As October 31 draws nearer, the date when Britain is due to leave the European Union (EU), the country is going through a twin constitutional and political crisis of a seriousness unknown since the end of the Second World War. Alongside a fundamental struggle for control of the Brexit agenda between parliament and the government, the ruling Conservative Party is going through a process of ideological division that could spell its demise as a political force.
The increasing likelihood that Britain will leave the EU without an agreement - the so-called “no-deal Brexit” – is the key issue that is driving members of parliament (MPs) to try to seize control of the political agenda from the government and that is also splitting the Conservative Party. The consensus within parliament is that a no-deal Brexit would be seriously damaging to the British economy and to relations with the EU.
When Boris Johnson became prime minister lin July he insisted that he wanted to renegotiate the EU withdrawal agreement reached by his predecessor Theresa May, which was rejected three times by parliament. And he wanted to retain the threat of a no-deal Brexit as a bargaining chip to gain a better deal from the EU. And there was some merit to his argument. For although the UK would suffer most from leaving without a deal, the EU also stands to lose economically and politically, over the crucial question of Ireland. The EU maintained throughout the negotiations with the UK over Brexit that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland must not become a “hard border” with a return of customs posts and time-consuming checks on lorries crossing between the UK territory in the north and Ireland in the south. But if there is no agreement by the leave date, the EU itself will be forced to impose border controls, since a land border between an EU and non-EU state cannot be completely open. The EU therefore would stand to be blamed for creating the new border controls in Ireland that it is desperate to avoid.
But such is the suspicion of Boris Johnson among opposition parties and some in his own party that they feared he was not merely using the threat of a no-deal Brexit as a ploy to achieve a better Brexit deal, but that is was an outcome he and others on the rightwing of the Conservative Party were actively pursuing. This suspicion was reinforced when Johnson declared he would “prorogue” parliament in mid-September – that it suspend parliamentary sessions, reducing the time MPs would have to debate Brexit before the end of October when Johnson said the UK would leave the EU “deal or no deal.”
MPs reacted by accusing Johnson of behaving unconstitutionally and voted to seize control of the parliamentary agenda from the government. They then voted through a bill to stop Johnson taking the UK out of the EU without a deal and to force him to ask the EU to again postpone the Brexit date. Johnson is implacably opposed to any such extension and responded by calling for a general election. But surprisingly, the opposition parties voted against this, apparently fearing Johnson would trick them and delay the election until after the Brexit date.
Both sides in this argument claim to be acting in defence of Britain’s unwritten constitution. The opposition parties portray Johnson’s suspension of parliament as a constitutional outrage and are trying to get it banned by law, while the other side argues that a failure to respect the 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU is the real breach of democracy.
Amid this constitutional battle, the Conservative Party is itself in crisis. Johnson took an unprecedentedly tough line with the 21 Conservative MPs who voted with the opposition to force him to ditch a no-deal Brexit. Johnson not only forced these “rebel” MPs out of the parliamentary party, but barred them from standing as Conservative candidates in the next general election. This intolerance of dissent by life-long loyal Conservative MPs, including the grandson of Winston Churchill, has provoked outrage and resignations within the party, including by Johnson’s own brother. They point out that the pro-Brexit Conservatives who repeatedly voted against former PM Theresa May’s Brexit deal, including Johnson himself, faced no such sanction.
Many argue that Boris Johnson is trying to recast the Conservatives as a hardline rightwing party in which centrists have no place. But Johnson is more a pragmatist than a rightwing ideologue and certainly has no desire to preside over the permanent splitting of his party. More likely is that he is tacking to the right in order to defuse an electoral challenge from the Brexit Party, under its populist leader Nigel Farage, which surprisingly topped the poll in last May’s European elections on a stance of immediate withdrawal from the EU.
Having now lost his majority in parliament, Boris Johnson knows he needs a general election to secure a proper mandate to govern and to restore some unity to his party. Given parliament’s rejection of the withdrawal bill negotiated by Theresa May and its opposition to Johnson, it is unlikely to back any new agreement Johnson might negotiate with the EU. So a general election looks like the only way to end the logjam.
All the political parties have failed over the last three years to agree on how to translate the result of the Brexit referendum into a workable policy to leave the EU. They have shown themselves unable to reach consensus on an acceptable EU withdrawal deal and can agree only on ruling out a no-deal and calling on the EU to give them more time. This cannot go on indefinitely. Both the EU and the British electorate are running out of patience with this dysfunctional parliament. It is time for it to be brought to an end and for the political parties to seek a fresh democratic mandate from the British electorate.
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