By Arab News
By Zaid M. Belbagi*
The UK Parliament is in a state of paralysis. Three years after a national referendum in which the people voted to leave the EU, the country remains on a precipice.
After Parliament blocked proposed exit deal after proposed exit deal, and with the saga now being overseen by its third prime minister, the threat of crashing out of the union without a deal seems more likely than at ever.
With a departure deadline of Oct. 31 looming and an electorate in no mood for further delays, Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised the Queen at the start of September to prorogue Parliament, effectively shutting it down until the State Opening on Oct. 14. The courts this week ruled that he should not have done this and forced it to reopen, leaving Brexit plans in jeopardy and raising questions about the future of the prime minister.
Johnson’s decision to shut down Parliament for so long at such a crucial time was controversial, though the entire episode revealed more about the UK’s ramshackle and unwritten constitution than the prime minister’s efforts to force through Brexit.
Two weeks ago, Scotland’s highest court ruled that the prorogation was unlawful. On Tuesday this week, judges in the UK’s Supreme Court agreed that it was unlawful and therefore “null and of no effect.”
Not only has this left the prime minister out on a limb, it has shone a spotlight on the fragile and uncodified balance of power that exists in Britain between the government, Parliament and the judiciary. How the government might still implement its Brexit plans is now at the heart of discussions. Given the unprecedented nature of events, the entire episode has left many wondering how the prime minister and Parliament will move forward, as public life in the UK has effectively been on hold during the process.
As the worst week in his professional life draws to a close, many in the UK are asking how long Johnson can cling to power. He only took over as prime minister from Theresa May on July 24, a little over 60 days ago; if he was to resign in the near future, his premiership would be the shortest in British history by some way (the next shortest term is 119 days, by George Canning in 1827).
Following the Supreme Court’s decision this week, the speedy recall of Parliament and a thunderous debate on Wednesday that continued late into the night at the House of Commons, the incredible challenges faced by Johnson are all too clear. Not a week has passed without his government suffering some kind of stunning political setback — and now that his decision to unilaterally suspend Parliament has been deemed unlawful, the opposition are arguing that he misled the Queen in the process, creating a national crisis that is compromising the government’s very ability to negotiate with the EU.
There is no doubt that Parliament is in a pitiful state. However, as things stand the UK must leave the EU. Under normal circumstances, the leader of the opposition would jump at the chance to call for a general election — but Brexit has created rather abnormal behavior at Westminster. All Johnson can do is to continue on as he has been until he or the leader of the opposition, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, take action that will ultimately lead to a general election.
At his party conference this week, Corbyn was positively buoyant, calling for the prime minister to resign and predicting that his party would defeat the Conservatives in an election. After returning to Parliament, however, he seemed lost as Johnson refused to renege on his pledge to leave the EU.
In truth, Corbyn is trapped; he faces persistent, long-standing challenges from within his party and has no clear way of triggering an election on his own terms. On Wednesday, Johnson tried to goad him into calling for an election, one that could be held as soon as next week. Corbyn, however, seemed to shy away from the prospect. Despite being confronted by a prime minister whose leadership is floundering, if Corbyn called for a vote of no confidence in him, the first step to a general election, the constitutional process that follows would allow Johnson to sit back and wait for the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline to pass, forcing the UK to leave without a deal. Given that Corbyn has pledged to his supporters that he will avoid this at all costs, he is in a bind — and Johnson is still prime minister.
Some within the Labour Party believe that they can pile so much political pressure on Johnson that he will have to resign, forcing an election that way. The circumstances the prime minister is facing makes this prospect possible. He has no majority with which to force a Brexit deal through Parliament, and no support for calling an early election on his own terms, all while trying to negotiate a new deal with Brussels.
As the Oct. 31 deadline creeps closer, the prime minister has only two options: To resign and leave Parliament to work out how to request a Brexit extension, or to sit tight. The reality is that as loud as Corbyn’s fans might cheer, Johnson’s poll ratings are robust. In the eyes of voters, the country is at an impasse; Johnson’s saving grace is that he wishes to break the deadlock, rather than hold the country hostage any further.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid