Brexit: Can Anyone Take the Wheel From Johnson?
New Prime Minister Boris Johnson is making quite a show of his determination to deliver Brexit on October 31. He’s refusing to visit EU heads of state because they won’t renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement….when the extension the EU granted barred using the extra time to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement. Johnson’s move is surprising because looking like he was Doing Something in Europe, even though all the principals knew it was destined to go nowhere, could keep Parliament at bay, hopefully until the October EU Council meeting.
But Johnson has a very large ego and likes a gamble. He apparently didn’t want to risk looking like he’d been humiliated. Moreover, he genuinely seems to believe that the EU will fold,1 and if it doesn’t, the UK can muddle through a no deal Brexit.
Instead of getting favorable PR by putting himself in the headlines with European leaders and spinning the Government-friendly media hard, Johnson will gin up his desired spin in a more direct manner: the biggest media blitz since World War II. Glorious Brexit all the time!
Johnson has probably figured out that it will be very hard for Parliament to wrest control from him. It’s already too late, given the mechanics of calling a new election, to have a General Election before Brexit day (hat tip Ataraxite):
For Number 10 special adviser Chris White will be speaking to @ShelaghFogarty at 1pm on the timetable for a confidence vote and general election before October 31st.
— Theo Usherwood (@theousherwood) July 24, 2019
The failure of Labour to demand that Parliament cut its summer holiday will go down as a great political blunder.
Richard North argues in today’s post that unless Johnson changes his mind, a crash-out is baked in. The spectacle of the pound falling almost 3% today on his bluster won’t make a difference. Sterling is at January 2017 levels against the dollar. This isn’t a sterling crisis, and it’s not clear how much financial markets distress it would take to move “fuck business” Johnson. And he and his Team Leave stalwarts seem remarkably unconcerned about wee problems like not being even close to where they need to be to re-do UK legislation to untangle it from decades of integration with EU law.
It is hard to see how Parliament could stop Johnson short of a general election. If Parliament does not curtail its three week caucus break, there are perilous few working days before October 31. Can the Government keep Parliament from passing legislation, since MPs might succeed in attaching an amendment which could tie Johnson’s hands? For instance, simply ordering him to obtain an extension might not accomplish much. While the EU has said it won’t be the cause of the UK leaving the EU, meaning it almost certainly would grant an extension request, one that didn’t give any reason to expect a different outcome would likely be met by the EU granting only a short one, say to the year end at the outside.
Even though Johnson’s bounce was smaller than May’s bounce, he appears willing to hazard that Corbyn won’t call a General Election due to the certainty that Labour would lose seats. And even if Labour does, Johnson may believe that waving the betrayal flag would enable him to survive, even if the cost were a Tory-Brexit Party coalition.
If the Government were to lose a no-confidence vote, it’s conceivable that Johnson would even try not asking the EU for an extension, but that’s one of the few cases where it is conceivable that the Queen could intervene (or the EU would fudge, since Article 50 requires adherence to the departing state’s constitutional procedures. Exiting despite a no-confidence vote that would reasonably be read as a repudiation of the Government’s no deal stance would seem out of line with proper process).
During the protracted struggle to turf May out, I was astonished by how mild the moves by the MPs were, in contrast with their brutal Question Time barbs. The motions and even amendments were typically short and still flabby. In keeping, vlade said by e-mail:
I’m more worried that it looks the MPs were way too reliant on their leadership telling them what to do, so only a few (if any) have a clue as to procedurals that could be realistically used. Because the procedurals require both the Parliament and Government, and having run on custom for hundreds of years, no-one has a clue what happens when customs break.
There is a value in written constitution (and a constitutional court), where revolutions are made so much harder than “let’s ignore this custom”.
Anyways, imagine that the parliament actually passes a legislation that says “If no deal is struck on the morning of the Brexit day, the government has to ask for extension. If no extension is granted, it has to revoke A50”, or something to that extent [extremely unlikely, but since we’re speculating anyways..]
But what will happen if the government does NOT ask for either extension or revocation? There’s no lever MPs can use (put Johnson in Big Ben? But he’s still a PM..) , and, if the government does not ask, technically the UK could out of the EU. I say technically, since in this case, there could be actually an argument made that the process was unconstitutional (because it would be clearly illegal), and A50 says “in accordance with its own constitutional requirements”.
Which is actually an interesting point. If Johnson goes against the MPs (as in committing acts found illegal to get there), it could in theory invalidate Brexit :).
Although this particular scenario is remote, the general point is valid. Johnson will defy norms just as May did (recall her refusal to step down after her resounding losses on the Withdrawal Agreement and the censure) if they get in the way of his ends. And the very limited time before a Brexit would make it very difficult to check him via other means.
Update 6:20 AM: Dr. Larry sent a link to a new story: ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: Why I no longer want to be readmitted to Labour. Deadly.
1 Team Johnson no doubt took some cheer from the CBI deeming the EU to be less well prepared for Brexit than the UK (which I find hard to believe, save perhaps for the financial services industry), but even if true, that’s likely not as scary to the EU as it sounds. The EU is not as exposed to the effects of Brexit as the UK is. For starters, the EU does not depend on the UK for food. So while certain areas and sectors of the EU likely will take serious hits due to inadequate preparation, the impact on the EU as a whole is likely to be more modest.