Q&A: What’s Boris Johnson doing and where will it end?

Constitutional chaos could reign in UK as Brexit saga builds to crescendo in October

Anti-Brexit demonstrators  march from Britain’s Houses of Parliament to Downing Street in London on Wednesday. Photograph: Daniel Sorabji/AFP/Getty Images

Anti-Brexit demonstrators march from Britain’s Houses of Parliament to Downing Street in London on Wednesday. Photograph: Daniel Sorabji/AFP/Getty Images

 

Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings is a keen student of Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist, who wrote in The Art of War that “supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting”.

The prime minister’s shock decision to ask Queen Elizabeth to suspend parliament from the second week of September until October 14th fits with Cummings’s belief that one should confuse and demoralise the enemy through “disorientating moves, feints, bluffs”.

Johnson’s move is squarely aimed at preventing MPs from stopping a no-deal Brexit on October 31st, given the prime minister insists the UK must leave the EU on that date, with or without an agreement.

What is Johnson doing?

The queen has approved the prime minister’s request to suspend – or prorogue – parliament for more than a month before she unveils the government’s new legislative programme in a Queen’s Speech on October 14th.

MPs will return to Westminster after their summer break on Tuesday next week as planned, but parliament will then rise sometime between September 9th and 12th and not return until mid-October – little more than two weeks before the scheduled Brexit day of October 31st.

Why is the prime minister making this move?

The official reason is that Johnson, as head of a new government, wants to set out a “bold and ambitious” package of legislation in a Queen’s Speech. He cannot do this unless the current parliamentary session is ended through prorogation, and a new one started.

Johnson argues that a Queen’s Speech – a speech written by the government that sets out its priorities for the incoming parliamentary session – is well overdue, and there is some truth in this. The last one was in 2017 after Theresa May’s bungled general election, making the current parliamentary session – at 340 days – the longest in almost 400 years.

See Statista.com
See Statista.com

The obvious underlying reason for Johnson’s move is that he is using the device of a Queen’s Speech to close down parliament for a longer than usual period between two sessions so as to thwart MPs’ efforts to halt a no-deal Brexit on October 31st.

Is Johnson’s move a constitutional outrage?

John Bercow, the House of Commons speaker, called Johnson’s move a “constitutional outrage” on Wednesday, saying “the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty in shaping a course for the country”.

But some constitutional experts said that, while Johnson’s action might be politically outrageous, it does not represent a breach of precedent.

Parliament was expected to be in recess from the second week of September until October 7th in any event – the traditional break for the party conference season – and Johnson would therefore argue he is hardly ripping up the rule book.

However the prorogation of parliament means that MPs cannot vote to sit through the conference season.

Maddy Thimont Jack of the Institute for Government, a think-tank, said if parliament did not want Westminster to be shut for a month it could still hold a vote of no confidence in Johnson’s government next week and seek to bring him down.

Can the queen or anyone else stop the suspension of parliament?

Thimont Jack said as long as Johnson has the confidence of the Commons, the queen will take his advice on prorogation.

“If the prime minister advises her and he still has the confidence of the House, what would she do differently?” she asked.

Johnson, advised by his legal affairs chief Nikki da Costa, has decided to close down Westminster using the prorogation route because MPs cannot vote to stop it.

What are the implications for MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit?

By reducing the amount of parliamentary time between September 3rd and October 31st, Johnson and Cummings are forcing their opponents to make some difficult choices very quickly – daring them to try to bring down the government next week.

On Tuesday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and other opposition MPs agreed to try to pass legislation when the Commons returns that would force Johnson to ask the EU to delay Brexit beyond October 31st.

Now there is precious little time to pass that bill and – crucially – even less to take corrective action if Johnson finds a way of sidestepping such a law.

Dominic Grieve, former Tory attorney general and one of the MPs against a no-deal Brexit, said Johnson’s opponents may now decide to press the nuclear button and try to bring down the prime minister in a no-confidence vote next week.

Johnson’s team are ready for such a showdown and believe the prime minister could win such a vote, given the reluctance of most Tory MPs to open the door to Number 10 to Corbyn, even as head of a caretaker government that would seek to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

If Johnson lost such a vote, Downing Street is planning a general election in early November in which the prime minister would seek a new mandate for Brexit.

What does the end game look like?

The Brexit saga is building to a crescendo in the second half of October, notably via a summit of EU leaders on October 17th-18th.

The prime minister is determined that he should arrive in Brussels for that meeting – where he will seek a revised version of May’s Brexit deal – without having his hands tied in advance by parliament.

If Johnson secures a deal, MPs would then have less than two weeks to pass an EU withdrawal bill at breakneck speed.

Should he fail, and proceeds instead with a plan for a no-deal Brexit, MPs could have one final chance to stop Johnson in a no-confidence vote.

But that would require MPs from a range of parties to unite around an alternative prime minister, and Johnson might refuse to resign or to recommend to the queen that she should call an alternative leader to form a new government.

Constitutional chaos could reign and the queen might be dragged into the Brexit morass.

Parliamentary countdown

September 3rd – MPs return to the House of Commons after their summer break. Johnson’s opponents could legislate to stop a no-deal Brexit on October 31st or move a vote of no confidence to try to topple his government.

September 9th-12th – Parliament will be suspended – or prorogued – ahead of the Queen’s Speech on October 14th.

September 21st-25th – Labour Party annual conference in Brighton.

September 27th-October 2nd – Conservative party annual conference in Manchester.

October 14th – MPs return to Westminster for Queen’s Speech.

October 17th-18th – EU leaders’ summit in Brussels. The moment when it becomes clear if Johnson intends to take Britain out of the EU with a deal or no deal

October 21st-22nd – Johnson promises MPs votes on Brexit strategy. Time is running out for MPs to vote down the government if a no-deal Brexit is imminent

October 26th-27th – MPs could work through the weekend to enact a revamped version of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement – if Johnson has negotiated a deal in Brussels

October 31st – Johnson’s “do or die” Brexit day.

November 7th – Downing Street is eyeing this date for a possible “people versus parliament” general election, if MPs succeed in stopping Brexit. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019

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