The UK parliament has been officially suspended for five weeks, with the countdown to the 31st October Brexit deadline ticking down. Parliament was suspended – or prorogued – at around 2am on Tuesday, sparking angry scenes in the House of Commons from opposition MPs that believe the government’s prorogation to be anti-democratic. Many MPs voiced their disdain for the prorogation, holding up signs saying “silenced”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson insists that parliament needed proroguing in order for his government to prepare for and deliver a new Queen’s Speech in October in readiness for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU). Meanwhile the Prime Minister’s detractors believe that the prorogation was designed to limit the amount of parliamentary scrutiny afforded to the government’s Brexit negotiation strategy.
It’s fair to say that parliament’s insistence on passing new legislation preventing a no-deal Brexit has hamstrung the government’s ability to negotiate a new Brexit deal with the EU. The Prime Minister and his cabinet have been steadfastly committed to leaving no-deal as an option on the table, incentivising the EU’s negotiators to come back to the table and discuss potential alternative arrangements regarding the Irish backstop.
The passing of the anti no-deal Brexit legislation in the House of Commons and House of Lords led to the Prime Minister’s bid to call a snap general election in October, allowing the public to decide which course of action to take on the 31st October Brexit deadline. Nevertheless, opposition MPs have twice voted against a snap election, insisting upon the implementation of the no-deal Brexit legislation prior to any polling. All of which leaves the Prime Minister and his cabinet in a sticky situation, with the European Council meeting looming large just hours after parliament returns on 14th October.
Could the PM ignore the no-deal Brexit legislation?
During the next five weeks, the government may be considering ways in which the PM could overlook the rebel-led no-deal Brexit bill and continue with plans for a no-deal Brexit on Halloween. Conservative MP and staunch Brexiteer Nigel Evans confirmed just hours before parliament’s prorogation that he and fellow Tory colleagues had devised “about 20” ways Boris Johnson could evade the no-deal Brexit legislation.
One possible option that has been mooted in the press is for Johnson to consider attaching an additional letter to the formal request that he will be legally obliged to send to the EU, seeking a Brexit extension. This additional letter could request the EU to ignore the formal request, but is a route that would most certainly be frowned upon by EU leaders. Nor would the move be looked upon favourably by the courts.
There is also a provision within the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) that states the government itself can call a no-confidence vote in their own government. Meanwhile the Prime Minister could also pave the way for a general election by resigning from his role. However, there are clear downsides to this for Boris Johnson, who could potentially lose power to Jeremy Corbyn and a Labour government rather than asking the EU for a Brexit extension.
Alternatively, the PM could look to convince one of the leaders of the EU27 to veto any future Brexit extension, inadvertently forcing a no-deal Brexit on 31st October. However, this would appear to be a bold move for any EU state to consider, risking souring its relations with all other 26 EU members – especially Ireland.
How is the Brexit situation being viewed overseas?
‘Across the pond’ in the U.S., President Trump insists that Boris Johnson is “the right man for the job” when it comes to sealing Brexit. He has talked up the prospects for a “very big trade deal” between the U.S. and the UK once the UK lost the “anchor” of the EU from its “ankle”.
Johnson certainly appears to have a close ally in President Trump who believes a wide-ranging free trade deal could be achieved within 12 months of a clean Brexit. Nevertheless, Trump is likely to be tied up in securing a second term in office at the 2020 Presidential Election, which could slow down negotiations in the months ahead.
The Prime Minister and his cabinet may be encouraged to hear reports that the French foreign minister is considering a veto of a further Brexit extension because of a “worrying” lack of progress in recent negotiations. Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian cited that the lack of realistic proposals to replace the Irish backstop was frustrating EU diplomats. Le Drian said that the EU would not be extending the deadline “every three months”.
Officials from within Downing Street have intimated that in the event the Prime Minister had to extend the UK’s membership of the EU, he would not appoint a European commissioner. The belief within Downing Street is that the EU bloc would then be in a state of paralysis, unable to make decisions. However, this too has been blown out of the water by a former director general of the EU council’s legal services, Jean-Claude Piris. Mr Piris insists that the EU “will be legally able to function” with one less member. Piris added that if the UK remained an EU member it would “violate the treaty” and could therefore “be brought to the EU court of justice”.
Despite this legal conjecture, Boris Johnson and other members of his cabinet have reiterated that the government will adhere to the law. That’s not to say that the government will push to the limit what exactly is lawfully required of them. Were a general election to return a majority in the House of Commons for Boris Johnson, he could then seek to approve new legislation that did not require him to seek an extension to Article 50.
This political game of cat and mouse seems certain to rumble on throughout the next five weeks, while the rest of the nation waits with bated breath to see which way the Brexit pendulum will swing next. One thing is for sure: there are likely to be more unprecedented scenes in parliament in the build up to Halloween.