On Wednesday, Boris Johnson faced the House of Commons for his first Question Time appearance as British prime minister. It could also prove his last.
As predicted last week, the past several days have seen major developments in British politics: Resignations, both forced and unforced, the potential postponement of Brexit (again), an election looming ever closer on the horizon, and memes related to slouching and the phrase “great big girl’s blouse.” (Seriously.) For those trying to make sense of it all (a tough task indeed), here’s a Brexit version of “That Was the Week That Was.”
Brexit Could Get Delayed—Again
On Tuesday, the House of Commons voted to take control of the parliamentary timetable, in an unorthodox, if not unprecedented, move to stop a “no deal” Brexit. With MPs considering the legislation at breakneck speed, the Brexit extension bill passed the Commons Wednesday.
The bill technically doesn’t mandate a Brexit extension, but it comes close. It gives Johnson until October 19 (the end of the next summit of European leaders) to have MPs approve a deal, or accept “no deal.” In the absence of either action, it requires the prime minister to request a Brexit extension from the European Union to January 31.
If the EU offers a different extension date, MPs can reject it, but if they do not, the prime minister must accept it. Conservatives in particular have called the restrictions on the executive in the bill constitutionally irregular, although the government accepted that it would obey the law.
Johnson’s Conservative government initially tried to filibuster the Brexit extension bill in the House of Lords. If the Lords kept debating amendments through Monday, the prorogation (i.e., suspension) of Parliament would kick in, and the bill would remain off the statute books.
But late Wednesday night, Conservatives agreed to limit the time for debate, likely for two reasons. First, a round-the-clock debate lasting several days would exhaust many of the (comparatively geriatric) members of the Lords.
Just as important, Conservatives insisting on completing Brexit by October 31 claim they want to implement the will of the British public, as expressed in the referendum three years ago. Relying on an entirely unelected House of Lords to accomplish their objective might complicate that message slightly.
Bloodletting in the Conservative Family
On Thursday, the prime minister’s brother, Jo Johnson, unexpectedly resigned his position as a minister in his brother’s government, and announced his intention to stand down at the next general election (about which more soon).
Unlike his brother Boris, Jo Johnson voted to remain in the European Union in the 2016 referendum. He had resigned from Theresa May’s government last fall, signaling his desire to campaign for a second referendum on EU membership. But he rejoined the government upon his brother’s succession to the premiership just six weeks ago, making his abrupt departure all the more remarkable.
In both the timing and substance of his resignation, Jo Johnson did Boris no favors. By calling himself “torn between family loyalty and the national interest,” he not-so-implicitly threw his brother’s judgement into question:
It’s been an honour to represent Orpington for 9 years & to serve as a minister under three PMs. In recent weeks I’ve been torn between family loyalty and the national interest – it’s an unresolvable tension & time for others to take on my roles as MP & Minister. #overandout
— Jo Johnson (@JoJohnsonUK) September 5, 2019
The BBC reported that Jo Johnson took offense at “the purge of colleagues,” whereby the 21 Conservative MPs who voted against the government on Tuesday had the whip withdrawn. The move meant the 21 were effectively thrown out of the parliamentary party, and cannot stand as Conservative candidates at the (likely imminent) general election.
Among those who had the Conservative whip withdrawn: Winston Churchill’s grandson, the longest-serving MP in the House of Commons (and a former member of Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet), and an MP who served as chancellor of the exchequer in May’s Cabinet only six weeks ago. Both in stature and in number—a Conservative Party that started out with 317 MPs after the 2017 general election now has but 289—the departures show how sharply Brexit has changed British politics.
An Election—Sooner or Later
The defections meant Johnson’s government officially lost its majority on Tuesday. Indeed, Johnson lost not just his first vote as prime minister, but several in succession—a first in British politics. The defeats, Johnson’s lack of a governing majority, and Parliament’s continued indecision on what to do about Brexit all suggest the need for a quick election. That of course meant legislation to bring about an election went down to defeat Wednesday.
The timing of an election presents no small amount of gamesmanship. On Wednesday evening, opposition MPs from the Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Scottish National parties abstained on the early election vote, because they feared Johnson would use the Lords filibuster and other procedural chicanery to kill the Brexit delay bill. (Calling an election requires two-thirds of all MPs to agree, so in this case, the abstentions effectively amounted to “no” votes.)
But late Wednesday night, both sides agreed to enact the legislation by this coming Monday. The government said on Thursday that it would bring the motion for an early election back to the House of Commons once the Brexit bill goes on the statute books. Yet opposition parties may once again oppose an early election.
Many opposition MPs now claim they want to see the Brexit delay not just enacted, but implemented, before they will agree to a general election. To put it in crass political terms, they want to force Johnson to break his promise—that Britain will leave the EU on October 31 “do or die”—before they have an election, hoping that Johnson’s broken promise will depress turnout amongst Conservative Brexit supporters. (On Thursday, Johnson said he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than break his promise.)
But delaying an election into November also represents more than just an attempt by opposition parties to embarrass Johnson. If Johnson wins a parliamentary majority in a mid-October election, he would have a mandate to implement a “no deal” Brexit, whether other parties like it or not. Johnson has made crystal clear that he wants to take Britain out of the European Union on October 31—with a deal if possible, but without one if necessary. If he wins a mandate from the electorate, he should have the right to implement that agenda.
Trying to preclude an election before October 31 looks dangerously like the opposition attempting to prevent the British public from having their say on Brexit. Their strategy has also explained Johnson’s willingness to call Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn a “big girl’s blouse,” a “chlorinated chicken,” and any other manner of synonyms for “scared.”
Brenda from Bristol may not like the thought of another general election, but the country (to say nothing of Europe and Britain’s allies) deserves clarity about its future direction. With the past three years having seen the direct will of the people (in the form of the 2016 referendum) come into conflict with the people’s elected representatives (in the form of the Parliament elected in 2017), the people of Britain need to try once again to sort the situation out—and the sooner, the better.