This post was originally written for The Globe and Mail, under the headline “Propped up by foes who have no other choice, Boris Johnson carries on“. I wrote it early on 25th September, before the Commons debate on the Supreme Court ruling.
By any normal benchmark, Boris Johnson is a failure as Prime Minister.
Not only has he failed to win any votes in the House of Commons during his time in office, but he has voluntarily lost his majority in the chamber by withdrawing the whip from more than 20 MPs.
And that was even before the ruling of the Supreme Court that he had acted unlawfully in proroguing Parliament this month, an unprecedented blow to the British government and a significant constitutional moment for the Court.
Throw in a roiling scandal involving potentially improper use of his office when he was the mayor of London, and you’ll not be surprised that there are a lot of politicians calling for Mr. Johnson’s resignation.
But as you’ll have noticed, these aren’t normal times.
As Parliament returns to (unexpected) work today, and the government sets itself up to face an extended period of intense scrutiny, the one thing that looks most unlikely right now is a vote of no-confidence in that government.
That’s not for a lack of votes: if the opposition parties decided that they wanted to pull the plug on Mr. Johnson, then they could, even if some of the Tory MPs who were ejected in early September were to vote in his favour.
But the opposition doesn’t want to remove Mr. Johnson just yet. Paradoxically, it is precisely because they don’t trust him at all that they want to keep him right where he is – in Number 10.
Readers of a nervous disposition might want to sit down when they hear this is all about Brexit: a big shock, I’m sure.
The U.K. has been stuck in gridlock on Brexit for a long time now, with no clear consensus around any of the options available. There’s leaving with a deal, but Theresa May’s text languishes, unloved, in a corner; there’s leaving without a deal, but it’s the most disruptive option, economically and politically; and there’s not leaving at all, the dream of many on the losing side of the 2016 referendum.
Parliament has no majority in favour of any of these three choices, but it does have robust support for what looks like one other option: asking for an extension to the process, due to end Oct. 31.
That is currently Mr. Johnson’s saving grace. Ahead of the prorogation, Parliament passed a law obliging the Prime Minister to seek such an extension, should he not secure a deal by mid-October. If Mr. Johnson is removed from office and a general election is triggered, there are opposition worries that this legal obligation might be rendered void – either because the election happens after the deadline (and you can’t ask for more time retroactively) or because he might win an election that happens before it.
The result is that the major opposition parties – Labour, with its ever more-convoluted Brexit policy, and the Liberal Democrats, with their much starker line of stopping Brexit altogether – have taken the view that the immediate priority is to get the extension and only then to push the government over.
That’s the theory, reinforced by the tentative polling that suggests a marked weakening in support for the Tories if they have to retreat on their line that Oct. 31 is absolutely the date of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, a date that Mr. Johnson himself said he would “die in a ditch” to achieve.
But if that is taken away from him, Mr. Johnson then faces a real dilemma.
He knows that the opposition wants to keep him in office (but not in power), but he also knows that his scope for avoiding having to ask for an extension grows ever smaller. Even in the extreme scenario – that he refuses to comply with the law – various people have made clear they would take him back to court, which would most likely empower someone else to write and deliver the necessary paperwork.
Lurking in the background of all of this is the question of whether Mr. Johnson is playing a long game here. The events of the past month could be bundled together into an election narrative of “how the Establishment sought to frustrate the Tories’ burning desire to realize the will of the people in the referendum.”
But if it is a long game, then it’s a very long one, and Mr. Johnson is doing a very convincing portrayal of a Prime Minister who isn’t simply bruised by Parliament and the courts, but has also painted himself into the tightest of corners.
Of course, one option would be to resign, rather than be pushed. But given the chaos of British politics right now, Boris Johnson doing the honourable thing looks ever less likely.
Honestly Dr. Usherwood, I’m rather concerned that in this focus on getting a new extension and Boris’ antics it is forgotten that the EU-27 still have to agree to an extension here. It’s like during the referendum again where all the focus was on the British aspect and zero attention was given to the fact that the rest of the Continent also has a role to play in determining the shape of Brexit.
I would not be surprised if they decide on extension like this:
In the event that the Withdrawal Agreement is approved by the House of Commons by
31 October 2019 at the latest, the period provided for in Article 50(3) TEU is hereby further extended until 31 December 2019.
This decision shall enter into force on the day of its adoption.
This decision shall cease to apply on 31 October 2019 in the event that the Withdrawal Agreement is not approved by the House of Commons by 31 October 2019 at the latest.”
Also because of the structure of the Benn Act, where Article 1(4) says:
“The Prime Minister must seek to obtain from the European Council an extension of the period under Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union ending at 11.00pm on 31 October 2019 by sending to the President of the European Council a letter in the form set out in the Schedule to this Act requesting an extension of that period to 11.00pm on 31 January 2020 in order to debate and pass a Bill to implement the agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, including provisions reflecting the outcome of inter-party talks as announced by the Prime Minister on 21 May 2019, and in particular the need for the United Kingdom to secure changes to the political declaration to reflect the outcome of those inter-party talks.”
but this is not reflected in the scheduled letter appended to the act, then if Johnson were to submit a side letter stating that the purpose of the extension is “in order to debate and pass a Bill to implement the agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, including provisions reflecting the outcome of inter-party talks as announced by the Prime Minister on 21 May 2019, and in particular the need for the United Kingdom to secure changes to the political declaration to reflect the outcome of those inter-party talks”…
…then he wouldn’t be frustrating the Act but would be signalling to the EU that this was the only purpose. At which point the EU-27 could conceivable say “well, you don’t need an extension until the end of January for that, in fact you don’t need an extension for that at all because debating and passing a bill to implement the agreement can be done between October 18 and October 31 and an extension will only be necessary after that IF the bill has been passed.