5 Sept 2019
Snap Election Sought by UK Prime Minister After UK Parliament Votes to Avert No-deal Brexit
Faced with the suspension of the UK parliament for five weeks in the months of September and October, British MPs voted on 3 September to take control of the parliamentary timetable. This paves the way for a vote to extend the date of the UK leaving the EU to 31 January 2020. The UK Prime Minister has responded by seeking a snap election which he claims will take place before 31 October, the current departure date of the UK.
The UK parliament has backed a bill to block a no-deal Brexit, in order to force the prime minister to seek an extension to the UK’s departure by four months, i.e., to 31 January 2020, unless a Withdrawal Agreement is approved by parliament by 19 October. The vote for parliament to take control of the parliamentary timetable passed by a majority of twenty-seven on 3 September, including twenty-one Conservative MPs who voted against their own government. Then, in the afternoon of 4 September, MPs voted by a majority to ensure that the bill passed its first stage.
Tensions are high with government ministers labelling the parliamentary bill to delay Brexit as a “surrender bill” and Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling it a “pointless delay”, stating that “parliament is on the brink of wrecking any deal we might be able to strike in Brussels.”. The Conservative MPs who voted against the government have also since been expelled from the Conservative Party, with another Conservative MP quitting to join the heavily pro-EU Liberal Democrats, depriving the government of its working majority in parliament.
Prime Minister Johnson has reiterated his refusal to seek any extension from the EU after vowing that the UK would leave on 31 October, “no ifs, no buts”. The UK government is instead bringing forward its own motion for an early general election on 15 October, two days prior to an important EU summit in Brussels. The Prime Minister has given an ultimatum to British MPs:
“We are going to have to make a choice. If the House votes for this bill … the public will have to choose who goes to Brussels,” he said.
The difficulty for the Prime Minister of calling a snap election, however, is that under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a majority of two-thirds of parliament is needed, thus requiring the support of Labour, the main opposition party. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party, has expressed his desire for a general election but only if the motion to delay Brexit is passed in order to "take no deal off the table".
As Hong Kong traders may be aware, the suspension, or “prorogation”, of parliament will still take place on 10 September, shutting down parliament for five weeks until mid-October. Prorogation will bring an end to nearly all parliamentary business, including any and all parliamentary bills that are still in progress at the time of prorogation. Once parliament is officially prorogued, it will not meet again until its opening after the suspension period.
The legislation to delay Brexit must pass through both chambers of parliament in order to take effect. Opponents of the bill will seek to delay it in the upper chamber, the House of Lords, by using lengthy procedures and debates until parliament is suspended.
In addition, British MPs fear that if Prime Minister Johnson is successful in his bid to call a snap election, he might then change the election date until after the UK leaves the EU (i.e., after 31 October), automatically ensuring that Brexit would occur, with or without a Withdrawal Agreement in place.
However, if the parliament passes the current bill to delay Brexit, the only way a hard Brexit, which means the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal, could occur would be if a majority of MPs voted for it.
In short, the concern for Hong Kong traders exporting to the UK and EU markets is that this latest saga of Brexit brings with it the height of uncertainty as the Prime Minister tries to call for a snap election after having lost his majority in parliament and the parliament itself attempting to pass legislation delaying the departure of the UK from the EU with the deadline of its prorogation looming ever closer. It seems that neither side has any room left to manoeuvre and it is now a race against time to see if the parliamentary bill will see its passage through the House of Lords before the prorogation of parliament commences.