Foreign Relations & International Law

Brexit Endgame: Boris Johnson Loses Control

Amanda Sloat
Friday, September 6, 2019, 8:00 AM

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Order From Chaos.

Poster in Glasgow, Scotland, reading "Brexit Latest" over a picture of Boris Johnson. (Flickr/Matthias Berg, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Order From Chaos.

During another dramatic week in British politics, Parliament—facing an imminent five-week suspension as the clock ticks towards the October 31 Brexit deadline—seized control of the agenda, introduced legislation to prevent a no-deal Brexit, and blocked early elections. It was a stunning series of defeats for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who lost his one-seat parliamentary majority when a member of parliament (MP) defected, then expelled 21 MPs from his party for voting against him, and finally saw his own brother quit as Tory MP and minister. September 9 is the next date to watch, when parliament is expected to finalize the bill blocking no-deal and reconsider fall elections.

Did Parliament Block a No-Deal Brexit?

Not exactly. But it is trying to pass legislation that would prevent the government from pursuing this outcome.

In a short statement outside Downing Street on September 2, Johnson threw down the gauntlet: He pledged not to request a Brexit extension from the EU “under any circumstances” and implicitly threatened elections if rebels forced his hand. Parliament responded when it returned from its summer recess on September 3, with a cross-party group of MPs introducing an emergency debate motion—which Speaker John Bercow allowed in an unprecedented decision—to seize control of the agenda and fast-track a private member’s bill blocking a no-deal Brexit. It passed in a 328-301 vote.

In response, Johnson expelled 21 Conservative MPs from the party for defying the government—including eight former ministers and Winston Churchill’s grandson. The rebels were lauded by supporters for placing country before party and personal ambition, with some serving cabinet ministers reportedly calling for these MPs to be reinstated. Earlier that day, Johnson lost his one-seat majority when MP Philip Lee defected to the Liberal Democrats, crossing the chamber as the prime minister was speaking. Later in the week, Jo Johnson—Boris’ brother—resigned as MP and universities minister over the “unresolvable tension” between “family loyalty and the national interest.”

On September 4, MPs considered the anti-no-deal bill. Introduced by Labour MP Hilary Benn, it requires the government to reach an agreement with the EU by October 19 (after Johnson meets EU leaders at the European Council summit on October 17-18) or seek parliamentary consent for a no-deal Brexit. If neither occurs, the government must ask the EU to extend the deadline to January 31, 2020 or accept its proposed alternative (unless parliament rejects it). The bill passed all three legislative stages in the Commons that day; later that evening, the government abandoned effortsto block the bill’s passage in the Lords. It is expected to become law on September 9, with the government confirming it would not suspend parliament beforehand. Johnson said he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than agree a Brexit extension, but he refused to say if he would resign.

The U.K. cannot unilaterally delay the Brexit deadline (though it can unilaterally withdraw its invocation of Article 50 to leave the EU). If the government requests an extension, all 27 EU leaders must agree. The wild card remains French President Emmanuel Macron, who was the strongest opponent of an extension last April. Elections would be a compelling rationale for extra time. Meanwhile, the European Commission is continuing its contingency planning for a no-deal outcome.

Will There Be Snap Elections?

Yes, sooner or later, as Johnson is now far short of a parliamentary majority. The question is whether elections occur before or after the October 31 Brexit deadline.

In response to the rebel move, Johnson introduced a motion on September 4 under the Fixed Term Parliament Act that called for snap elections on October 15 (a change from the initial plan of October 14, which coincided with the Jewish holiday of Sukkot). Although the measure received more yeas than nays (298-56), it fell short of the two-thirds majority required by the Act. The majority of Labour MPs and the Scottish National Party abstained, demanding the Benn bill preventing a no-deal Brexit become law before elections are set.

The government will try again on September 9, after the bill is adopted. The Labour Party is internally debating the timing of new polls. Tories are goading its leader Jeremy Corbyn, suggesting he has long demanded elections but is now afraid to face the public. (The prime minister called him a “chlorinated chicken” and “great big girl’s blouse” on the floor of Parliament). Senior aides advocate elections as soon as the bill is passed. Yet backbenchers prefer polls after October 31, which would keep Johnson trapped in office through the date on which he has repeatedly vowed Britain will exit the EU. Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair also warned this week against early polls, arguing Corbyn “should see an election before Brexit is decided for the elephant trap it is.”

Downing Street is reportedly considering alternative measures. Tories could call a no-confidence vote in their own government, which would require a simple majority rather than two-thirds to trigger elections. It is a risky strategy, as it would first give the opposition 14 days to form a national unity government. Yet this would require tremendous discipline, as numerous MPs are loath to back Corbyn; recently expelled Tory grandee Ken Clarke could conceivably be an acceptable caretaker. Alternatively, Tories could seek to amend the Fixed Term Parliament Act by allowing a simple majority vote to trigger elections. This is also risky, as rebels could seek to amend the bill and introduce a November date.

Who Will Win the Election?

Good question.

Elections are a perilous proposition for both the Conservatives and Labour. Recent YouGov polling looks good for Johnson, giving the Tories 35%, Labour 25%, the Liberal Democrats 16%, and the Brexit Party 11%. Yet recent precedent causes concern: David Cameron had a similar polling margin in 2015 but only won a small majority of seats, while Theresa May lost the party’s majority in 2017 despite favorable polls. The Conservatives are likely to do poorly in pro-EU Scotland, further hurt by the recent resignation of the party’s talented Scottish leader Ruth Davidson; the Scottish National Party is likely to regain seats lost in the 2017 snap election. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party could attract former Conservative voters who are frustrated with the government’s failure to deliver Brexit, possibly pushing Johnson to take a hardline stance that costs him the support of moderate voters. The Liberal Democrats, under new leader Jo Swinson, have gained three MPs in recent months after Labour and Tory defections and will appeal to voters seeking a clear pro-EU stance. The Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats dominated European Parliament elections in May, but it remains unclear how voter support will translate to seats in a first-past-the-post general election.

Voters will face a choice based on potentially contradictory interests and views—on Brexit, the domestic policy agenda for a five-year term, and the party leaders. Johnson’s apparent strategy of linking his Brexit stance to Corbyn’s unpopularity might work. A Politico/Hanbury poll found 43% of respondents believed Corbyn as prime minister would be the worst possible outcome, while 35% said a no-deal Brexit would be worse and nearly 25% said they are equally bad options.

What Does This Mean for Brexit?

The timing and outcome of elections could have significant consequences for Brexit.

  • Brexit with a deal: If Johnson wins mid-October elections, he could seek parliamentary agreement on a deal. He could bring Theresa May’s deal, which he supported on her third attempt, back to parliament for a vote. If Johnson has a sufficient majority, he could seek to amend the backstop; the easiest tweak would be reverting to the EU’s original offer that it apply only to Northern Ireland rather than the entire U.K. It was changed at the insistence of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has been propping up the minority Conservative government. A Brexit delay could also allow time for an eventual deal under Johnson or a different prime minister.
  • Brexit without a deal: If Johnson wins mid-October elections and can’t get an acceptable deal from the EU or through Parliament, he could try to repeal the Benn bill (as parliaments cannot bind their successors) and deliver a no-deal Brexit on October 31. No-deal would remain the default if the EU refused an extension.
  • Second referendum: If opposition parties win elections—either before or after October 31—they could pursue an alternative course on Brexit, including a second referendum. Possibilities include a Labour majority government or a coalition with some combination of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, or the Scottish National Party.

Amanda Sloat is a Robert Bosch Senior Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. She is also a fellow with the Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. She served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Southern Europe and Eastern Mediterranean Affairs at the State Department from 2013-2016, where she was responsible for U.S. relations with Turkey. She previously worked at the National Security Council and House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.

Subscribe to Lawfare