That is, parliament can’t stop Boris Johnson now, and the European Union won’t. If he wants it to happen, it’ll happen.
Starting this week, members of parliament will put up a fight. The BBC and even the House of Commons’ own web site would have you believe that Johnson’s opponents (“Remainers”) can win.
The truth is that Britain’s prime minister is prepared to fulfill his promise to take the UK out of the EU by October 31 even without an agreement, and he’s got the power to do it.
Here’s what’s really going to happen. As early as Monday, Remainers will try one of two strategies, and maybe both. Both will fail.
One strategy is to oust Johnson in a no-confidence vote. If a majority of members of parliament passes the motion – which may happen – the law gives them two weeks to agree on a replacement prime minister.
Imagine for a moment that they can agree. Then the House of Commons’ web site says succinctly, “PM resigns.” The BBC’s flow chart says the same. But that’s misleading.
In reality, the law does not require the prime minister who loses a no-confidence vote to resign. The claim that “PM resigns” is based on the Cabinet Manual, a document setting out laws and conventions. The Manual states the prime minister is “expected to resign where it is clear that he or she does not have the confidence of the House of Commons and that an alternative government does have the confidence.” Expected, not forced.
True, if he refuses to resign, other MPs could refuse to cooperate with him and the government could even be paralyzed. Because of that, Johnson’s best move would be to agree to step down and call for new elections – but in November.
Just as the law doesn’t compel him to resign, the law also doesn’t compel him to call elections by a certain date.
By the time elections are held, Britain will be out of the EU. That’s the default that happens on October 31. Unless the UK and EU can agree otherwise, Britain leaves. So if Remainers try to sack Johnson, he can guarantee they’ll lose. And he’ll be able to deliver on his pledge to remove the UK from the EU by the end of October.
Johnson’s got all the power. His decision to prorogue parliament shows that he’s willing to use it. And it’s in his political interest to do so. Polls show his party with up to a 14% lead over the main opposition, the Labour party.
But even if Remainers pass the no-confidence motion against Johnson, they may not be able to agree on his replacement.
Corbyn insists he should get the job, but crucial potential allies – Liberal Democrats, Tory rebels and Independents – don’t support him. In fact, Corbyn is so unpopular that crucial MPs might help Johnson win a confidence vote just to keep Corbyn out. The leader of the Liberal Democrats is actually warning about that.
Because a no-confidence vote is so risky, it may never happen. Instead, Remainers may opt for a second strategy – passing a law compelling Johnson to ask the EU for an extension so that Britain doesn’t automatically exit on October 31. All 27 of the EU’s other members would have to say yes. But already France’s Emanuel Macron – an unlikely Johnson ally – is promising to say no. Macron wants Brexit to happen as soon as possible so it stops “polluting” the EU’s agenda.
The last time Britain requested an extension, the EU’s Donald Tusk demanded a “credible justification.” Or, as the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michael Barnier, put it, “Why would we prolong the negotiation? To do what? Because the Article 50 negotiation is finished, we have a treaty, it’s there.” He’s referring to the proposed treaty that he spent two years negotiating with the UK, only to have parliament reject it – three times.
This time around, in order to convince the EU to say yes, Britain would have to convince all 27 countries that there is serious hope for reaching a deal, if only they give the British government more time. Johnson will say the opposite. Given his popular support, if parliament forces him to request an extension, he can tell the EU that if they approve the extension, there will be no negotiations after October.
In other words, Johnson knows how to ask for an extension in a way that insults the EU and invites their refusal. And already there is a strong temptation for the EU to punish the Brits for daring to leave the grand European project.
That’s why, if Boris Johnson wants a no-deal Brexit, he’s going to deliver it.