The battle for Brexit took an ominous turn this week when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that he would suspend Parliament for five weeks to give his government time to secure a better deal with the European Union. The move is both legal and tactically sound: It will give the besieged prime minister leverage to deal with Brussels. Those justifications (and others) notwithstanding, the decision raises foundational questions for Brexit supporters who seek “to reclaim sovereignty” — a claim that rings hollow when their first step is to suspend Parliament.
Johnson inherited a fraught situation from Theresa May, his predecessor at 10 Downing Street. May had negotiated a Brexit deal that could not win approval in Parliament. Repeated attempts to win legislative backing for any arrangement proved beyond her ken and she resigned in consequence. Worse, May bequeathed Johnson a two-seat majority — one of which was lost in a recent by-election — and a governing coalition that depends on support from 10 legislators from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP is pro-Brexit and has denounced the backstop — which maintains a “soft border” between the two halves of Ireland to promote continuing reconciliation — insisting that it demotes Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. The backstop also creates a customs union between the EU and the entire U.K., which defeats the purpose of Brexit in the eyes of many its supporters.
Johnson claims that the razor-thin majority and the inability of any deal to get backing ties his hands in negotiations with Brussels. To overcome that handicap, he asked the queen to “prorogue” or suspend Parliament from the second week of September to Oct. 14. That will leave legislators with just a few days next week and then two weeks in the second half of October to debate issues before the Oct. 31 deadline for Britain’s exit from the EU.
Johnson correctly notes that Parliament has been in session for 340 days, the longest in nearly 400 years. Since he is leading a new government that purports to be radically different from that of May it is only proper that he have the opportunity to lay out his agenda in a Queen’s Speech. This cannot be done unless the old Parliament ends and a new one begins. Prorogation makes that possible. Moreover, Johnson and his allies are right to note that Parliament is usually in recess during the second half of September, when the parties hold their conferences.
The move ties the hands of Johnson’s opponents in two ways. First, they cannot undermine his efforts to negotiate with Brussels and find a new deal. Second, it forces them to decide in the next few days whether they want to pursue a vote of no-confidence against Johnson, which could force a new election. Brexit supporters are betting that opponents within the prime minister’s own Conservative Party are not prepared to risk conservative rule: in other words, Tory Brexit opponents fear a Labour government more than Brexit itself. That may be a safe bet. Moreover, if the no-confidence motion is not passed next week — before prorogation, and before the parties have much chance to coordinate strategy — then it will be put off to late October and the election is almost certain not to be held before the Brexit deadline.
Brexit opponents have denounced the stratagem, as have those who are alarmed at the defenestration of Parliament. John Bercow, the House of Commons Speaker, called prorogation a “constitutional outrage” because it aims “to stop Parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty in shaping a course for the country.” The highly respected Financial Times, which has accepted the decision to leave the EU, called it “an affront to democracy.”
It is especially troubling since there is little sign that Johnson has new ideas. He appears to believe that a strong hand and determination — which apparently May did not possess — will force Brussels to back down. That argument, like others he made during the original Brexit debate, has no basis in fact. And in that case, prorogation makes a no-deal Brexit more likely.
Its impact will be severe. Britain is not ready for a no-deal Brexit. The economy is already suffering, with economic output down 0.2 percent in the second quarter, and the Bank of England forecasts a 2 percent drop if the Brexit disruption is contained; it will be much worse if the doomsayers are correct and a real crisis follows.
This compounds concern among all firms in Britain, including those of Japan, that have long warned that Brexit would undermine their rationale for being in the U.K. In his talks with Johnson at the Group of Seven summit, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for an orderly Brexit based on an agreement with the EU so that Japanese firms can maintain their business in Europe. Those firms will not stand by as Britain isolates itself from the European economy and indulges in parliamentary stratagems rather than preparing for a difficult future.