World / Politics | ANALYSIS

Boris Johnson corners his opponents and pushes Brexit toward a showdown

Bloomberg

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s move to suspend Parliament and come good on his promise to avoid any more delays to Brexit has set the clock running for his opponents to thwart him. The question is whether they can do it in time.

In another dramatic turn of events in the U.K.’s three-year quest to leave the European Union, Johnson was granted permission by the queen to “prorogue” the House of Commons, shutting down the debating chamber on Sept. 12 ostensibly so he can come back with a new legislative program a month later.

That effectively gives parliamentarians two weeks to come up with a way to pass a law to stop Britain from leaving the EU on Oct. 31, the current Brexit day, without a deal.

While Johnson and his supporters say disruption would be manageable, companies warn of a severe hit to the economy.

It is enough time, in theory. Earlier in the year a similar bill passed in five sitting days. But even as opponents — from within his own Conservatives as well as other parties — reacted with outrage at Johnson on Wednesday, it remained unclear if they can make it happen.

Although there is a parliamentary majority against a no-deal Brexit, the problem for those trying to corral the opposition groups is that they all want different things. Many MPs in the opposition Labour Party want a second Brexit referendum. The result is everyone may be faced with Johnson’s version of a deal or the cliff edge.

One key player will be John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons. He described Johnson’s gambit as a “constitutional outrage.” That suggests he will facilitate opposition plans to take control of the agenda when Parliament returns on Sept. 3. As the legislature’s referee, he can rewrite the rules of the chamber.

“However it is dressed up, it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop Parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty in shaping a course for the country,” Bercow said. “At this time, one of the most challenging periods in our nation’s history, it is vital that our elected Parliament has its say.”

The biggest question mark hangs over the Conservatives. For all of predecessor Theresa May’s time in office, the problematic section of the party was the pro-Brexit bloc. It repeatedly pushed her to go further and then tried to throw her overboard. Conservatives who wanted a softer Brexit, or no Brexit at all, were much smaller in number.

But Johnson’s arrival saw ministers such as Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond leaving government jobs — many offering warnings that they wouldn’t allow the new prime minister to risk no deal.

There are now around 40 Tories who have indicated a willingness to rebel to prevent a no-deal Brexit. That is easily enough to overturn Johnson’s parliamentary majority of just one — if they decide to.

“The prorogation can’t be stopped, but he won’t escape Parliament by doing this,” said Dominic Grieve, a Conservative lawmaker and vocal Brexit opponent.

Then there is Labour. Their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is more attracted by the idea of a general election, although he has accepted he would have to offer a referendum. But though a handful of Tories want to cancel Brexit, most of them, including Hammond, want Brexit to happen with a deal.

They differ on the best approach, too. Labour this month proposed a vote of no confidence in Johnson, after which Corbyn would be installed as a caretaker prime minister, with a mandate to seek a Brexit delay and call an election.

A significant chunk of MPs on the opposition benches, including some from his own party, are horrified at the idea of making Corbyn — a lifelong socialist who has struggled to deal with an anti-Semitism scandal within Labour — prime minister, even briefly. The idea went down very badly with rebel Conservatives, too.

It may come down to parliamentarians who oppose no-deal having to decide what they hate most, according to Maddy Thimont Jack at the Institute for Government. “If they don’t want the government to do this then they should vote down the government,” she said.

As Johnson’s opponents try to agree on a plan, and rebel Tories decide how rebellious they really are, the government is moving to chip away at their votes.

The ground for Wednesday’s move was laid on Tuesday, with an official saying the U.K. now saw the prospect of EU leaders moving toward giving Johnson the changes he wanted to the Brexit agreement that May negotiated. Alongside that, Johnson’s office signaled that he might be willing to moderate his demands.

The underlying message to Conservative MPs worried about no-deal was that if they just gave Johnson time, he would be able to deliver a new Brexit deal and present it to Parliament in triumph. And, as Johnson himself pointed out, there would still be time when Parliament returned to stop a no-deal departure if he had failed.

He said on Wednesday that his decision to seek the suspension of Parliament was about being able to push forward his agenda on health, crime prevention and education. “There will be ample time in Parliament for MPs to debate the EU, to debate Brexit and all the other issues,” he said.

While Johnson’s supporters argue that it is all routine and will only cost a week, another one will be lost with general debates following the queen’s speech that sets out the legislative program. And the effect of prorogation is to cause all pending legislation to die.

Johnson’s move restricts his opponents’ room for maneuver, and forcing them into a corner could be counterproductive. Suspension means the rebels know they will only have one chance. It won’t be a long wait to see how they use it while Johnson’s Brexit hard-liners stand firm.

“Boris’ move today is not a ‘coup’ or an outrage,” said Conservative lawmaker Bob Seely. “Losing World War II to Nazi Germany would have been a catastrophe. Leaving an unpopular, glorified federated trading block is not.”