British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “do-or-die” October 31 deadline for Britain to leave the EU is fast approaching. And, as it does so, the political battles — both within the U.K. and between those hoping to shape post-Brexit Britain’s international role — are intensifying.
This morning, Johnson took the constitutionally extraordinary step of asking Queen Elizabeth II — the U.K.’s official head of state — to suspend Parliament from mid-September to mid-October. The queen approved the request, which will be the longest suspension of Parliament since 1945.
The Prime Minister’s hope is that the suspension will give Parliament too little time to debate and vote on blocking a No-Deal Brexit, which would allow Britain to go crashing out of the EU even without a negotiated exit strategy with its erstwhile European partners. Call it Johnson’s “you have to destroy a village to save a village” moment, for it is deeply reminiscent of that Orwellian Vietnam War methodology. In Johnson’s case, he is suspending parliamentary sovereignty in order to force through an exit from the EU that was always marketed as being about restoring domestic political sovereignty.
“Boris,” as the U.K.’s media calls him, may also secretly be hoping that in response to this move his political opponents vote his government down in a Vote of No Confidence next week, thus triggering a general election that the new Prime Minister believes he can win. His pro-Brexit advisers think he can go to the country, and, with the help of pro-Brexit media, pitch this as a “The People vs. Parliament” struggle.
For Johnson’s critics, however, this parliamentary suspension isn’t the normal political back-and-forth of an engaged democracy; rather it is equivalent to a coup. Politicians from across the political spectrum have, in the hours since Johnson requested that the Queen suspend Parliament, vowed to stop this, even if it means MPs sitting in session outside of Westminster (its usual meeting place). And the European Union also weighed in this afternoon and called the move “sinister.”
The back-story to all of this is that Johnson knows he can’t negotiate a new Brexit deal to replace the one that Theresa May negotiated with the EU, and that Parliament voted down multiple times. And he knows that this leaves Britain ever-more dependent on Trump’s America — a prospect that fills many Brits with dread — as the October 31 deadline approaches.
Johnson traveled to the August 24-26 G7 meeting in France last weekend knowing that the man he needs to sign onto a free trade agreement with the U.K is an erratic U.S. president who wields the threat of tariffs as a political weapon and who demands that U.S. trade policy be constantly reshaped to meet his changing moods. To further complicate matters, Johnson’s task involved convincing Trump to avoid exploiting Britain’s vulnerability to drive an unpalatable deal that would further inflame British public opinion. Trump and his ambassador to the U.K. have on occasion suggested, among other things, that for-profit U.S. companies be allowed access to parts of the British National Health Service (NHS), a proposal tailor-made to both infuriate and scare much of the British public. In particular, they appear to want U.S. companies to have the right to bid for NHS contracts, and for U.S. pharmaceutical companies to not be hidebound by U.K. regulations limiting the price that drug companies can charge the health system.
The notion of convincing the U.S. president to agree to an altruistic trade deal was rendered even more implausible during the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, when Johnson was overheard congratulating French President Emmanuel Macron, in French, for successfully navigating a “difficult” dinner with Trump. Trump’s hardly one to forgo holding a grudge. Sure, he might be going gentle with Johnson at the moment — and indeed tweeted his support for Johnson soon after the prorogation announcement today — but in all likelihood, it’s only a matter of time before Trump turns up the pressure on the embattled prime minister, seeking revenge in his trade negotiations as recompense for the unkind words Johnson has uttered about him, not just at the G7 but also prior to the 2016 U.S. election .
For now, however, Johnson remains a useful ally in Trump’s ongoing efforts to undermine the European Union. Trump has talked of Britain shedding an “anchor” that has been used to weigh the country down and limit Britain’s trading potential, and U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton has dangled the prospect of significant U.K.-U.S. trade agreements within months of Brexit. Both have urged Britain’s new leaders to play hardball with the European Union, and not to cede to EU demands that include the possibility that Northern Ireland could stay bound to EU trading regulations for longer than the rest of Britain. Yet at the same time, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has sought to pour cold water on this, making it clear Congress wouldn’t ratify a deal if it came at the expense of weakening the Good Friday Agreement, the peace agreement that the U.S. helped broker in the 1990s that ended decades of civil conflict in Northern Ireland.
The U.K.’s Parliament has repeatedly refused to ratify a Brexit that involves a “backstop” allowing Northern Ireland to remain more closely tied to EU regulations in the event that Britain and the EU can’t come to a long-term arrangement. Meanwhile, the alternative to a backstop would likely involve re-imposing a hard border between Northern and Southern Ireland, which would shatter the peace accords and likely trigger renewed sectarian violence. Caught between these realities, Johnson faces an unenviable choice. In his last-ditch attempts to drive a new bargain with Europe, will he cater more to the anti-EU instincts of Trump, whose team can set the framework for a post-Brexit trade deal, even if it sabotages peace in Ireland? Or will Johnson turn to the more pro-EU instincts of Pelosi, who determines whether or not Congress ratifies the deal that emerges?
Recently, Ireland’s EU commissioner, Phil Hogan, gave a preview of how the EU would view a Trump-Johnson axis that sacrificed the Irish peace process and went out of its way to weaken the European Union. In an extraordinary public attack, Hogan accused the British leader of “gambling” with the entire Irish peace process, and pointed out that Johnson, who owes his job to an internal Conservative Party leadership contest rather than to a general election, was essentially unelected and had no mandate to push for a No-Deal Brexit.
Johnson’s focus in Biarritz wasn’t, however, just on Ireland and the U.S. The new prime minister also knew that, at that same G7 meeting, he would have to convince German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron — the two most powerful figures within the EU — to reopen Brexit negotiations that both have repeatedly made clear they are deeply reluctant to revisit. Johnson has long thought he can combine bluster, threats and personal charm to win these leaders over. Now, with the pound’s value stuck at a significantly lower level than it was pre-Brexit and likely to head further south still in the coming months — it dropped more than a cent against the dollar in the moments after Johnson asked the Queen to suspend Parliament — and with industry watchdog groups reporting an increased sense of crisis in British industry, the likelihood of a severe recession because of the prospect of a chaotic No-Deal Brexit is growing. Johnson is facing his moment of truth regarding the viability of such a strategy.
So far, however, the British prime minister has shown no sign of blinking first in the game of chicken that he has embarked upon with the EU, going so far as to suggest that No-Deal could be good as it would free Britain from its obligations to pay 39 billion pounds in “divorce settlement” moneys to the EU. This cavalier approach to Brexit, and to the negotiations with the European Union, is further deepening the sense of crisis within the British political system and the anger displayed by European leaders toward Britain’s political leadership.
Over the past couple of weeks, a series of concerted leaks have made it clear that Johnson’s government is actively planning for food, fuel and medicine shortages after October 31, and for cascading chaos at the country’s ports as new import and export controls kick in. Those same leaks suggest that the government has concluded that even when the short-term chaos dissipates, it is still only anticipating a flow through the U.K.’s ports of 50-70 percent of the goods that circulated through them pre-Brexit. The leaks also indicate the government thinks it likely there will be civil unrest in response to the shortages. That’s hardly an indication that Britain’s bureaucracy and much of its elected leadership believes this can be anything other than a devastatingly painful, self-destructive, impoverishing process — one that will significantly reduce the economic and political clout of one of the world’s largest economies.
All of this — from the unprecedented assault on parliamentary democracy now underway, to the willingness to jeopardize the Irish peace process, to the recalibrating of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and U.K. in a way that gives Trump staggering authority over British politics and economic prospects — adds urgency to the efforts by MPs from across the political spectrum to craft a coalition to block Johnson’s government over the coming days. After all, when members of Parliament return from their summer recess early next week, they will have only a few days to sit before the legislative body is suspended.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has floated the idea of a vote of no-confidence in early September that would install him as a caretaker prime minister presiding over a national unity government. If such a vote comes to pass, he has promised to postpone Brexit and to call a snap general election. Corbyn is, however, so widely distrusted — not just by members of other political parties but by a large number of his own party’s MPs — that, at least until Johnson’s prorogation request upended all existing strategies, this plan appeared to be dead on arrival.
Now, however, the suspension of Parliament could well result in a No-Confidence vote as soon as the middle of next week.
Britain is hurtling toward Brexit with a failing set of brakes. The democratic political process in the U.K. is under siege; the negotiations with the EU seem largely cosmetic and likely to stall entirely now that Johnson is seeking to bypass the Parliamentary process; and the Prime Minister is betting the house on a relationship with an erratic U.S. president. It is a Shakespearean tragedy that could do untold damage both to Britain and to the European Union over the coming years.