Once in a long time, a nation’s whole mood changes and the unthinkable becomes thinkable. Britain experienced such a moment in 1940 when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had lost control of his Conservative party, opening the way for a deeply distrusted outsider to enter No 10 Downing Street. That man was Winston Churchill who eventually became Britain’s national hero. A lesser example occurred in November 1990. Margaret Thatcher had been invincible for more than a decade. But suddenly, amid deep social divisions caused by the introduction of her poll tax, the Iron Lady, broken and humiliated, was forced to leave Downing Street in tears.
Something similar happened in May this year when Theresa May, after months of clinging on to office in the face of disloyalty from fellow Tories, abominable treatment by Brussels and a series of personal humiliations, announced in an emotional statement that she was stepping down as Britain’s prime minister. Mrs May’s failure was: her Brexit deal failed again and again to impress squabbling MPs in parliament. Her exit paved the way for the election of Boris Johnson, regarded as an eccentric, gaffe-prone populist who had earlier quit Mrs May’s cabinet over her soft Brexit deal, as Britain’s prime minister in July. Within days of taking office as prime minister, the hard Brexiter Johnson promised to take Britain out of the European Union (EU) with or without a deal on October 31.
However, last month, he suffered two successive major defeats in parliament to execute his plans. A third defeat came his way when Johnson’s attempt to call a snap election failed to get support of two-thirds of lawmakers in the House of Commons, which came right after opposition MPs and rebels in his Conservative party approved a bill that forces Johnson to ask EU for another Brexit delay, a step he has repeatedly said he will not take. But last Tuesday, another major and momentous setback came the way of the embattled prime minister when the Supreme Court (SC) ruled that Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament for five weeks was unlawful. With parliament returning to session a day after the SC ruling and calls coming from all opposition parties for the prime minister to resign, Britain now faces monumental uncertainty ahead of the October 31 Brexit deadline.
It is no exaggeration to say that the outcome of events over Brexit will affect the lives of every British citizen. Forget all the talk of the past 38 months about the 17.4 million who voted to leave EU and the 16.1 million who said they wanted UK to remain in EU, what happens over the coming days and weeks will have huge economic and social repercussions for Britain’s 66 million people. At the moment all eyes are on Boris Johnson, the parliament and the EU as technically Britain is just a month away from crashing out of EU. A law designed to stop a no-deal Brexit has been passed. But if a deal doesn’t come though by October 19, and MPs don’t vote in favour of leaving with no deal, then the prime minister will be legally obliged to ask the EU for a Brexit delay.
Johnson has said he is trying to negotiate a new deal with the EU. If that happens and MPs back it before October 31, there would be no need for an extension. The existing deal negotiated by Mrs May has been defeated in the House of Commons several times and is dead now. The stumbling block between the UK and EU is the Irish backstop–a protocol in the withdrawal agreement that would keep the UK in the customs union and the Northern Ireland, in particular, in the single market till a solution is found to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The government wants a deal with the backstop removed, which is not acceptable to the EU.
There are also talks going on to go for a Northern Ireland-only backstop as a possible solution. But this option will keep the Northern Ireland more closely tied to EU than the rest of the UK. This could be unacceptable to UK because it would effectively mean a hard border in the Irish Sea. So, where does this leave the Brexit process and how could it play out in coming weeks? After the SC judgement, Johnson suggested there could be a second attempt to suspense the parliament, ahead of the Queen’s speech to set out the government’s new plan; the court ruling does not prevent such a scenario, as long as parliament is not stopped from doing its job without good cause. However, another suspension could provoke another court battle.
Boris Johnson has said he remains determined to secure UK’s exit at the end of October, although the law passed in September obliges him to seek another delay, unless a deal with the EU is struck or parliament agrees otherwise. Reports in British media suggest that the government may look for loopholes to get around the law, but the problem is that such an attempt would provoke another legal challenge. After the law was passed to block no-deal Brexit, the prime minister and his team have stepped up efforts to seek a new withdrawal deal and the SC’s ruling could well prompt a renewed drive in this direction. However, what has been interpreted as a new willingness by UK and the EU, the gap between both sides still appears to be wide, while time is running out fast.
Even if Johnson requests an extension, there is no guarantee that all the EU countries would accede to his request. Given such a scenario, an early election is widely expected after October 31. This could happen either by two-thirds majority vote or through a short new law, which would require only a simple majority in parliament. Other possibilities include a vote of no confidence by the prime minister in his government or a call for vote of no confidence by the opposition. In both cases, the most likely outcome would be a snap poll. There is also the legal option of cancelling Brexit altogether by revoking Article 50. But that could be possible only after a change in government. For now, it appears that Britain may be headed for its third general election in four years.
The writer is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.