’re for. Johnson is essentially telling them to put up or shut up.”
The bottom line: Opponents of a no-deal Brexit realistically have only next week to act to stop Johnson from allowing one and to force a general election.
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A withdrawal agreement negotiated by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, with the EU was rejected by Parliament three times. That forced Brexit to be delayed from last March 29 to Oct. 31. Parliament is currently on a summer break, and due to return next week. It typically takes three weeks off in September for the party conferences, and was set to return on Oct. 9. Johnson wants to delay its return to Oct. 14, which wouldn’t give opponents enough time to pass legislation halting a no-deal crashout.
The easiest route to halt a no-deal divorce would be for opponents in the Commons to win a vote of no confidence against the Johnson government — which is unelected; Tory party members chose Johnson to replace May as prime minister in July — and require a new election. But that would mean going back to voters before Oct. 31, an unusually tight time frame.
Another option would be to bring down Johnson’s government and install a caretaker government in its stead that could ask the EU for a Brexit deadline extension before scheduling an election. But while Labour, the main opposition party, wants its leader, Jeremy Corbyn to head any short-term government, smaller parties and anti-Johnson Tories balk at giving Corbyn even a few days in 10 Downing Street.
Of course, the third option is that Johnson’s opponents blink. Ford says that if that happens and Parliament’s holiday is extended to mid-October, Johnson may by then have found a way to get the EU to tweak May’s deal, so he can rebrand it and dare Parliament to reject it or face a crashout. While Johnson has claimed he wants to leave the EU with a deal in hand, he’s so far not offered Brussels a realistic alternative. And he’s also argued that forecasts of a painful no-deal exit are exaggerated.
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If Johnson’s forced into a general election, he’ll likely run a campaign that allows him to pit “the people against Parliament,” and claim he’s trying to make good on the 2016 referendum but has been thwarted by an anti-democratic Parliament.
He’ll hope that most pro-Brexit voters, including the huge numbers who jilted the Conservative Party for the Brexit Party earlier this year in local and EU Parliament elections, will coalesce around him and give him a Commons majority.
He’ll also hope that even if a majority of voters now oppose Brexit — especially a no-deal version — they’ll be splintered between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and a few other Remain-leaning parties, denying any of them a majority.
Neither of those outcomes are a given, however.
“It is,” Ford says, “a big gamble.”
Thomas K. Grose, Contributor
Thomas K. Grose is a U.K.-based journalist who has spent much of his career living and working … Read more
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