By Cornelia Meyer
You could be forgiven for thinking that you are witnessing a Shakespearian plot when observing British politics today.
Brexit was never going to be easy, but nobody expected that it would prove to be this divisive and throw up this many questions about the (unwritten) constitution of the land. Two prime ministers have already had to go. In has come Boris Johnson with energy, verve and a penchant for ruthlessness when it comes to achieving his goals. Johnson was elected by the narrow base of the Conservative Party membership and he rules with an official parliamentary majority of one thanks to a confidence and supply agreement with the right-wing, pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party.
Brexit did not just split the country down the middle, it did the same to the Conservative and Labour parties. This and the tenuous government majority are why Parliament has so far only agreed on one thing: That it is against a no-deal Brexit. It has however, been unable to find a majority for any other Brexit plan.
Three years of parliamentary back-and-forth was the backdrop against which Johnson declared he would leave the EU on Oct. 31 with or without a deal — “do or die.” The prime minister has deliberately left a no-deal Brexit on the table to unite ardent Brexiteers behind him and as a negotiating ploy with the EU.
Earlier this week, Johnson’s adversaries — pro-Remain parliamentarians of all parties and persuasions — met to conjure a plan on how to introduce legislation to make it impossible for Johnson to take the UK out of the EU without a deal. An extension of the Oct. 31 deadline, a second referendum and other scenarios were also on the table.
However, on Wednesday morning Johnson announced that he would prorogue (suspend) Parliament. He dispatched Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg to Balmoral to obtain the monarch’s approval, which put Queen Elizabeth II right in the eye of the storm. Consent was forthcoming and Parliament will be prorogued between Sept. 7 and the date of a “Queen’s Speech” on Oct. 14, where she will read out the government’s agenda.
Outrage ensued from all corners. Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow called prorogation a “constitutional outrage,” while Anna Soubry, a former Conservative MP and co-founder of the Change UK party, ex-Attorney General Dominic Grieve and former Chancellor Philip Hammond were also fuming. An editorial in the Financial Times deplored the fact that “the seat of British democracy is being denied a say on the most consequential decision facing the country in more than four decades.” This is a fair point, as one of the main aims of Brexit was to take back legislative control from Brussels and give the UK’s Parliament sole power over all legislation. Most importantly, within less than 24 hours, more than 1 million citizens signed a petition to stop the prorogation of Parliament.
It did not help that the PM said he had to suspend Parliament as a matter of process in order to allow the Queen’s Speech to lay out his non-Brexit agenda for the country: More money for the police, infrastructure and the National Health Service. That is, of course, all smoke and mirrors and the prorogation is all about giving Johnson the space to pursue a no-deal Brexit, if necessary.
Johnson’s advisers have reportedly played out many scenarios to ensure he gets his way, including filibusters in the House of Lords to frustrate the opponents of a no-deal Brexit. The probability of a vote of no-confidence in the prime minister has increased, if Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn can muster a majority in the gridlocked Parliament. In that case, Johnson is said to consider refusing to step down and only announcing a general election after Oct. 31.
What to make of this most recent twist in the Brexit drama? The prime minister has the right to ask the monarch to prorogue Parliament. He also has the right to set out his government’s agenda, which is traditionally done in a speech by the Queen. There has not been such an address since 2017, which is an unusually long period and a sign of just how much Brexit has derailed the usual processes of British politics. Five weeks seems a long time, but Johnson is de facto only shortening the time Parliament sits by four to six days, because MPs always have time off to attend their various party conferences.
Constitutionally, Johnson may well be within his rights, but the smoke and mirrors game leaves the question wide open as to whether he acted in good faith, which is an important qualifier. Johnson picked a very difficult time to take this action. The nerves of politicians and large swaths of the country are frayed because of the constant bickering about Brexit and the failure to find a harmonious resolution to the issue.
The PM may well put the union itself in jeopardy. The Scottish overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU during the 2016 referendum. Two years earlier, they had consented to staying in the UK in a referendum of their own. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon now feels emboldened to prepare for another referendum on Scottish independence. This time around, the result may well be different. Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland — an ardent Remainer and a rare success story for the Conservatives in the 2017 election — resigned on Thursday. This cannot be a good sign.
What the country needs now are acts of courage allowing for the Brexit wounds to heal, not more incendiary rhetoric. To that effect, it would be helpful if both sides managed to cool their language so as not to divide the country even further. Easy does it.
As for how this latest twist will go down in Brussels, Guy Verhofstadt said it all when he called Johnson’s plan “sinister.” The prime minister may have made some inroads with EU leaders when he visited Berlin and Paris, as well as during last weekend’s G7 summit. But whatever goodwill he managed to gain may well evaporate when EU leaders have to deal with yet another curveball from the direction of the UK. London would do well to accept that Germany, France, the Netherlands and others may need the UK, but its economy needs the EU more.