What next for Boris? The options facing an under-fire UK prime minister

Britain’s leader faces uncertain future and narrowing options after a brutal court ruling

The UK's supreme court has ruled that prime minister Boris Johnson acted unlawfully when he advised Queen Elizabeth to suspend parliament just weeks before Brexit. Video: Reuters

 

British prime minister Boris Johnson faces an uncertain future after the UK supreme court ruled that he acted unlawfully by advising the Queen to suspend parliament.

What could happen next? Here are a few possibilities:

Boris resigns

This seems unlikely given that Johnson himself has said he has no intention of stepping down, despite being handed a humiliating 11-0 defeat by the court and the opposition calling for him to resign.

Resigning as UK prime minister later, after he fails to secure a better Brexit deal from the EU in the middle of next month, could be a more politically feasible option for Johnson. He could use a rejection of his proposed Brexit deal by Brussels to strengthen his election pitch to the British people that his efforts to implement the UK’s exit have been stymied, by people at home and abroad.

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Vote of no confidence

Despite how embarrassing the court’s ruling was for the prime minister, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is sticking with his plan of avoiding a vote of no confidence until a no-deal Brexit has been clearly averted. Corbyn has said that priority is to prevent a no-deal exit from the EU. Given that Johnson is intent on pushing through Brexit on October 31st and with no exit deal being reached between the EU and the UK, there is unlikely to be a vote of no confidence in Johnson until there is clarity around a deal.

Johnson has said his preferred outcome was to agree an exit deal with the 27 other EU states before October 31st. The gap between the two sides, however, remains wide, according to the EU and Irish Government.

A second attempt to suspend parliament

Johnson seemed to suggest, while speaking on the sidelines of the United Nations in New York on Tuesday, that he might attempt to send MPs home again in a second attempt to prorogue parliament. He insisted there was still a need for a new legislative programme following a Queen’s speech. The court ruling does not prevent another bid to suspend parliament but he could draw the monarch into the bitter political arena around Brexit against the backdrop of claims from MPs that he misled the Queen the first time around. Any attempt to prorogue parliament could provoke another court challenge from his opponents emboldened by their resounding legal victory this week and the judicial slapdown of a prime minister acting unlawfully.

Resurrect Theresa May’s deal

As the clock ticks down on the time to agree a deal to get the UK out of the EU by October 31st, Johnson could try to push through his predecessor’s withdrawal agreement, despite it being rejected on three occasions by MPs over the contentious “backstop” guarantee to avoid a hard Irish border. The UK government’s lack of a parliamentary majority and the reducing number of options available to Johnson – combined with Brexit fatigue among warring parliamentarians – could force MPs to realise May’s deal is the only way to Brexit, even those who have repeatedly opposed it. It might be a compromise too far for some hard Brexiteers.

Revert to the Northern Ireland-only backstop

The other potential option on the table to make Brexit happen on October 31st is to return to the proposal floated by the EU early last year that Northern Ireland would remain in the EU customs territory. There have been noises from Johnson himself that there may be “a germ of an idea” in an all-Ireland agri-food zone. The UK government has developed this idea further in discussion documents known as “non-papers” submitted to Brussels, proposing with trusted trader and technology schemes, though Irish and EU officials say this would not avoid a hard border as the backstop does. Time is running out for Johnson to come up with a workable replacement that could be approved by EU leaders at the next Brussels summit on October 17th and 18th.

Delaying Brexit

Extending the Brexit deadline would be a political reversal that might even be too much for Johnson given that he has said he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than go to Brussels and ask for a delay. However, a law passed, just before parliament was prorogued (illegally), has made it UK law that the prime minister must request another extension of the Article 50 exit deadline if a deal with the EU is not agreed and approved by parliament or the House of Commons decides on another course of action by October 19th. Johnson might be loathe to fall foul of the law for a second time in less than a month, though his administration may seek to find loopholes around exiting the EU on October 31st without a deal. This would likely be challenged in court.

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