Staying close to the machinations of governments is never an easy task and recently Westminster has offered its own brand of fast-moving madness. Take solace in the fact that it is as complicated as it looks, and proximity offers no precise answers.
What is actually happening?
Ultimately, the UK is still wrestling with the all-consuming issue of Brexit. The changes have come in the form of new players (Prime Minister, Cabinet, and advisers) and new battlegrounds (The Supreme Court), but Europe remains the fatal issue that ended the premierships of the last four Tory prime ministers – Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron, and Theresa May. It looks poised to claim its fifth.
Prime minister Johnson has pinned his political career to delivering Brexit by October 31st, and it has dictated his every decision since becoming PM. Every move he has made, often on the advice of former Vote Leave strategist Dominic Cummings, has been designed to achieve it.
The problem for Johnson, and May before him, is that there is no majority in Westminster for any form of Brexit, or, indeed, for another referendum, or a general election, or for revoking Article 50. There are, however, a majority of MPs who are opposed to leaving the EU with no-deal, even if it is a majority of just 29 votes, and that is the wall Johnson has crashed into. Whether you agree with his logic or not, brinksmanship requires a credible threat and by writing into law that the UK will not leave without a deal, parliament has removed that threat.
Normal rules no longer apply.
The government’s decision to suspend or prorogue parliament ended one of the longest sessions in history and unquestionably one of the most politically turbulent of recent decades. When parliament returns for a new session, planned for Monday, October 14th, the UK will be less than three weeks away from the planned Brexit date of October 31st.
The end of a parliamentary session, like the start of one, is always an odd ceremony involving Black Rod, a mace and a line or two of Norman French, but this set of ritual is a window on the UK’s cobbled-together parliamentary system and unwritten constitution and is the current subject of Supreme Court attention. It’s theater for some, but Brexit has strained parliament, government and the courts like never before, almost normalizing political drama that, until the past year, would have led to prime ministerial resignations and general elections. Normal rules no longer apply, and a further important test of the law may come before the end of October. Government against parliament, and the courts. And parliament, as No. 10 might have it, pitched against the people.
Leaving aside parliament’s long evolved history and even the unusual (for Brits) instrument of unassuming plebiscite to decide the most consequential decision of a lifetime, the closeness of the Brexit referendum result, a deeply divided view of the country and little idea of how to implement the verdict, was always going to strain our political system. Yet, the UK’s ad-hoc unwritten constitution is based on convention and loosely held together by precedent, unwritten understandings and judicial ruling. The past three years have exposed our parliamentary system like never before and a further test of its weakened resolve is to come.
So, what next?
Despite the complexities there are really only four outcomes we are expecting. Yes, there are variations on the shape and size of these outcomes, but, broadly, they are:
- A general election – The when of this election is difficult to predict but it is likely because most parties want it. It could be triggered by the opposition parties calling a vote of no confidence and toppling the government, a vote called by the government itself, or by Johnson resigning as prime minister. Johnson is unlikely to resign and desperately wants an election before October 31st to give him a majority in Parliament to deliver Brexit. He is seeking to deploy a strategy of collaboration with the Brexit party, appeal to leave voters of all parties, take on the Remain Supporting Establishment (Parliament, the courts, the media, and the Westminster bubble), defeat Labour and deliver Brexit.
- Agree a deal – Time is not on the government’s side for a deal to be agreed but the fundamentals are already there, and parliament appears to be ready to reach a resolution on Brexit. If, and this is a big if, Johnson can negotiate an alternative to the current Irish backstop, a deal might just be possible in time.
- No-deal – Johnson is known for breaking the rules. However, unless he has discovered a work around that parliament is not aware of, to attempt no-deal now would be illegal.
- A second referendum – While Labour have now committed to a second referendum, they do not have a majority in parliament and look unlikely to win one at the next election. The Liberal Democrats have now said that they will revoke Article 50 entirely and there is a general unease about asking the British public to vote again. A different outcome, instead of solving the problem, would drive further political turmoil and likely lead to yet another public vote in the form of a general election.