The Battle of Brexit: The House of Commons vs Boris Johnson

A new phase of confrontation between the Cabinet and Parliament, probably the most dramatic and highly-strung since the 2016 referendum, began on September 3 when British MPs returned from the summer recess. Throughout the week that followed, Boris Johnson was losing ground with the MPs, even though on August 28 the Queen approved an order to prorogue, or suspend, Parliament for five weeks from “the second sitting week in September” to October 14 at the PM’s request. Johnson’s trick was very smart from a legal point of view, for the Queen requires time in order to prepare her speech that she will deliver during the State Opening of Parliament scheduled for October 14.

On September 6, the High Court rejected a case brought by businesswoman Gina Miller, who failed to prove that Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament was “an unlawful abuse of power” (a similar legal challenge was rejected at Edinburgh’s Court of Session earlier that week). Johnson’s plan was apparently intended to neutralize Westminster and to prevent the interference of Bremainers, or MPs who are in favor of Britain remaining within the European Union.

The Brexit date this year has already been postponed twice, and the House of Commons blocked the deal with the EU three times. An active Brexiter, Boris Johnson is resolved to formalize the divorce from the EU on October 31 “do or die.” The government has launched the Get Ready for Brexit campaign, which may cost as much as £100m, to urge businesses and the public to prepare for a no-deal Brexit.

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It looked as if the Prime Minister and his advisers have outsmarted Parliament, but the plan has incensed the opposition MPs (including Tories).

On the first day after the recess, when Johnson reported on the outcome of the G7 summit in Biarritz, Tory MP Phillip Lee publicly defected to the pro-EU Liberal Democratic Party, which leaves the government without a working (even if fragile) majority in Parliament.

The opposition, including “rebels” from the Conservative Party, delivered a crushing blow to the Cabinet by calling a vote on a private members’ bill (co-sponsored by Hilary Benn, Labor Party)  to negotiate a new withdrawal agreement with the EU by October 19. In the case of failure to do this, the PM must request an extension of the withdrawal period to January 31, 2020. The House of Commons fast-tracked the adoption of the bill in three readings on September 4, and the House of Lords approved the bill on September 6. The bill will become law after getting royal assent, thereby legally prohibiting the no-deal scenario.

A total of 21 rebels, including party grandees Philip Hammond and Tory leadership candidate Rory Stewart, have been expelled from the party. They sacrificed their political careers in a bid to prevent the Cabinet from approving a no-deal withdrawal. Johnson reciprocated by filing a motion to dissolve Parliament and call an early election (the request must be supported by two-thirds of MPs to become effective). Labor ordered its MPs to abstain, which delivered yet another blow to the Prime Minister.

Boris Johnson has said more than once that he would never back down (“I’d rather be dead in a ditch than ask for Brexit delay” ). The media have reported that the PM would make one more call for an election. This proposal sounds logical, for a government cannot operate effectively without a parliamentary majority. The MPs have joined forces against Johnson and are openly hindering the operation of the Cabinet. The Brits are also dissatisfied with the Downing Street’s controversial top adviser and architect of the Vote Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings. The Labor Party and Scottish nationalists have agreed to support an early election after a new Brexit deadline is negotiated.

It looks like the eccentric Prime Minister is ready to disregard the MPs’ decision, which is verging on a political suicide. The Cabinet has been shaken up by two loud resignations. “Torn between family loyalty and the national interest,” the Prime Minister’s younger brother, Jo Johnson, announced that he was standing down as universities and science minister. Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd later quit the Cabinet because “there is no evidence of a deal.”

The opposition has warned that Boris Johnson could be jailed if he defies the law. The Cabinet will likely file an appeal over the legality of the MPs’ decision. Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Andrea Leadsom has accused the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, of breaking the rules of parliament by allowing MPs to take control of the agenda, as the result of which opposition and rebel MPs could pass a law blocking a no-deal Brexit.

The ball is now in Boris Johnson’s court. He is preparing Brexit Plan B intended to force the EU to kick Britain out of Europe, and is looking for loopholes in both British and European laws. However, divorce from the EU can become a fact on October 31 by default unless the required EU procedures are respected. In particular, all EU member states must vote for a new delay. British journalists speculate that London can find a way to paralyze the ruling European Commission, which must have 28 commissioners by November 1, one for each member state. If Johnson refused to supply one from Britain, the Commission would be unable to legally constitute itself. “We will play the EU at their own game and fight fire with fire,” a No.10 source said.

Developments in Britain are acquiring the shape of a constitutional crisis. On September 7, a pro-Brexit demonstration organized by the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) clashed with the anti-Brexit group March for Change in Parliament Square in London. Police arrested 16 violators.

It is still an open question what kind of developments lie ahead.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.