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UK: Brexit chaos continues as parliament takes control04 September 2019

With Parliament in deadlock, it is anyone’s guess what will happen in the next 12 hours, let alone the next 2 months

As seasoned parliamentarians themselves struggle to keep pace with the rate of change in the U.K. political climate, and after another dramatic night in Westminster, now is a good time to ask: What do these recent developments mean for Brexit, how likely is a general election, and what does the future hold for domestic politics?

 

The story so far

The political class in the U.K., ever since the narrow victory for the campaign to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum, has been beset by the existential question of how best to implement the will of the people. Did all the 17.4 million vote to leave with a deal with the EU, or without a deal, or indeed would any of them change their minds if they had been offered a different set of facts? It is in the chaos of trying to find answers to those questions that the Brexit saga has taken place.

 

The May years

After David Cameron’s ignominious and, as some would go on to say, “cowardly” resignation in the aftermath of his humiliating referendum defeat, Theresa May found herself in the position of prime minister. She was by no means the front-runner in the race to Downing Street, but in what would become a running side story in the narrative of British politics post-2016 referendum, both Michael Gove and Boris Johnson killed each other’s chances for the top job.

The courts ruled that the government could not take the U.K. out of the EU without ratification of any deal by parliament – May realized she needed to increase her small majority in the House of Commons in order to navigate the Brexit process with more ease. The general election of 2017 saw the Tory majority reduced to nothing, with a working majority only secured after a deal was struck with the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland and its 10 MPs.

This turned out to be a thorn in May’s side as her negotiated deal with the EU failed to pass through Parliament three times – bringing criticisms from all sides. It was not bold enough for the hard-Brexiteers of the right wing of the Tory Party – but also too damaging economically for those who wanted a softer Brexit. For many it came down to the “backstop”.

 

Backstop

The Northern Irish “backstop” proved to be the undoing of May’s deal with the EU. Under this negotiated withdrawal agreement, it was decided that if there was no confirmed trade deal between the U.K. and EU by the end of a transition period, then the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would remain, as it is currently, frictionless. In other words, Northern Ireland would remain part of the EU customs union, while the rest of the U.K. would not. For the hard-line Tories, this posed an unacceptable threat to the very union of the U.K. itself – they wanted the backstop removed. For others in parliament, the backstop provided the only certainty against a “hard border” in Ireland and a return to border checks, reminiscent of the time of the Troubles, and before the Good Friday agreement brought peace to the region.

As May’s deal kept on getting voted down in Parliament, each time with record-breaking majorities, it became clear that parliament’s makeup, coupled with the negotiating position of the EU, made it impossible for any viable deal to pass through the house. The House of Commons forced May to seek an extension to the negotiating period with the EU until Oct. 31, 2019 – the date after which the U.K. will cease to be a member, with or without a deal.

 

Johnson as prime minister

May inevitably resigned, much to her, and the country’s relief. The respite was short lived, as after a very short leadership campaign within the Tory Party, Boris Johnson achieved his life-long dream of becoming prime minister.

Johnson is known for not holding any position or principle so dear that he could not drop it in order to win a vote. With a mindset bent on maintaining power, and with his new chief advisor Dominic Cummings calling the shots from Number 10 Downing Street, the government has been able to play a dangerous game of politics with the fate of Brexit in the balance.

Leaving the EU without an agreed deal, reverting to WTO trading rules, and crashing out of the EU customs union has been described by experts from various fields, as well as senior civil servants, as a catastrophic scenario. Yet this is what the right-wing of the Conservative Party want, and will be happy with nothing less. Johnson has known that he would not be able to pass any deal through that faction of his party – and yet has maintained that his government is working towards one. Reports from inside the Conservative central headquarters suggest that the party have been planning for a general election followed by or immediately after leaving the EU on Oct. 31, with no real efforts being made to secure a deal.

Throughout this process the position of the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn has not been straightforward. The have maintained that they would not accept any deal that took the U.K. out of the EU customs union and did not, for example, secure workers’ rights – which is why they voted down May’s deal three times. In the absence of being able to secure a deal they would have preferred a second referendum, and if that was not possible than a general election.

Keeping Labour’s position in mind, Johnson and Cummings’ politicking can be seen in a new light. Just last week Johnson announced that he would “prorogue” or suspend Parliament earlier than usual to make way for a new legislative agenda in mid-October – ostensibly to thwart any attempts by rebel MPs to force the government into seeking another extension to the Brexit deadline, as they previously did to May.

 

Parliamentary showdown

In extraordinary scenes, Johnson called all Tory MPs to Downing Street to issue a threat. It had become apparent that the same set of intrepid MPs, including Sir Oliver Letwin, Hilary Benn, and Yvette Cooper, would seek to take control of the parliamentary agenda and push through legislation forcing the government to seek an extension. The prime minister threatened any Conservative who voted against the government in that vote with de-selection from the party. As we now know, 21 Tory MPs rebelled, including Ken Clarke, the longest-serving MP, and Sir Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill, and Phillip Hammond, a former chancellor – and they are all now being booted out of the party they have been part of for years.

Last night the government lost the procedural vote that made it likely for the legislation that could have averted “No Deal” to pass. In a further unprecedented development, Johnson moved to submit a motion to call a snap general election.

 

General election and no deal?

The Labour Party have been itching for an election for years, so it may have been safe to assume they would welcome Johnson’s call for one. Not so. Trust in the prime minister, his word, his integrity, and in the values of his team is such that opposition parties have made clear that they would not countenance any general election until the extension to the Brexit deadline is put into law.

The government will resist any such maneuver, and will ideally want an election to take place just before or immediately after the Oct. 31 deadline, so that “come what may” the U.K. leaves the EU on that date.

Parliament again is in deadlock, and it is anyone’s guess what will happen in the next 12 hours let alone the next two months.

 

UK democracy

Yet, we can look at what this entire Brexit saga says about democracy in the U.K. That the U.K. has an unwritten constitution is both a blessing and a curse. It has worked for centuries on the basis of all actors playing by “gentleman’s rules” – it is clear that the current crop of politicians have decided to dispense with such niceties. This has left the U.K. in a constitutional quandary, with debates around where sovereignty lies – with the people, or with parliament, or with parliament but through the people – prompting much soul-searching by commentators and the public alike.

It is clear that Johnson and his government has tried to undermine the democratic process in the narrow-visioned pursuit of implementing the 2016 referendum result – no matter the cost. Had this been any other leader in any other country, such moves would have brought international outrage as a lurch to autocracy and an undermining of the rule of law. However, Parliament has shown itself capable of holding this government in check, so far – it remains to be seen if they can continue to do so.

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