Brexit: Will Boris or Brussels Blink?

For those of you who are trying to work out what exactly this morning's lurid headlines about UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's prorogation of parliament move of yesterday means, this article from The Guardian this morning offers a useful quick summary.

Looking at this in more detail, the key points, in my view, are as follows.

  1. As Prime Minister, Mr Johnson is well within his constitutional rights to go to the Queen and ask her to bring to a close (ie 'prorogue') what has been an exceptionally long parliamentary session by any standards — and his move is not without precedent. Furthermore, had the Queen declined she would have precipitated an immediate constitutional crisis.

  2. Whatever his real motive(s) may be, he does therefore have a constitutional and legal defence of his action — not necessarily watertight (and it will be tested in the courts — see 5 below) but certainly not flimsy either.

  3. Parliament's most potent 'weapon' to try to thwart Mr Johnson would be to carry a vote of no confidence against him more or less immediately after it reconvenes on 3 September from its summer break, ie before the end of the parliamentary session which is now set to come about between 9 and 12 September (with the new session not scheduled to start until 14 October). However, despite a show of some increased unity among opposition MPs earlier this week (which may, in fact, be the proximate cause of Mr Johnson's action yesterday), it is by no means clear that sufficient Tory MPs would support a no confidence motion for it to carry (and it is not clear what 'sufficient' means in this case despite Mr Johnson's majority of just one as it is not inconceivable that some pro-Brexit Labour MPs may decide not to vote in favour of a no confidence motion).

  4. And even if the motion were to carry, Mr Johnson and his chief strategist, hardliner Dominic Cummings, have calculated that they can effectively (and constitutionally) defy a vote of no confidence by declining to ask the Queen to invite someone else to form a (majority) government and calling a general election for early November, ie, and critically, post-Brexit. Keen followers of this issue may recall that Mr Cummings reportedly told Ministers a few weeks ago that it was already too late for parliament to prevent a 31 October Brexit. Although some experts claim that this is not entirely correct, it is looking very hard for it to do so.

  5. As noted above, in addition to parliamentary action there will be legal challenges. But it is not at all clear whether Mr Johnson can be blocked by the courts, even assuming (and my personal view is that it is a safe assumption) that his intention is indeed to 'thwart' parliament. The BBC's legal correspondent Clive Coleman has noted that, if it can be argued that the intention of the suspension is "to frustrate the workings of Parliamentary democracy", then "it's all up for grabs". But that means it could go either way.

  6. This being said and irrespective of the constitutional and legal 'merits' of his action, Mr Johnson may have a point in arguing that, by silencing parliament (which, arguably, has itself partly to blame after months of failing to agree on anything other than what it is against), he is strengthening his hand in trying to get Brussels to shift on the Irish backstop issue (and there have been suggestions in the press that, in return for relatively modest movement on this, he would be prepared to try to face down the 'ultras' in his own party who actually want a no deal Brexit). But it is far from clear that Brussels will blink? So far, notwithstanding the more emollient language of both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron last week, there is, in my view, no sign of a real shift among the EU27 — unless, that is, one counts preparing for the 'blame game' which would inevitably follow a no deal Brexit. But, to be fair, we are not yet at crunch point — which, as things stand, looks like being the 17/18 October EU summit.

  7. However, even when we do get to crunch point, the leaders of the EU27 will almost certainly have it in mind (and rightly so, in my view) that, whatever he says in public and despite the recent sharp uptick in preparations in the UK for a no deal Brexit, Mr Johnson is more than smart enough to understand the doom and gloom assessments of the consequences of a no deal Brexit for the UK economy, while maybe not 100% justified, may well prove to be largely accurate at least in the short- to medium-term. Such a scenario almost certainly carries the consequence that his government — and, therefore, the premiership for which he has yearned and worked for years — may not survive for long. For a man who many (including many Brexiteers) believe has consistently put personal ambition before the national interest this, and his consequent legacy, really does matter. So, maybe it could yet be Boris who blinks first even at the risk of an even bigger crisis within his own party than exists already.

  8. Dealing with Brussels may, thus, be a major challenge in front of Mr Johnson. But, even assuming he gets through the next few days despite attempts in parliament and in the UK courts to thwart him, he will still have to deal too with the challenge behind his back, ie that he has already provoked the biggest constitutional crisis in the UK in decades (if not centuries) which looks set to come to a head in the final days of October whatever he comes back with from the EU summit.

  9. This is where, perhaps, the biggest risk of all lies, ie that neither side blinks and that what may to an extent be a game of bluff at present morphs fully into the blame game which has clearly already started around an increasingly probable no deal Brexit.

Alastair Newton

Alavan Independent