Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a man elected with the support of just 0.13 percent of the British population, has suspended Parliament for almost a month ahead of the October 31st Brexit deadline, sharply reducing the amount of time available to members (MPs) hoping to block a no-deal scenario.
In a letter to Conservative MPs on Wednesday, Johnson said he has asked Queen Elizabeth II to end the current session of Parliament during the second week of September and to have it resume five weeks later, on October 14th. On that date, the Queen will deliver a speech laying out what Johnson has called a “bold and ambitious domestic legislative agenda for the renewal of our country after Brexit.”
The Queen approved the suspension Wednesday afternoon British time. “There will be a significant Brexit legislative programme to get through,” Johnson wrote in his letter. “But that should be no excuse for a lack of ambition!”
Parliament usually holds a three-week break in September, allowing time for political parties to hold their annual conferences, but there was widespread expectation that the break would be scrapped this year to allow more time to debate Brexit. The Queen’s suspension of Parliament has been little more than a formality for decades, and Johnson has now created a situation in which her position is inherently politicized.
Johnson appears to have learned a lesson from the tenure of his predecessor, Theresa May, who was also elected by the Conservative Party and not the British public, and who at various times was torpedoed by Parliament in her efforts to deliver Brexit. He has maneuvered to avoid that fate by limiting the amount of debate and political machinations that MPs can undertake — hampering their ability to scuttle a no-deal Brexit.
Johnson recently has backtracked on his comments that the chances of a no-deal Brexit were “a million to one” and now says the odds of such an outcome are “touch and go.” He has vowed to deliver Brexit one way or another by October 31st.
The prime minister was a key player during the Leave campaign in 2016 that preceded the popular vote to quit the European Union. His de facto limiting of the Brexit debate is likely to please his hardline, anti-EU supporters who think that it could force the EU to make concessions to prevent the damage of a no-deal Brexit.
There is absolutely no guarantee, however, that the EU would offer those concessions. The two sides remain at loggerheads, especially over the question of the border separating the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland. The EU repeatedly has told the British government, under both May and Johnson, that there will be no renegotiation of a deal the two parties agreed on back in November 2018.
From an economic perspective, a no-deal Brexit would be much worse for the UK than it would be for the EU. Continued signs of the massive damage that a no-deal Brexit could cause are hovering around the edge of the debate. As Johnson announced his suspension of Parliament, the pound started crashing against the dollar. And earlier this month, a bomb targeting police officers was discovered near Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland, a sign that militant violence could resurge in the region if a “hard border” returns.
Opposition MPs and former cabinet officials were outraged by Johnson’s move to suspend Parliament. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn described the maneuver as a “smash and grab on our democracy to force through a no-deal.” Former Chancellor Philip Hammond called Johnson’s decision was a “constitutional outrage” and “profoundly undemocratic,” a statement echoed by House of Commons Speaker John Bercow.
“However it is dressed up, it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop Parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty in shaping a course for the country,” Bercow said. “At this time, one of the most challenging periods in our nation’s history, it is vital that our elected Parliament has its say.”
There might be an even more nefarious aim to Johnson’s cancellation, however: forcing a general election.
If MPs are outraged enough by Johnson’s move, they might call a vote of no confidence, setting the stage for a general election right before the Brexit vote. Then, Johnson can essentially re-litigate the Brexit referendum and paint himself as the only leader who can deliver Brexit on the final day of October. This, in turn, would allow Johnson another four years before he’d need to call a general election again and potentially, make for 13 years of uninterrupted Conservative rule.
Of course, with Brexit, no one ever really knows what’s going to happen next. Johnson could call a general election tomorrow. Or he could be ousted by his cabinet and party in a vote of no-confidence. Or he could lose his nerve at the last minute in October, and return to the earlier deal.
The only certainty at this point is some form of chaos.