On 1 August the Conservative Party, led by Boris Johnson, lost another election in Brecon (Wales) thus reducing its majority (including allies in the Democratic Ulster Party) in the House of Commons to just one member of Parliament. The victorious candidate was from the strongly anti-Brexit, Liberal Democratic Party. The Labour Party, which historically had a sound electoral base in Wales, had a disastrous result taking only 5 per cent of the vote. With such a miniscule majority, any substantive period in office for Boris Johnson is out of the question. It is not a question of whether Boris Johnson will call for a new election but when, and under what circumstances, it will take place.
The major issue which overshadows all others is the impending scheduled departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union on 31 October. Also of importance in the Brecon election was that support for Brexit was maintained – with the Conservatives, Brexit Party and United Kingdom Independence Party receiving a total of 51 per cent of the votes. Currently, the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by former Prime Minister Theresa May has been rejected by Parliament three times leaving the UK faced with uncertainties concerning its multiple trade, political, cultural and security relationships with the European Union. While the predicted chaos and disruption may not be as great as many pro-European politicians and media channels predict, the Conservative leadership faces strong opposition in both Houses of Parliament and serious threats to postpone or reverse the UK’s exit.
The Border between Ireland and Northern Ireland
Johnson’s political credibility rests on a successful exit from the EU through a renegotiated Withdrawal Agreement or leaving smoothly on World Trade Organisation terms. Some concessions on the border arrangements between Northern Ireland (a part of the UK) and the state of Ireland are essential if an acceptable Withdrawal Agreement is to be achieved.
As part of the process to end the civil war in Northern Ireland, the EU, the UK and the Irish government are pledged to keep an ‘invisible border’ between North and Ireland. This ensures the ‘free movement’ of people, goods, capital and services between the two parties. However, following the exit of the UK from the EU, there will be a new border between them to maintain economic and political security. Instituting a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland would be in breach of the treaties which led to peace in Ireland. Currently, the EU insists that the UK remains in the European Union customs’ union ‘unless and until’ a trade agreement between the countries is settled by an arrangement which would not need a physical border (such as a free trade zone). This stipulation has been unacceptable to the UK Parliament and also the Johnson leadership because the UK would not be able to leave such a customs’ union without the agreement of the EU. It would effectively keep the UK in the European Union without any political participation in its institutions.
Removing or dropping this condition depends on the negotiators on the side of the European Union. They face pressure from two sides: EU merchants who wish to maintain their extensive trade links with the UK and the Irish government whose ambition it is to achieve a united Ireland. Any weakening of the invisible border would please the former but anger the latter. A bad exit by the UK from the EU would fire Republican claims for a united Ireland. As Northern Ireland voted in the EU Referendum to ‘remain’ in the EU, the British government then faces the possibility of a referendum in Northern Ireland on the province leaving the UK to join Ireland.
A similar challenge to the unity of the United Kingdom is coming from Scotland. Here the politically dominant Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) has a long standing opposition to the UK leaving the European Union – it was the only parliamentary Party that opposed setting up the UK Referendum to leave or remain in the EU. The SNP sees its future as an independent state within the European Union shell. Scotland also voted solidly to remain in the European Union. Leaving on any terms would strengthen demands by the leadership of the SNP for another referendum on Scottish independence from the UK.
How Parliament Could Stop Brexit
The question arises of whether and if so, how, the British Parliament could stop Brexit. As the UK Parliament has passed a law endorsing Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which was accepted by the European Parliament then the UK will simply not be a member of the EU after 31 October. Current strategy of ‘Remainers’ is to seek an extension of the date of departure and to secure a government which favours a closer relationship with the EU or remaining in the EU. To do this requires as a first step that such opponents win a Parliament vote of no confidence in the government. If it does, on a major issue, the government would by convention have to resign. Before the House of Commons closed for the summer recess, the political opposition – led by the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – did not table such a motion as it believed that there was insufficient support to win such a motion. Under the leadership of a new leader, Boris Johnson, a revised Withdrawal Agreement was still possible.
As the date of departure draws nearer, there is every indication that a ‘no deal’ Brexit is likely, and consequently a motion of no confidence in the government will certainly be put after the House of Commons reassembles on 3 September. Theresa May survived a confidence vote, but opinions have hardened: some leading Conservatives have indicated that they will vote against the government if it does not secure an acceptable Withdrawal Agreement and other MPs may follow. Even so, their defection may be compensated by Labour MPs in Leave constituencies, of which there are many, voting in favour of the government. If they do not, they face de-selection as candidates or defeat at the polls.
Even if a vote of no confidence is carried, there are formidable obstacles to postponing, or preventing the UK’s exit from the EU. Following a successful vote of no confidence, there would have to be a period of fourteen days to give the government’s opponents the opportunity to form a new government. The present leader of the Opposition, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, commands little respect among Conservative and Liberal-Democrat MPs, and he would be unable to form a viable government. Current strategy of Remainers is to form a ‘government of national unity’. This might be formed from MPs from the Liberal-Democrats, Scottish Nationalists, Independents, Plaid Cymru and pro-EU members of both the Conservative and Labour Parties. Such a government would need to secure endorsement from the House of Commons and, if it did, it would be able to ask the EU to postpone the leaving date. And in this case it would then call a general election. Such a possibility seems highly unlikely as such a political group currently lacks any gravitas among the bulk of Labour and Conservative MPs.
Calling a General Election
In the absence of a new government, after the fourteen days’ period, the incumbent government will continue, Boris Johnson will stay in command, and during the next 25 days, he must name a date for a general election. Johnson who has staked his Prime Ministerial status on leaving the EU – ‘with or without a deal’ – will certainly make that date after 31 October when the UK’s membership of the EU has ceased. In so doing, he will have fulfilled his mandate.
After Leaving the European Union
If the vote of no confidence in the Johnson government fails, then it is likely that Boris Johnson and the Parliamentary leadership will call an election but only after the exit of the UK from the EU. The Johnson campaign will adopt the strategy of pinning the Conservative Party to a ‘People versus Politicians’ platform. He will expose the duplicity of the Labour Party’s election manifesto which called for respect for the Referendum result, then sabotaged his policies to achieve it. The EU will be charged with lack of respect to promote democracy between states of the Union and a failure to recognise the will of the British people to leave the EU. Johnson will return to the theme of the ‘democratic deficit’ of the European Union. He will emphasise the creative possibilities for the UK as an independent state. He will rely on the alliance with the USA and strengthen ties with the Anglo-sphere
If the exit negotiations proceed without too much disruption, Johnson and his government will claim the high moral ground and expose the ‘project fear’ campaigns of the Remainers. Unlike Theresa May, who neglected domestic policy, Johnson has already signalled at his initiation as Prime Minister that he will ‘Deliver Brexit, Unite the country, Defeat Jeremy Corbyn, and Energise the country’. The greatest threat to achieve these objectives lies in the area of achieving unity, particularly the problems of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and the movement for Scottish independence. And the ideological differences between ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ will continue.