The United Kingdom is 64 days from crashing out of the European Union without a divorce agreement, a scenario likely to bring food and drug shortages to the British isles, legal chaos to the Irish border, and turbulence to the global economy. To avoid this fate, the British government will need to develop a Brexit agreement that a majority in parliament can rally behind — something that it has tried and failed to do for years now — by October 31.
But Boris Johnson has a plan for making the best possible use of his government’s limited time: Give parliament an unrequested, five-week vacation starting the second week of September.
The new, Conservative prime minister announced Wednesday that he had asked the Queen to keep parliament suspended between September 12 and October 14. When parliament reconvenes, its first sessions back will be largely consumed by the ceremony of the “Queen’s speech,” an event at which the queen will relay the Conservative government’s legislative agenda with all due pomp and circumstance. This will leave lawmakers with scarcely any time to tackle the Brexit issue before Johnson leaves to present his final offer to European officials at the E.U. Council on October 17.
This has not gone over well with said lawmakers. Although Johnson does have his loyalists in the Conservative camp, a contingent of Boris-skeptical Tories joined with every opposition party in decrying the prime minister’s “constitutionally wrong and frankly outrageous” manuever, as Conservative MP Dominic Grieve described it. Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has requested a meeting with the Queen, in hopes of dissuading her from approving the prime minister’s request. In normal circumstances, such approval would be a mere formality. Other lawmakers have asked a Scottish court to block Johnson’s proposed suspension.
All of which invites the question: With scarce time to unify parliament behind a Brexit deal, why would Boris Johnson take an action that reduces the available time further still, while uniting parliament in opposition to him?
One answer is that Johnson believes the suspension will leave parliament with insufficient time to pass legislation forbidding a “no deal” Brexit. Johnson’s official position is that the U.K. must leave the E.U. on October 31, with a deal or without one. Theoretically, tying parliament’s hands strengthens the credibility of Johnson’s hardline position, both in the eyes of his supporters, and in those of E.U. negotiators: If the Europeans decide Johnson isn’t bluffing, perhaps fear of a hard Brexit’s collateral damage will lead E.U. officials to soften their opposition to various British demands, including the removal of the “Irish backstop” provision from a final agreement.
But economists at Berenberg Bank note that there are at least three flaws in this logic:
1. The E.U. is already taking the hard-Brexit risk seriously.
2. Even if Johnson tries to ramp up the pressure, the much bigger E.U. would still believe that the U.K. has much more to lose from a hard Brexit than the E.U.
3. The move strengthens the E.U.’s suspicion that Johnson’s prime motive is to win a snap election shortly after Brexit rather than to conclude a deal with the E.U.
That third point gestures towards an alternative explanation for Johnson’s action: It is intended to spark a parliamentary revolt — so as to trigger a new general election. In this view, the suspension of parliament will force lawmakers to accelerate their plans for legislatively preempting a “no deal” Brexit, and/or organizing a vote of no confidence in the government, which would clear the way for Johnson to run a populist campaign against the parliamentary Establishment this fall. As the Guardian’s Tom Kibasi explains:
The last time parliament stepped in to block no deal earlier in the year, the necessary legislation was passed in just three days. Johnson has deliberately left enough time for parliament to seize control again. That’s because Johnson’s real objective is to use Brexit to win a general election, rather than use a general election to secure Brexit. By forcing the hands of his opponents, he has defined the terrain for a “people versus parliament” election. Expect him to run on “Back Boris, Take Back Britain”. He will say that the only way to definitely leave on 31 October is to give him a parliamentary majority to do so. The man of Eton, Oxford and the Telegraph will position himself as the leader of the people against the hated establishment and “remainer elite”.
Of course, calling a general election to consolidate a pro-Brexit parliamentary majority did not work out so well for Johnson’s predecessor. But as Kibasi notes, Johnson is taking pains not to repeat Theresa May’s 2017 mistakes. In the last election, Corbyn’s Labor party leveraged popular discontent over fiscal austerity into major gains. When the Queen outlines Johnson’s legislative agenda in October, it will call for increasing spending on health, education, and police officers. Johnson may be betting that this triangulation on pocketbook issues will enable him to unite pro-Brexit voters under the Tory banner, while the Remain vote splinters between Labor, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens.
This seems like a reasonably well-thought-out plan for increasing Boris Johnson’s personal power. But how any of this is supposed to produce a workable Brexit agreement remains unclear.
The fundamental obstacle to a Brexit deal has been the incoherence of Britain’s desires. Most critically, the United Kingdom wants to simultaneously preserve a soft border between Ireland (an E.U. member state) and Northern Ireland (a member of the U.K.), and set its own trade and regulatory policies. It’s not hard to see why Britain is concerned about that first point: Free movement and trade between the U.K. and Ireland was a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement, and thus, a pillar of peace in the region ever since. Thousands of people cross the border daily for work, and many companies have built business models and supply chains that depend on the maintenance of seamless commerce between Ireland and Northern Ireland. But Ireland is not leaving the E.U., and the E.U. is, among other things, a customs union — a bloc of countries with synchronized trade rules, which applies uniform tariffs on goods produced outside the union. If Britain exits that customs union, then Ireland would be forced to impose tariffs and customs checks on products produced in Northern Ireland, and the border between the two would harden.
The U.K. could leave the E.U. while remaining in the customs union — currently, Turkey isn’t a part of the former, but still claims membership in the latter. But staying in the customs union would bar the U.K. from brokering its own bilateral trade agreements, while also compelling it to respect the European Court of Justice as the final authority in its trade disputes. Boris Johnson’s band of hardline Brexiters find this an intolerable encroachment on British sovereignty. Past draft agreements have postponed the final resolution of this issue to post-Brexist trade negotiations between London and Brussels. But, in the event that those negotiations fail, the previous deals have included a “backstop” provision that would keep Northern Ireland beholden to E.U. rules. Johnson is dead set against such a backstop. But it’s far from clear that there is any viable way for the U.K. to have its bilateral trade agreements and a soft border in Ireland, too.
Recent economic data suggests that the Brexit drama has already taken a toll on the material well-being of ordinary Britons. But then, it has also done wonders for both Boris Johnson’s political career, and the ability of the American people to look at our politics and think, Hey, things could be worse. And when push comes to shove (and/or, food shortages come to the cradle of industrial capitalism), isn’t that what really matters?