The Irish Times view on Brexit: British MPs can take back control
The UK is led by a prime minister with no popular mandate who appears intent on driving the country off the ledge
Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson. Photograph: Toby Melville
It’s no exaggeration to say that the future of the United Kingdom, Anglo-Irish relations and the economies of these islands will be shaped by the events of the next 10 weeks. A no-deal withdrawal of the UK from the European Union, which not long ago seemed a receding prospect, now appears the likeliest scenario. That’s largely because the strategy of prime minister Boris Johnson has been to make a no-deal seem inevitable in the apparent hope that this will cause the EU to blink and offer a deal more palatable to the ultras who keep him in office.
It’s not much of a strategy. Johnson must know that the EU will not remove the backstop. Even if it was inclined to do so, the declarations by hardline Brexiteers that this in itself would be insufficient to persuade them to sign up to the Withdrawal Agreement appears to render any further EU-UK talks pointless. A prime minister who wanted to avoid a no-deal, as Johnson claims he does, would scope out the potential for new reassurances from the EU that he might then dress up as a victory and recommend to the House of Commons in order to secure an orderly exit. That Johnson shows no sign of doing so suggests three possibilities: he does not understand the situation; he is resigned to a no-deal; or he believes an early election will unlock the current stalemate.
To abet or to block. For any serious-minded MP, the choice should be clear
The upshot is the same: as things stand, a no-deal is going to happen. That would be a disaster. It would severely damage the British and Irish economies. It would set in train a process that could unravel the Belfast Agreement and jeopardise Ireland’s fragile peace. It would deal a blow to the UK’s reputation, imperil the union and rob London of any leverage as it enters negotiations with the EU on the future trading relationship.
It’s tempting to be fatalistic, but that would be the wrong response. Because there is still time for British MPs to stand up and, to borrow a phrase, take back control. It’s wishful thinking for remainers to put their faith in their courts or their queen to step in and save the day. This is their responsibility, in alliance with Brexiteers who recognise the danger that a no-deal exit represents. A government that has proclaimed itself willing to subvert the sovereign parliament by breaking with constitutional convention will struggle for legitimacy if faced with a genuine cross-party move to thwart it. That could involve a vote of no-confidence or an attempt to force the extension of the Brexit deadline, at least until after a general election. At the same time, Johnson’s opponents must avoid falling into the trap of turning this into a debate about arcane parliamentary procedure.
The UK is on the precipice, railing against imaginary enemies and facing an outcome it never voted for, led by a prime minister with no popular mandate who appears intent on driving the country off the ledge. To abet or to block. For any serious-minded MP, the choice should be clear.