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British lawmakers take control: What it means for Boris, Brexit and Britain

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. | Daniel Leal-Olivas-WPA Pool/Getty Images

Britain

The House of Commons took the unprecedented step of usurping government control of Parliament — a dramatic move that raises more questions than it answers.

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The United Kingdom’s House of Commons has usurped government control of Parliament.

It’s an unprecedented step — achieved with a dramatic vote Tuesday night — that could have far-reaching ramifications for the country’s future.

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The immediate goal is to stop British Prime Minister Boris Johnson from taking the country out of the European Union at the end of October without a formal deal to manage that departure — something he has repeatedly threatened to do. But the effects of the thunderous vote could be heard for years to come.

So where does Tuesday’s vote leave Boris Johnson, Brexit and Britain?

BORIS

The vote means the embattled British prime minister could become the shortest-serving tenant of No. 10 Downing Street since the office was created in 1721. Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, who famously defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, served 23 days as a caretaker prime minister in 1834.

Traditionally, when a British prime ministers lose their ability to win votes in Parliament, they are ejected via a vote of no confidence — or they call for an early election to decide their fate.

Johnson’s preference is for an election on Oct. 14, hoping that his Conservative Party will gain seats in the House of Commons and give him more backing for his preferred approach to Brexit.

Calling an election would be a big risk, though. It would essentially amount to a second referendum on Brexit in all but name and serve as a first referendum on Johnson. The previous prime minister, Theresa May, called an early election in 2017, only to have it misfire, leaving her with a wafer-thin majority.

While Conservatives top national opinion polls, that support is stuck in the low 30 percent range and they face surging opponents on both their left — Liberal Democrats — and right — Brexit Party — in addition to their traditional rivals, the left-wing Labour Party.

And to even get an election called, Johnson would need support from the opposition Labour Party. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has flip-flopped on whether he would support such a move. After insisting for months on calling an early general election, he backtracked Tuesday. His new condition: no-deal Brexit must be off the table before he agrees to an election.

Parliament could also attempt to remove Johnson without turning to the voters — via a vote of no confidence. But because Johnson succeeded in getting the Queen to suspend Parliament for five weeks starting on Sept. 9, there’s likely no time for Johnson’s Parliamentary opponents to pull off that maneuver.

Who could replace Johnson?

If there’s no election, but Johnson goes down via a no-confidence vote or resigns, a front-runner to lead a temporary administration to handle Brexit would be Kenneth Clarke. A former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke is a moderate Conservative who supports EU membership but has three times voted for softer forms of Brexit out of respect for the 2016 referendum result.

If the Conservatives lose any election, the most likely new prime minister would be Corbyn. Corbyn would either run a minority government or unite with other pro-EU parties such as, the Liberal Democrats, to lead a coalition government.

BREXIT

Will Brexit be delayed? That depends on whether there’s an election and how far Johnson is willing to push constitutional norms. With no written constitution, Britain is on shaky ground here.

Johnson has said Britain is leaving the EU on Oct. 31, regardless of what Parliament says. If he sticks to that line of defying Parliament and avoids an October election, the Queen is likely the only person who could stop Johnson. While “The Queen versus Boris Johnson” might be a dream storyline for scriptwriters at “The Crown,” it’s a far-fetched scenario, given it would represent the most direct political play by a British monarch in nearly 200 years.

In an October election, the three choices for voters would be: back Johnson’s Brexit-by-any-means policy, elect a Labour-led government that would pursue a managed Brexit, and enter the uncharted territory of a minority government led by a pro-EU party such as the third-placed Liberal Democrats.

Can Brexit be stopped? Probably not.

Opinion polls show the country to be as divided as it was in 2016 on Brexit. The opposition leader, Corbyn, has committed to deliver Brexit since the referendum. Meanwhile, the nationalist Brexit Party has at times risen to the top of national polls in recent months. In addition: most leading Conservatives are committed to Brexit, though many want it to be softened and managed in cooperation with the EU.

Pro-EU campaigners

Pro EU campaigners demonstrate outside the House of Commons in London on Tuesday. | Peter Summers/Getty Images

Does that mean Britain is headed for a managed Brexit? That is a message Parliament has regularly sent to Downing Street and is the preference of EU officials. That’s why May’s government and the EU spent two years working toward the deal agreed in December.

But to get there, the EU may have to smooth the edges of the existing deal — something it has so far refused to do.

What does the EU think?

The EU looks on with sadness and fear in equal measure and will not alter the core elements of the existing deal. The bloc prizes maintaining the integrity of its single-market system over all else and has been keen to make an example out of Britain’s choice to leave — so other EU members aren’t tempted to follow.

Given those fundamentals, the EU has shifted to treating a no-deal Brexit as its default expectation.

Officials in Brussels on Wednesday will propose two budget instruments to support the companies and workers who would be most affected by a no-deal Brexit. The EU’s goal: prevent the U.K. tearing a hole in its single market.

In contrast, Michael Gove, Britain’s minister in charge of preparing for Brexit, refuses to publish his own governments’ planning scenarios — known as Operation Yellowhammer. The presumed reason, based on leaked versions of the plans, is that they paint a devastating picture of the effects of a no-deal Brexit.

BRITAIN

The long-term effects of this week’s debate could be significant. It’s now clear Johnson will be unable to unite his country, even if he can hang on and find a way to deliver Brexit.

Johnson’s government now has a choice between fomenting a constitutional crisis — if the government ignores Parliament — or managing a policy crisis — given Parliament is on track to overturn the government’s key policy in a second critical vote Wednesday.

The political and cultural divisions run deep across Britain.

Moderate Labour MP Liz Kendall tweeted Tuesday that she had “never seen such cold hard anger” among her Parliament colleagues as she did watching Conservative moderates react in fury as hard-line Brexiteer Jacob-Rees Mogg addressed Parliament.

The politically neutral Queen is also getting uncomfortably close to the action: Last week, she was roped into suspending Parliament for five weeks via a secretive constitutional forum known as the Privy Council, convened at her summer castle in Balmoral, Scotland.

While protesters have reached for extreme daily slogans like “Stop the coup,” there are plenty of other sharp realities at hand that require no exaggeration.

The Scottish government, which has similar powers to the state government in the United States, is pushing for a referendum on leaving the U.K. London, a bastion of pro-EU support, is splintering further from the rest of the country. And the inability to avoid recreating a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is threatening to destabilize a peace agreement reached more than 20 years ago.

In other words, the longest-term effect of Brexit could be the breakup of the United Kingdom.

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