Boris Johnson Is Suspending Parliament. What’s Next for Brexit?

The British prime minister’s latest move effectively dares his opponents to unite against him.

A cyclist heads past the houses of Parliament in central London.
Henry Nicholls / Reuters

With two months to go before Britain is due to exit the European Union, the country is mired in political dysfunction; its political leaders agree on little, if anything; and the terms on which Britain will leave the EU are yet to be agreed on.

Now, then, seems like the perfect time for Boris Johnson to up the stakes even further.

The prime minister went to the queen today to request that Parliament be suspended, a rare move that tightens the political calendar, reducing the number of days lawmakers have to debate Brexit and other measures. The House of Commons returns from its summer recess next week, and Johnson has effectively dared his opponents to unite against him in a matter of days—or cede control of the Brexit timetable to him.

Johnson says he is willing to see Britain leave the EU without a deal entirely, a scenario that his government’s own analysis states would lead to interruptions in food and medicine supply chains. His opponents have raised the possibility of a temporary national-unity government to postpone the October 31 deadline for Britain to withdraw from the bloc. Both are willing to face another election, Britain’s third in four years.

How might the coming weeks play out? Here are three of the main scenarios.

No Confidence Leading to Caretakers

Among the main options available to anti-Brexit lawmakers and the opposition is to pass a vote of no confidence in Johnson’s government. Were the prime minister to lose, then the parliamentary arithmetic would be vital to deciding what happens.

Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which outlines the government’s next steps if a no-confidence-vote motion is passed, the government would grind to a halt for 14 days, during which it would fall on the leader of the opposition—in this case, Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn—to try to form a government.

This wouldn’t be easy. Corbyn would need the support of a host of smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, the Green Party, and the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru—all of which, like Labour, oppose Britain leaving the EU without a deal. None of these groups has ruled out establishing a temporary unity government to prevent a no-deal exit by requesting more time to negotiate.

But not all of them are keen on putting Corbyn, who is popular with his party’s base but attracts skepticism among the wider public, in charge. In a letter to the Labour leader this week, Liberal Democrat Leader Jo Swinson warned that putting Corbyn in Downing Street would alienate lawmakers who oppose a no-deal Brexit, and urged him to consider nominating an alternative leader, such as the longtime Conservative lawmaker Ken Clarke or the longtime Labour lawmaker Harriet Harman. Since the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act doesn’t stipulate who should lead a temporary government—only that they be able to command confidence in the House of Commons—this would be possible. (If 14 days pass and no government of national unity is formed, it then falls back to Johnson to call for an election.)

A government of national unity—even an explicitly temporary one—is extremely rare. “The last time it was done was in 1940, when there was a coalition formed in order to fight the Second World War,” Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, told us. Whether the prospects of preventing a no-deal Brexit can overcome party politics is still unclear.

A Fall Election

In a second scenario, either Parliament or the courts manage to bind Johnson’s hands, preventing him from pursuing a no-deal Brexit. Unable to chart his own course, the prime minister could, then, trigger an election.

Lawmakers have limited time and few constitutional means to do this, though.

They could, for example, pass a law that would bind the government to ensure that it does not exit the EU without a deal and, if a deal cannot be agreed on, give Parliament another opportunity to decide what to do next. Under the British constitution—unwritten, but codified in various documents and through centuries of precedent—all government ministers are bound by the law. The prime minister is not above the law.

The speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, might help them by granting an emergency debate. He has consistently been friendly to rank-and-file politicians who want more say over the executive. (Bercow has already called the suspension of Parliament “a constitutional outrage.”)

In the three years since Britain voted to leave the EU, though, Parliament has consistently failed to wrest control of the Brexit process from the government. Pro-European members of the ruling Conservative Party have been reluctant to vote against their own leadership, and are wary of allying with Corbyn. Previous efforts to limit the government’s room to maneuver, even largely symbolic ones, have barely passed the House of Commons, with one being dismissed by Downing Street as “inconvenient rather than significant.”

If Parliament cannot block a no-deal exit, then who can? Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major has suggested mounting a legal challenge to stop Johnson suspending Parliament. The government is depicting its plans as routine, though, making it hard to argue against them. The Labour member of Parliament Ian Murray is pursuing a separate legal action in Scotland, which operates a distinct judicial system from the rest of the United Kingdom.

If any of these challenges succeed, the question becomes whether Johnson is able to pass a deal of his own. He might hope to bring home concessions from a meeting of EU heads of state two weeks before the Brexit deadline—and frighten previous refuseniks into voting for his deal as an alternative to a chaotic exit.

But if he still cannot pass a deal and a no-deal exit has been blocked, then he faces a choice: Ask for another extension from the EU or call for an election. He has already rejected the first option, saying that the October date is “do or die.” (However, it would not be the first time he has reneged on a promise.) The second option would require a vote of two-thirds of the House of Commons, and would almost certainly pass.

The timing then becomes crucial. A short election campaign takes six weeks, meaning a vote in the House of Commons next week would see polling day land around October 17. Parliament would not sit during this period, preventing it from blocking  a no-deal exit during that time. Johnson could go to the electorate—fed up with years of debate and discussion about Brexit—and present himself as the leader of the only party committed to leaving the EU at all costs.

Brexit Happens, Do or Die

What happens if both of those efforts—a vote of no confidence and bids to limit the government through legislation or in the courts—fail?

In effect, the government would not face any parliamentary scrutiny until mid-October, when the suspension of Parliament ends, by which time Johnson will be just two weeks away from his goal of taking Britain out of the EU—too little time for an election, and barely any time for last-ditch attempts to remove him from office.

Even if his opponents held out the hope of trying for a vote of no confidence, Johnson would have a little more than five weeks, without the hassle of explaining himself to Parliament, to negotiate a new withdrawal deal with the EU. Should he show any signs of progress in doing so, anti-Brexit Conservative MPs who would have considered defecting or voting against his government may feel it is their duty not to vote him down when the House of Commons returns.

Under Johnson’s plan, he will attend a final EU summit before Brexit on October 17 and 18 before putting any revised deal—if there is one—to Parliament on October 21 and 22. While lawmakers will have some room to attempt to remove Johnson from office before October 31, the die may be cast by this point and Johnson will be presenting MPs with a choice of deal or no deal. Either way, Brexit will go ahead on October 31 and Johnson will remain prime minister.