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Transatlantic Blog

Boris Johnson's parliamentary fast track to Brexit

Extraordinary events are unfolding in the United Kingdom even as I write. A parliamentary rule has pushed the UK closer to exiting the EU – something that will usher in new free trade deals, bring commerce to the developing world, undermine international government planning, and benefit both the UK’s markets and democracy.

The contrast between the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and that of Theresa May is as wide as the Grand Canyon. We may have found a Prime Minister with backbone.

Boris Johnson has made clear since his arrival in office some five weeks ago that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union on October 31, “do or die,” as he puts it – with a Withdrawal Agreement in place or not.

The tentative Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Mrs. May satisfied no one, left the UK in certain short-term and possibly long-term vassalage to the EU, and was voted down three times in Parliament.

Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party has barely a working majority in Parliament and there are a number of his own Members of Parliament, including former ministers, determined to frustrate Britain’s exit from the EU. There were, and technically remain, a number of options for doing so, including wrestling control of the Parliamentary agenda from the government and forcing through legislation to direct the government to stay in the union until a deal is reached, or seeking to bring down the government by a confidence vote.

Boris, in a masterstroke, has blind-sided his opponents who have descended into apoplexy. He is close to entering a win-win situation.

The Queen, on the advice of the Prime Minister, has formally signed an order to prorogue – or suspend – Parliament from the second week of September until October 14. We should distinguish proroguing from the dissolution of Parliament. In the latter case, Parliament is permanently dissolved before a general election and members cease to be members at the point of dissolution. As we will see shortly, this is where Boris’s potential “win-win” comes into play.

Why is this important for the Brexit process?

Parliament is due to return from its summer holidays on September 3. There are a number of technical reasons for this, including the requirement that the government make a statement to the House on certain specified dates in relation to matters in Northern Ireland – a statute forced through before the recess by Remainers. This is why it is not possible to prorogue until October 31.

We will come to the implications shortly, but the formal position as to what happens in relation to Brexit is that Parliament will not be meeting for some five weeks and hence there is, during that time, nothing – absolutely nothing – that Remainers can do to try and prevent Brexit. Nothing. Parliament is not sitting, and hence, cannot pass any legislation, nor propose or debate motions of no confidence in the government.

When Parliament returns on October 14 there will all the British pomp and ceremony of the state opening of Parliament and the Queen’s Speech, written by the Prime Minister and his office, detailing all of the legislative and government actions proposed by the government in the next session of Parliament. Debate ensues and votes on the Queen’s Speech will take place around October 21.

Parliament has to sit for the second half of October due to the Northern Ireland technicalities and also as the EU Council meeting on October 17-18, which is likely to be the last chance for an improved Withdrawal Agreement which Boris would then need to get through Parliament.

The Remainers will fight hard from the October 14 onwards but it will be almost impossible to prevent the UK’s departure at the end of October.

How will the Remainers react?

There are two possibilities, both of which play into Boris’s hands.

First, there will be attempts, with the connivance of the increasingly partisan House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, for Parliament to gain control of the Parliamentary timetable in the first few days of September (effectively September 3-5, and possibly 6) and seek to pass legislation directing the government to seek an extension of the October 31 deadline to leave the EU. To succeed this would have to pass both Houses of Parliament and receive Royal Assent, against an unwilling executive, in those four days. This is very unlikely to succeed based on time alone.

Second, a motion of no confidence in the government may be (and indeed almost certainly will be) tabled against the government. There is a strict protocol. The government may be able to delay its debate, but let us assume a motion is tabled and a debate held. Nobody knows that the outcome would be, except that it would be very close. If Boris Johnson wins, it’s smooth sailing.

But let us assume the government of Boris Johnson loses the vote. The law demands that there is a 14-day period before another vote is held. All PM Johnson has to day is sit tight, not resign, and the 14-day period would then fall in the period of prorogation. The 14-day period would still be in force, but no further vote would be held and a general election would be automatically triggered. The date would be determined by the Prime Minister (expect November 7 in this instance). Parliament is immediately dissolved 25 working days ahead of an election.

Boris’s win-win

If an election is called, and Parliament is dissolved, that means only one thing: departure from the EU on October 31 without a Withdrawal Agreement. No MPs can vote for a new deal, no MPs can vote against no deal. A clean Brexit is a win for Boris.

Yes, there will be a lot of noise, plenty of shouting and screaming, legal actions, Parliamentary maneuvers, and, of course, there are no guarantees for the government; it is still just possible that opponents will succeed. However, their opportunities for doing so are considerably restricted and reduced.

And if an election were to be held on November 7?

First, we will have already left the EU on October 31. Second, ending the two-year-long Brexit imbroglio and ending the UK’s longstanding “Brexit fatigue” may result in a landslide for Boris.

These arcane rules of Parliament are important, not for their political impact, but because they will help the government respect the express will of the people. Those who complain about PM Johnson overturning democracy because he suspends Parliament have thwarted the will of 17.4 million voters in the largest referendum in UK history. Which vote is more representative of the national will?

Leaving the EU will allow the UK to set its own trade policies, to renew commerce with the rest of the non-European world, to lower prices and open markets, and lead to new sources of prosperity. It also undermines the model of economic interventionist, supranational governance emanating from Brussels. For that, at least, we should be grateful.

(Photo credit: UK Embassy in Tokyo. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)

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Rev. Dr. Richard Turnbull is the director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics and a trustee of the Christian Institute. He holds a degree in Economics and Accounting and spent over eight years as a Chartered Accountant with Ernst and Young and served as the youngest ever member of the Press Council. Richard also holds a first class honours degree in Theology and PhD in Theology from the University of Durham. He was ordained into the ministry of the Church of England in 1994. 

Richard has served in the pastoral ministry for over 10 years. He has authored several books, is a member of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Oxford and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.