Parliament’s Brexit showdown begins

As MPs prepare to legislate against a no-deal Brexit, the prime minister considers calling an election to thwart them

BRITAIN’S HOUSE OF COMMONS returns to work on September 3rd for what promises to be a politically explosive week that could even presage a general election. It will start with MPs who are opposed to leaving the European Union with no deal demanding an emergency debate, which the Speaker, John Bercow, is likely to grant. They hope to use this debate to take control of the Commons agenda a day or two later, in order to pass a law demanding that the government asks the EU for another extension of the Brexit deadline rather than, as the government plans, allowing no-deal to happen by default on October 31st, Economist reports.
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Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has a working majority of just one. As many as 40 Tory rebels are publicly opposed to a no-deal Brexit. On the face of it, this suggests that a law against no-deal should have the numbers to pass. Yet Mr Johnson has not given up hopes of stopping it. In a brief statement on the steps of Downing Street on September 2nd he piled more pressure on the rebels, arguing that by trying to take no-deal off the table they are undermining his negotiating position in Brussels, where he insists he is making progress towards a better Brexit deal. And he is threatening to expel from the party any Tory MP who votes against the government, stopping them running as Tories in any election that may be called.

Mr Johnson has also been working to limit the parliamentary time available for any anti-no-deal law. He is suspending Parliament for almost five weeks from the middle of next week, before a planned Queen’s Speech to open a new parliamentary session on October 14th. That makes the timetable for any legislation exceptionally short. Even if a bill demanding an extension passes the Commons in a single day, as a similar one did in March, it must also pass the Lords, where it is harder to stop a filibuster by recalcitrant peers.

The prime minister has two more options if MPs succeed, despite his best efforts, in passing an anti-no-deal law. The first is in effect to ignore the law, perhaps by making any request to the EU so unpalatable that it is rejected (any extension needs the unanimous support of all 28 EU national governments). The second is to threaten to hold an election before October 31st, which he would fight under the banner of “the people versus Parliament”. In his statement on September 2nd Mr Johnson declared that he does not want an election, but the threat remains. Mr Johnson’s advisers reckon he would win such an election easily. Many pundits are less certain, noting that Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is still a threat and that, although the Tories may gain seats in the midlands and the north of England, they could lose them in Scotland, the south-west and London.
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The EU is watching these manoeuvres with alarm. It has no desire to see a disruptive no-deal Brexit, which would damage other EU countries as well as Britain. Yet it is not about to concede Mr Johnson’s main demand by dumping the Irish backstop, an insurance policy to avert a hard border with Ireland by keeping Britain in a customs union. EU governments are sceptical about any alternative arrangements to the backstop, and they note that Mr Johnson has not even put forward a concrete proposal. As for a possible election, many hope it might return a new parliament that reconsiders Brexit altogether by holding another referendum.