11 Sept 2019
As Boris Johnson Suffers Sixth Parliamentary Defeat in Record Time, UK Parliament Is Suspended
It will come as no surprise to Hong Kong readers that the UK’s MPs have once more rejected Boris Johnson's attempts for a snap election to be held before the end of October 2019. On 9 September 2019, just 293 MPs voted for the prime minister's motion calling for the snap election, far short of the required majority. This is the sixth parliamentary vote that Boris Johnson has lost in a period of six days. This last vote was held before the prorogation period of five weeks began, with the Parliament closing its doors at around 2 am on 10 September 2019. It will reopen on 14 October 2019.
The position under UK law is that Brexit will occur on 31 October 2019, irrespective of whether a withdrawal accord has been agreed with the EU-27 or not. However, a new law that was pushed into being by a cross-party alliance of MPs, and which was granted royal assent on 9 September, amending that position. The new law – which the Prime Minister and his supporters have vehemently but unsuccessfully opposed – will force him to seek a Brexit delay until 31 January 2020. This will be the case unless a deal, or a no-deal Brexit, is approved by the UK’s MPs by 19 October.
However, Boris Johnson reiterated on 10 September that he would not request an extension. While the Government has insisted that it will not breach the rule of law, it is understood that Downing Street is spearheading efforts to work around it. “This government will press on with negotiating a deal, while preparing to leave without one,” the Prime Minister announced after losing the snap election vote for the second time. “I will go to that crucial [European Council] summit on 17 October and no matter how many devices this parliament invents to tie my hands, I will strive to get an agreement in the national interest … This government will not delay Brexit any further.”
In contrast to the Prime Minister’s words, EU leaders have repeatedly stated that they have not received any specific proposals for ensuring a withdrawal deal. In addition, at a meeting between Johnson and the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on 9 September, it became clear that wide gaps remained in attempts to reach a deal.
During a recent interview, Foreign Minister Dominic Raab, a hardcore Brexiteer and Johnson supporter, insisted that while his Government would uphold the rule of law, “sometimes it can be more complex because there are conflicting laws or competing legal advice.” This shows that the Government will do all in its power to prevent Boris Johnson heading to Brussels with a view to obtaining a Brexit extension.
When the time comes, should Boris Johnson completely ignore the law and refuse to ask for an extension (he famously stated that he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask for one), unprecedented constitutional and political mayhem would ensue. The risks to the Prime Minister himself are evident: he could become subject to strenuous court proceedings, and even face the threat of jail.
Another option that is apparently being considered is that Johnson would send two letters to Brussels in October, one requesting the extension, the other demanding that it be ignored. Such a ploy would not be received well in the EU, while also working against the spirit of the law requiring that an extension must be sought.
Yet another option may be the calling of a no-confidence vote by Johnson, in his own Government. While not wholly unrealistic from a legal point of view, such as scenario would be undoubtedly strange: MPs on the Government’s side would be ordered to vote against the Prime Minister, while those in the opposition would vote in his favour. A two-week period would, however, then be required before an election could take place, during which the opposition would have the opportunity to form a caretaker government.
It is always possible for Johnson to ask one of the EU-27 to block the extension, even were he to request it in October. However, should one agree to do so, it would face the ire of the remaining Member States and EU institutions for visibly helping in forcing through a no deal Brexit. It is considered unlikely that any would therefore agree. Still, ironically, Boris Johnson’s work may be done by France, which – it is being reported – is already threatening to veto any extension. President Macron’s Government is said to be worried about the lack of any progress on the Brexit matter, with French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, having recently raised the lack of realistic proposals being tabled by Johnson’s Government.
The leader of the Government’s main opposition party, Labour, has announced that while it would like to have an election called soon, this must be done only after it became definitive that an extension to the Brexit deadline had been secured. “As keen as we are, we are not prepared to risk inflicting the disaster of no-deal on our communities,” Corbyn stated, in relation to the holding of a snap election.
Hong Kong traders will appreciate that the Brexit crisis, which appears to have only worsened in recent weeks, is disrupting financial markets, with companies doing business in the UK and EU perplexed and increasingly worried over the blinkered decisions and statements being made by politicians. A no deal Brexit seems, if anything, more likely than ever before.