The Slatest

This Week in Brexit: The Wheels Come Off the Boris Express

 British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks across a field as he visits Darnford Farm in Banchory near Aberdeen on September 6, 2019 in Aberdeen, Scotland.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Andrew Milligan - WPA Pool/Getty Images

“Let me put it this way: There is a part of my soul that still yearns to believe.”

That’s British Prime Minister Boris Johnson talking about, of all things, the Loch Ness monster during a visit to Scotland on Friday. But he could just as easily have been talking about his yearning to deliver Brexit by the end of October after a bizarre week that saw the Parliament, his own party, and even his own brother turning against him.

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Previously on Brexit: Let’s recall where we were when this week started. Over the summer, Johnson was elected prime minister by the Conservative Party on a pledge to pull the U.K. out of the European Union by Oct. 31, the current deadline, even if they cannot reach a deal. He claims he is attempting to negotiate a new Withdrawal Agreement, without some of the more unpopular aspects of the deal that Theresa May negotiated and Parliament rejected earlier this year. If he can’t get the Europeans to agree—and right now it doesn’t look likely that they will—he’s repeatedly said that he’s willing to pull the U.K. out without a deal on Oct. 31, an action that could have devastating economic and political consequences.

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Parliament returned to session this week and opponents of a no-deal Brexit—who include the opposition Labour Party, several smaller parties, and a number of rebel Tories—are dead-set on doing everything possible to stop it, and have spent the last few weeks discussing various strategies for doing so.

Last week, Johnson asked the queen to shut down Parliament—an act known as prorogation—from some time next week until Oct. 14. There are some normal reasons for prorogation but in this case it was fairly obvious that Johnson and his chief strategist, Dominic Cummings, were trying to give Parliament as little time as possible to thwart him. This week, that plan fell apart spectacularly. Here’s how it happened.

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Monday in Brexit: The Labour Party introduced a bill that would give Johnson until Oct. 19—just after a crucial European Council summit—to reach a deal. If he can’t, he would be required to ask the EU for an extension of the Brexit deadline until Jan. 31. (This would be the third time it has been delayed.) On Monday, Johnson said there are no circumstances under which he would do that and vowed that if the bill passed, he would call for a new general election in mid-October.

The idea behind a new election is that it would allow the pro-Brexit forces to pick up seats and retake the agenda. You may recall a similar gambit backfired spectacularly on Theresa May back in 2017, but Johnson was running out of options.

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Tuesday in Brexit: Things only got more bleak on Tuesday. The Conservatives and their partners, the Democratic Unionist Party, came into the week with just a one-vote majority in Parliament. Then on Tuesday, pro-Remain Conservative MP Phillip Lee dramatically walked across the aisle to join the Liberal Democrats while Johnson was speaking, wiping out his working majority. (This then provoked a backlash within the Lib Dems, with some high-profile members quitting over Lee’s anti-LGBTQ views.)

Twenty-one Conservatives then joined the opposition to vote to open debate on the anti–no-deal law and were summarily kicked out of the party. These included some heavy hitters like former Chancellor Phillip Hammond, former Justice Secretary David Gauke, and Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill. The idea here is that when the new election happens, Johnson wants to put only pure Brexiteers before the voters.

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Amid the chaos, arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg got comfy on the frontbenches.

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Wednesday in Brexit:  Johnson went through the weekly “Prime Minister’s Questions” ritual for the first time, and it was as chippy as you might expect. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused Johnson of misleading the public about the status of negotiations with the EU and preparations for a no-deal Brexit. Johnson referred to Corbyn as both a “chlorinated chicken” and a “big girl’s blouse.” (I don’t know exactly what that means, but it sure sounds sexist.) Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi also called out Johnson for past comments comparing women wearing burqas to “letterboxes.”

The opposition, boosted by the 21 former Conservatives, easily passed the anti–no-deal bill. They then rejected Johnson’s motion to call an early election next month.

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This last bit requires a bit of explanation. Labour does want to have a new election soon—the party wants to run the country, after all—but it wants to make sure no-deal is definitely off the table first. (There’s some disagreement among the party’s leaders over whether they should wait until the bill becomes law, or when it’s actually implemented. Perhaps because he doesn’t like being called a “chlorinated chicken,” Corbyn wanted it sooner, but for now it looks like the party is set on waiting until November to make sure the extension really happens.)

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It used to be that the prime minister could just call an election whenever he likes, but under a law called the Fixed-Terms Parliament Act passed back in 2011, he needs two-thirds of Parliament to agree, giving the opposition veto power over his plans. For this mess, as with Brexit itself, the country has former Prime Minister David Cameron to thank.

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Also on Wednesday, the EU basically declared a no-deal Brexit a natural disaster in order to free up contingency funds. It’s worth remembering that the assumption of all this maneuvering is that the EU would agree to another extension if the U.K. asks for one. The general assumption is that it would—nobody wants no deal—but not a foregone conclusion and at the very least, they might make the Brits sweat for a few days in late October.

Thursday in Brexit: Speaking at an event with new police recruits in Yorkshire, Johnson said he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask Brussels for another extension, but he was vague about whether this meant he would resign rather than comply with the new law.

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That same day, Johnson’s brother Jo, the minister of state for universities and science, resigned from the government and the Conservative Party over his brother’s stance on Brexit. Jo Johnson had been pro-Remain during the referendum but the two had managed to patch things up, until now.

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Friday in Brexit: The anti–no-deal bill was passed by the House of Lords, meaning it will become law on Monday. Johnson went off in search of the Loch Ness monster and had a run-in with a bull.

Next week in Brexit:  On Monday, Johnson will again try to call an election for October, and will most likely fail again. He can then either shut down Parliament immediately or try something else. Ironically, his move to shut down Parliament last week give him less time for maneuvering—Parliament has to be shut down by Thursday. This is an important lesson that you shouldn’t ask the queen to put something in writing for you unless you’re sure you really want it.

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Deadline aside, Johnson doesn’t have a whole lot of options left to get his quick election. He could try to amend the Fixed-Terms Parliament Act, which would require only a one vote majority. This might have been a better option before he kicked 21 people out of his party. Even more extreme: He could attempt to trigger an election by calling a vote of no-confidence in himself. This is weird for two reasons. First, it would put Labour in the awkward position of deciding whether to thwart the prime minister by declaring that they do have confidence in him. Second, of the many things that Johnson has been accused of over the years, lacking confidence in himself is not one of them.

Days until next deadline: 56

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