What happened during one of Brexit’s most pivotal weeks
September 6, 2019
After seizing control of the parliamentary agenda, a cross-party alliance of British lawmakers threw a wrench into Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to leave the European Union regardless of whether a deal is in place.
On September 4th, 2019, British MPs voted 327 to 299 to pass a bill aimed at blocking a no-deal Brexit on October 31. Immediately after the final vote, Johnson tabled a motion calling for an early general election on October 15. That motion was defeated, representing the third major defeat for Johnson in just two days.
The votes came amidst a volatile return to Parliament following the summer recess. On Tuesday, Johnson lost his first vote as prime minister when MPs, including many from his own party, voted in favor of seizing control of the parliamentary agenda. That same day also saw the Conservative Party lose its working majority when Tory MP Phillip Lee defected to the Liberal Democrats.
The movement to introduce legislation to block a no-deal Brexit amplified after Johnson announced the suspension of Parliament from mid-September until October 14, which would limit the amount of time available to pass laws to stop the UK from crashing out of the EU.
“Whether people voted to leave or remain, they did not vote to shut down democracy,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said this past week.
Here are some of the key takeaways from one of the most pivotal weeks in the Brexit saga.
What’s included in the no-deal Brexit bill?
Once the anti-no-deal Brexit bill becomes law, Johnson will have until October 19 to either pass a deal in Parliament or convince MPs to agree to a no-deal Brexit. If he is unable to do either, he will have to request an extension to the UK’s withdrawal until the end of January 2020.
The bill also goes so far as to include the wording of the letter that Johnson would have to write to the president of the European Council to request an extension.
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And in a curious turn of events, Theresa May’s withdrawal deal looks to be coming back. May’s final deal, a version that was worked out during cross-party talks with Labour, is part of an amendment that passed on a technicality. No tellers were made available to count the ‘No’ votes on the amendment, meaning it passed by default. The amendment would allow MPs to vote on May’s final deal, which wasn’t voted on before the former prime minister resigned.
Johnson has stated that blocking a no-deal Brexit would limit his ability to negotiate with the EU, claiming that using the threat of a disorderly split would help get a better deal.
“[This bill] means that parliament is on the brink of wrecking any deal we might be able to strike in Brussels,” Johnson told the House of Commons on Tuesday.
Conservative Party torn apart
Johnson had threatened to expel any members of his Conservative Party who voted against the government during Parliament’s Tuesday session. And it appears he made good on that threat.
Immediately following Tuesday’s vote to seize control of the parliamentary agenda, there was an unprecedented cull of MPs from the Conservative Party, including many high-profile and senior members. In total, 21 Tory lawmakers who rebelled against the government and voted with the opposition were thrown out of the party and barred from running as a Conservative in any future election.
Among those expelled were former chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond, ‘Father of the House’ Kenneth Clarke (who has served as an MP for 49 years), and Sir Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson.
After being ejected, Clarke told the BBC that he no longer recognized his party. “It’s the Brexit Party, rebadged.”
So why would Johnson make such a drastic move of firing so many members? The presumption is that he would replace those members in a general election with others who support his position of seeing Brexit through with or without a deal.
General election not off the table
Johnson’s motion for an early election may have been defeated but that doesn’t mean one won’t happen.
In a tweet after Johnson’s motion was defeated, Corbyn said he would support an early election once a no-deal Brexit is “off the table, once and for all.”
Given that Corbyn has spent several months advocating for a general election, it might seem odd that he wouldn’t automatically jump at the opportunity to have one.
However, approving Johnson’s motion for an election would have jeopardized the chances of the bill preventing a no-deal Brexit from becoming law.
The opposition parties also criticized the motion as a way to ensure the UK left the EU without a deal.
Though Johnson said he would honor the proposed polling date of October 15, it’s within his capacity as prime minister to change the election date at the last minute. That means he could change the election date to be after the October 31 Brexit deadline, which would leave Parliament with no way to stop the UK from crashing out of the bloc without a deal.
But evidently the defeat hasn’t deterred Johnson’s motivation to seek a general election. On September 9, Parliament will once again debate and vote on an early election.
Under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which governs the timing of general elections in the UK, Johnson needs support from two-thirds of the House of Commons to pass a motion for an early election.
No matter when – and it does look like it’s a matter of when, not if – an election takes place, many believe it will be a significant gamble for Johnson, who will be looking to secure a majority government that supports his position on Brexit.
But there’s a lesson to be learned from Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, who called an early election in 2017 in an attempt to garner a larger majority going into withdrawal negotiations with the EU. That gamble backfired, and May lost her overall majority in Parliament.
Status of negotiations
So, amidst the chaos, where do negotiations between the EU and UK stand?
“This week we are intensifying the pace of meetings in Brussels,” Johnson told MPs on Tuesday. “Our European friends can see that we want an agreement and they’re beginning to reflect that reality in their response.”
But not everyone shares Johnson’s optimism. Several representatives from the UK and EU have voiced concern regarding the lack of new proposals with less than two months left on the clock before the Brexit deadline.
“The Prime Minister may claim progress is being made, but EU leaders report that the Government has so far failed to present any new proposals,” stated Corbyn.
According to The Guardian, EU officials said Brexit discussions “are going nowhere.”
“We are not optimistic at all that this is going to end well, and not sure the UK government has a plan,” one EU diplomat told CNN of the consensus in Brussels. “We see nothing changing, the deadline is fast approaching, and if he wanted to move the dial on the deadline, we would have seen a proposal already.”
Despite initial filibuster attempts from Conservative members, known as Peers, in the House of Lords, the upper chamber has agreed to progress the bill.
The legislation will complete passage through the House of Lords by the end of this week. It will then return to the House of Commons on Monday, September 9, and is expected to receive royal assent the same day, making it a law.
And once the no-deal bill is enshrined in law, Johnson could get very well get his wish of an early election.
While a Brexit extension solves the immediate concerns of disorderly withdrawal, it doesn’t remedy the deadlock in Parliament. Until there is a consensus among British lawmakers, it could be déjà vu all over again in a few months’ time.