United Kingdom

U.K.: Brexit tensions

Print edition : October 25, 2019

Prime Minister Boris Johnson answering questions on the proroguing of Parliament, in the House of Commons on September 25, the day Parliament resumed after the Supreme Court judgment. Photo: JESSICA TAYLOR/U.K. PARLIAMENT/AFP

Outside the Supreme Court in central London on September 24 before the judgment, protesters calling for Parliament to be recalled. Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP

Brenda Hale, President of the Supreme Court, reading the court’s judgment on September 24 on the legality of Johnson’s advice to the Queen to prorogue, or suspend, Parliament for more than a month. Photo: U.K. Supreme Court/AFP

The Supreme Court ruling that the Prime Minister acted illegally in the proroguing of Parliament adds to the Brexit turmoil even as the October 31 deadline looms large.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “do or die” plan to crash out of the European Union (E.U.) before the October 31 deadline seems to have suffered a blow after the United Kingdom Supreme Court judgment on September 24 on the prorogation of Parliament. Eleven judges unanimously ruled that the Prime Minister acted illegally when he got Parliament prorogued in September for a period of five weeks even as the debate on Brexit was raging. The opposition and even some within the ruling Conservative Party had said that it was a barely disguised move to prevent Parliament from having a say in the government’s final decision on Brexit. It was the first time that the country’s highest court sat in judgment over a political and constitutional dispute.

With its ruling, the court effectively sided with the lawmakers against the government of the day. The judges cast aside the tradition of restraint while delivering their judgment critical of the government. Britain’s Constitution is largely unwritten and until now was mainly run on the basis of established practices and conventions.

A High Court in England had earlier backed the government’s position on the prorogation. But the High Court in Scotland had ruled differently, stating that suspension of Parliament was an unlawful act aimed at curtailing discussions on Brexit just as the deadline for the signing of the deal was approaching. Johnson was covertly preparing the ground for leaving the E.U. without a deal even as Parliament remained resolutely opposed to such a unilateral move. Before the House was prorogued in the second week of September, Parliament passed a law prohibiting the government from going in for a “no-deal” Brexit. If Johnson goes ahead and announces a no-deal Brexit before October 31, a full-blown constitutional controversy will no doubt erupt.

The Supreme Court judgment is viewed as a great morale booster for the opposition and those opposed to a no-deal Brexit. “The decision to advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament was unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification,” the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Baroness Brenda Hale, said. The court made it clear that its intervention was necessary as “a fundamental change” was due to take place in the British Constitution on October 31 and that the House of Commons, as the elected representatives of the people, “has a right to a voice on how that change comes about”.

Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow said the Supreme Court had “vindicated the right and duty of Parliament to meet at this crucial time to scrutinise the executive and hold the Ministers to account”. Parliament reconvened two weeks after it was “illegally” prorogued, further denting Johnson’s dreams for expediting a “no-deal” exit. The Speaker has played a key role in ensuring that Parliament has an important role to play in the unfolding of the Brexit process.

Johnson is trying to brazen it out, saying that while he accepted the verdict he also “profoundly” disagreed with it. While refusing the calls for his resignation, Johnson pledged to follow the course he had charted out. He has not yet given a categorical assurance that he will abide by Parliament’s last resolution prohibiting the government from crashing out of the E.U. in a no-deal Brexit on October 31. Johnson has been emboldened by his friend Donald Trump. Speaking at a joint press conference in New York with Johnson, Trump said the U.K. had no option but to opt for Brexit. Trump offered the British government an exclusive economic and military alliance if it made a clean break with the E.U.

Johnson would have preferred to go in for another general election focussed exclusively on the Brexit issue before the October 31 deadline. But he needs a two-thirds majority in Parliament to call for one. In fact, the Tories have lost their majority in Parliament as a result of byelection losses and defections of MPs angered by the pro-Brexit stance of the right-wing leadership that has taken over the party. Among those who have either left or been expelled are Johnson’s younger brother and a grandson of Winston Churchill.

A previous Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government led by David Cameron had passed an amendment in Parliament that bypassed the old parliamentary procedure of a simple majority no-confidence vote in order to ensure that the government completed its five-year term in office. The change of parliamentary rules has thwarted the Johnson government’s attempts to call for snap elections.

The new Prime Minister’s promise of an immediate exit from the E.U. notwithstanding the consequences has excited sections of the electorate that voted for Brexit and felt betrayed by the lack of progress on that front. Johnson is eager to run a campaign on the platform of “the people versus Parliament”. He and his right-wing friends have gone on the offensive saying that Parliament has been subverting the will of the British people who voted for Brexit.

In local government elections held in May, a significant section of Conservative Party supporters voted for the newly formed Brexit Party under the leadership of Nigel Farage. With Johnson now at the helm of affairs, many of the Conservative voters who had deserted the party are back. Recent opinion polls show that if elections are held now, the Conservatives will come back to power with a bigger majority.

But opinion polls can go wrong, as they did in the elections two years ago. The scandals and the gaffes Johnson accumulated over the years may come back to haunt him. An inquiry into a new scandal connected to his term in office as Mayor of London is currently under way. Johnson is accused of favouring a close female associate with contracts from the city government. He is also being criticised for using uncompromising language that incites violence. “I’d rather be dead in a ditch than ask for a delay in Brexit,” he had said recently. In the run-up to the Brexit referendum, which was held three years ago, a sitting Labour MP was killed by a far-right activist for her pro-E.U. views.

Labour for elections

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has said that his party is ready for an election any time after the current Brexit deadline expires. He emphasised that Labour wanted to ensure that the British people did not have to live with the consequences of the no-deal Brexit that Johnson and his right-wing advisers were proposing. The Labour leader accused Johnson of misleading the country and predicted that he would have the dubious distinction of becoming “the shortest serving Prime Minister there’s ever been” in the history of the country. “This crisis can only be settled with an election,” Corbyn said in a speech delivered at the Labour Party’s annual conference but only after “the government’s disastrous no deal is taken off the table”.

Corbyn seems to have mellowed in his stance on the holding of a second referendum on the Brexit issue. Many Labour and Conservative MPs, along with British business interests, have asked for a second referendum, arguing that the electorate was not aware of the true costs of a British exit from the E.U. A report the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development brought out in September notes that a no-deal Brexit will slice almost 3 per cent from the U.K.’s economic growth over the next three years compared with just 0.6 per cent for the rest of the E.U. The U.K. will most probably plunge into recession next year if it exits the E.U., the report predicts.

Corbyn said that Labour was the only party capable of preserving secure access to the E.U. and forestalling the danger of “being locked in in a one-sided free trade deal that would put our country at the mercy of Donald Trump”. A Labour government, Corbyn said, would prevent the return of civil strife to Northern Ireland and the break-up of the country. Johnson’s eagerness for a no-deal exit without a backstop in Northern Ireland would roll back the gains of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended the violence in the north.

The “backstop”, which the previous government of Theresa May agreed to after negotiations with the E.U., allows for the existence of seamless borders between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. If the backstop is removed, custom barriers will come up on the border between them and there will also be an impact on free movement of people on the politically divided island.

Very few people expect Johnson to negotiate a new exit deal with the E.U. before the deadline. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, a fervent Brexiteer, described Parliament as “a disgrace” for its opposition to a no-deal Brexit. While speaking at the annual Conservative Party Conference on September 30, Johnson once again struck a defiant tone. “The best way to end this is to get Brexit done on October 31 and move the country forward,” he told the party faithful. “And that is what we are going to do.” Johnson suggested that there were enough loopholes to get a no-deal Brexit done before October 31 despite parliamentary resolutions specifically prohibiting it.

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