By the end of Monday, the British government will suspend the country’s Parliament for five weeks – at the request of newly installed Prime Minister Boris Johnson. It’s part of a broader feud between Johnson and Parliament as the two sides try to figure out how Britain can leave the European Union by October 31.
So far, all the fighting has produced is chaos and uncertainty. To sift through all that’s happened – and what to expect next – I reached out to my friend Sebastian Payne, a political writer for the Financial Times. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: Start on July 24. Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister (as you predicted he would months ago!). How did we go from that day until now, where he is calling for a new election?
Payne: Boris became Prime Minister based on a simple pledge of taking the UK out of the EU on October 31 – “come what may, do or die,” in his words. That means either with a formal withdrawal agreement, like the treaty former PM Theresa May negotiated, or exiting with no transitional or trading arrangements, a so-called “no-deal Brexit.”
Conservative Party members lapped up this tub-thumping approach and he won the leadership contest with a stonking majority. But he did so by boxing himself in, limiting the options for a tweaked version of May’s Brexit deal by demanding changes the EU are unlikely to grant. As soon as Johnson became Prime Minister, the chances of leaving without a deal rose significantly and Parliament was very unhappy about this.
The majority of the UK’s 650 MPs in the House of Commons have made it clear through several votes they are against “no deal.” Johnson said he wouldn’t listen to Parliament, as he is focused on delivering on the outcome of the 2016 referendum. A clash between the two sides was inevitable, but it has come around much sooner than anyone expected.
What we’re witnessing in Westminster is a constitutional dilemma between an executive, which has no majority, versus a Parliament that is trying to assert itself. Both sides are breaking rule after rule in the UK’s unwritten constitution, which is stoking anger and confusion.
When a prime minister has no majority and a Parliament wants to disrupt their agenda, they have little choice but to eventually go to the polls. Some in Johnson’s inner circle predicted Britain would be heading to the polls the day he entered Downing Street. And that’s what is happening, but even that is proving a challenge as MPs are blocking his efforts to dissolve Parliament. Johnson might be in office, but he doesn’t look like he’s in power.
Cillizza: How much did Johnson’s decision to ask the Queen to suspend Parliament take this from a brush fire to a roaring conflagration?
Payne: Suspending Parliament, or proroguing, to use the technical term, happens all the time. It is usually for a handful of days after a session has finished and a new legislative term is opened up by the Queen. But Johnson’s decision to prorogue it for five weeks – starting today – has created so much anger because it is denying MPs critical time to have their say and potentially thwart his Brexit plan.
Defenders of the proroguing argue that Parliament was set to break up for the UK’s annual party conference (convention) season anyway, and Boris’ decision to close down Parliament only adds four to six extra days to that traditional break. They say it’s another instance of pro-Remain MPs kicking up a fuss about a trivial matter.
But critics argue that MPs were likely to have canceled the usual Parliament break for party conferences, given the gravity of the current crisis. By depriving them of the opportunity to debate and vote on Brexit, Johnson is acting in an undemocratic fashion.
Where the critics have a point is that the decision was made with the intention of stopping debate. Leaked court documents showed us that Downing Street made the decision in early August to shut down Parliament and deprive MPs of chances to stop a potential “no deal” Brexit. In essence: What he has done in absolutely legal, but it has broken the spirit and conventions that define British politics.
Cillizza: Why does Johnson feel SO strongly about the need for a “No deal Brexit?” And why does Parliament so strongly oppose that idea?
Payne: Johnson has concluded, not without reason, that if he doesn’t deliver Brexit on October 31 then his party is finished and millions of voters will lose faith in British democracy. It was Conservatives who wanted the referendum, Conservatives who campaigned for Brexit and Conservatives who have tried (and failed so) to deliver it. They are now the party of Brexit and if Boris doesn’t deliver it this time, the British electorate is unlikely to forgive them.
The Johnson government has concluded that the UK will leave, even if it means without a trade deal which most experts say will lead to significant economic and trading disruption. At the least, a “no deal” Brexit will create significant traffic jams around the UK’s major ports, chaos at transport links and lead to increased food prices and less choice. At worst, it could mean civil unrest and the army having to deliver fuel around the country. As one Conservative MP said to me recently, “it would be the first time in modern history that a country has imposed sanctions on itself.”
For all those reasons and more, Parliament thinks a “no deal” Brexit is a dumb idea and will plunge the country into a recession. The Conservative rebels think their party will never be forgiven for such damage to the economy. They want to stop it and are hoping to force Boris’ hand by passing legislation last week to push him to go back to the EU and request another delay instead of leaving on October 31. In turn, Downing Street has hinted it will declare a national emergency (heard that before?) or just ignore the law. The constitutional crisis is ratcheting up every day.
Cillizza: Is there any real chance that Johnson gets his wish for an early election? Is that, in fact, what he wants? And if there is an election, might he lose?
Payne: The Prime Minister is going to try again for an election today, but MPs don’t want it right now. Two-thirds of MPs have voted to dissolve Parliament to have an early election, and the opposition MPs from Labour and the Scottish nationalists aren’t on board. I don’t think he’s going to see his wish granted this week. But when parliament returns on October 14 after suspension, there will be another chance to collapse his government – especially if the Prime Minister ignores their request to seek another Brexit delay.
I’ve heard rumors from senior officials in Downing Street that their ideal time for an election would be the first couple of days of November, soon after October 31 to take advantage of the bounce of finally leaving the EU but avoiding the potential chaos. Johnson is sincere in not wanting an election right now, but he has concluded there is no other choice if he wants to deliver Brexit by October 31. He knows that the British electorate is *incredibly* volatile at the moment and he is far from assured of winning a majority. He would prefer to wait until Brexit is resolved.
But either way, Johnson has a working majority of -43. You can’t govern with that for a long time. Whether it happens now, next month or in November, the UK will have an election before the end of the year.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: The one BIG thing to watch in the next week as a sign of where all of this is headed is _____________.” Now, explain.
Payne: “Does Boris Johnson have serious proposals for a new Brexit deal?”
The Prime Minister insists he still wants the UK to leave with a Brexit deal on October 31 and I think he’s genuinely focused on leaving in an orderly fashion. Yet so far, his team has yet to come up with serious proposals beyond vague platitudes. And time is running out to strike a new deal before his October 31 deadline.
May’s Brexit deal, which is still on the table, tried and failed to pass Parliament three times so there is no point in bringing it back again. The question is whether there are realistic changes that can be sought over the next couple of weeks Johnson can live with; that keep his party content; and the EU will accept. If so, the UK will Brexit on October 31 in an orderly fashion. If not, then expect even more chaos ahead.