Who had “proroguing Parliament” on their Brexit bingo card?
On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked Queen Elizabeth II to suspend — otherwise known as “prorogue” — Parliament until October 14, in what very much looked like an attempt to prevent members of Parliament (MPs) from blocking a no-deal Brexit before the October 31 deadline.
The queen has approved Johnson’s request, which was mostly a formality anyway. (There was practically no chance that the queen, who stays above the political fray, would deny Johnson’s request, though technically she could have.) Now Parliament will be suspended for five weeks, from September 9 at the earliest, or September 12 at the latest, until October 14.
Here’s what this means in practice: Members of Parliament will now have a very narrow window to a) debate, scrutinize, and pass a Brexit deal if there’s one on offer; or b) stop the UK from exiting the European Union without an agreement in place on October 31.
Leaving the EU without a deal is something Johnson has said he’s willing and ready to do, but MPs largely oppose that route because of the potential economic fallout.
Johnson has denied that putting Parliament on a five-week break as the United Kingdom is in the middle of a national crisis over Brexit has anything to do with the national crisis over Brexit. In a letter to lawmakers, the prime minister said this legislative session had to end, as it’s one of the longest in history.
“I therefore intend to bring forward a new bold and ambitious domestic legislative agenda for the renewal of our country after Brexit,” Johnson wrote. “There will be a significant Brexit legislative programme to get through but that should be no excuse for a lack of ambition!”
Not many MPs are buying Johnson’s excuse. Some are accusing him of flinging the UK into a constitutional crisis.
Speaker of the House John Bercow called it “a constitutional outrage.”
“However it is dressed up it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop Parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty,” he added.
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn described Johnson’s move as “an outrage and a threat to our democracy.” “Labour will work across Parliament to hold the government to account and prevent a disastrous No Deal,” Corbyn tweeted Wednesday.
Proroguing Parliament is a totally normal thing that happens, but in recent decades, it has usually lasted just a week or two. It’s also true that Parliament hadn’t planned, at least on paper, to be sitting most of September: It was supposed to meet for the first two weeks of the month and then take a recess for party conferences until October 9. MPs could have always canceled their party conferences, and there was some speculation they might be headed down that route. Johnson’s maneuver means MPs now have no say.
As for what this all means for Brexit, and UK politics — no one really knows, and trying to predict what will happen ends up looking something like this. Johnson has set up a showdown with MPs, which will force those in his Conservative Party to consider whether they’ll risk a no-deal Brexit or break with him and his party. Johnson has a majority of one in the House of Commons, and Wednesday’s decision might make that minuscule lead even more precarious.
Proroguing Parliament was always a risk. Johnson took it.
This idea of proroguing Parliament to push through Brexit has been floating around for some time — a few candidates during the Conservative leadership contest last month outwardly embraced the strategy.
Johnson has the power to request this, and, realistically, if the party conferences did happen, the timeline wouldn’t be all that different. The queen was never going to deny this request. The monarch stays out of politics, which includes the Brexit debate, despite both sides believing she may swoop in and save the day.
But it’s still a warning shot from Johnson to MPs.
The idea is pretty much to give Parliament less time, so it has less opportunity to make mischief. Back in the Theresa May days, Parliament thrice rejected the Brexit divorce agreement and couldn’t agree on an alternative Brexit plan. But it rejected a no-deal exit. It also asked May to negotiate for an extension to Brexit, which is how the current October 31 deadline exists.
Johnson may be the prime minister now, but the makeup of Parliament mostly hasn’t changed.
In his campaign for prime minister, Johnson had promised to renegotiate May’s Brexit deal with the European Union. The EU repeatedly said it wasn’t going to reopen talks on the divorce deal, and that even if it did, it would not accept Johnson’s terms to get rid of the Irish backstop, a plan to avoid border checks on the boundary between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and Ireland (which will remain part of the EU). Johnson tried it anyway; the EU, surprising no one, said no. The impasse continues. There’s no new agreement to be had. So the prospect of a no-deal Brexit on October 31 seems a lot more possible.
The conundrum, of course, is that most of Parliament doesn’t want a no-deal scenario. The UK is extracting itself from a decades-long trading relationship, with unpredictable economic and political consequences. This doesn’t mean all MPs are supportive of staying in the EU; they just don’t want to be responsible for food and fuel shortages.
So it seems likely that Parliament would try to frustrate Johnson’s attempts to extract the UK from the EU without a plan in place on October 31. Which would ultimately mean Johnson — who won on the vow that he’d deliver Brexit — would have failed to achieve what the Conservative Party (which is largely pro-Brexit) elected him to do.
And Johnson’s not totally wrong here that Parliament would try to foil a no-deal exit. That looks like the strategy that the opposition and no-deal opponents agreed to on Tuesday, the day before Johnson put Parliament on a very long holiday.
The suspension of Parliament is going to make no-deal legislation a lot harder to accomplish, especially since the body remains a fractious bunch. Those who support leaving without a deal, leaving with a deal, or remaining in the EU don’t split neatly along partisan lines. Even though a majority of MPs might oppose a no-deal Brexit, they’ll have to cross party lines, or join up with opponents to do so. Success was never guaranteed.
Even more critically, if Johnson does, miraculously, come back with a new Brexit deal (or somehow tries to rebrand May’s deal), it will give Parliament very, very little time to consider alternatives. MPs will likely have little choice at that stage but to back Johnson’s Brexit plan, if he has one, or they’ll risk being responsible for pushing the UK off the no-deal cliff. Essentially, the shorter timeline would narrow Parliament’s options — it’s Johnson’s (hypothetical) deal or no deal at all.
Ramming through momentous, country-changing legislation may be a winning strategy if it works, but it is denying Parliament some of its power to scrutinize and debate.
“What [Johnson’s] doing, frankly, is hiding from parliamentary scrutiny: denying MPs the opportunity to question him and to hold him to account, and potentially denying them the opportunity to express no confidence in him,” Meg Russell, a senior fellow of the UK in a Changing Europe and the director of the constitution unit at University College of London, told the Guardian.
“No confidence” in this case refers to the formal mechanism by Parliament to basically take down Johnson’s government. This is something the opposition Labour Party very much wants, and it has proposed joining forces with the rest of the opposition parties to form a caretaker government (meaning, just to take care of business) to negotiate a Brexit delay and then call new elections. For that plan to succeed, it’s going to need to flip some Conservative MPs willing to betray their party leader and vote in Corbyn, who’s, quite simply, not well-liked and not totally trusted.
But Johnson’s decision to put Parliament on hold for five weeks might unite angry and frustrated MPs. Even those who may support Johnson’s agenda might be a bit uncomfortable with his tactics; if it’s okay if our guy does it, what happens when it’s the opposing side? Johnson’s strategy might be exactly what the opposition needed to unite and focus skeptical MPs to join in a no-confidence vote against Johnson.
Maybe! Brexit and the UK politics surrounding it are complicated, intense, divisive, and never predictable. Parliament may have less of a chance to challenge Johnson, but they may still be able to do so. And beyond what happens next in Brexit, the UK is grappling with much bigger questions about its democratic process.