If Parliament thought they could box in Boris Johnson with the Benn Act, he has some news for them and the EU. The PM went to Parliament to demand quick action on the enabling legislation for his deal, and with a warning to the Commons and the EU. If they impose any significant extension of the Brexit deadline from his forced request over the weekend, Johnson will pull the bill, kill the deal, and demand a general election instead:
“If Parliament refuses to allow Brexit to happen… and decides to delay everything until January or possibly longer… the bill will have to be pulled” – UK PM Boris Johnson confirms he will call a general election if his Brexit bill is rejected
— BBC Breaking News (@BBCBreaking) October 22, 2019
I will in no way allow months more of this. If parliament refuses to allow Brexit to happen and instead gets its way and decided to delay everything until January or possibly longer, in those circumstances [the government cannot] continue with this … I must say that the bill will have to be pulled and we will have to go forward to a general election. I will argue at that election: ‘let’s get Brexit done’. And the leader of the opposition will make his case to spend 2020 having two referendums – one on Brexit and one on Scotland…
Mr Speaker, there is another path. That is to accept, as I have done, that this deal does not give us everything that we want. And all of us can find clauses and provisions to which we can [object], as we can in any compromise. But it also gives us the opportunity to conclude that there is no dishonour in setting aside the entirely legitimate desire to deliver the perfect deal in the interest of seizing the great deal that is now within our grasp.
Well said, although I prefer the Theresa May original recording to the Boris Johnson cover.
Johnson later clarified that he’d allow for a short delay to get this deal through, but anything else would trigger a showdown:
NEW Am told that @BorisJohnson is now ready to accept a ten day Brexit delay beyond “do or die” day on Oct 31 if he loses programme motion tonight. But only if EU says it’s the final, final extension. “They won’t do that – so in practice we’ll pull the bill,” says No 10 source
— George Parker (@GeorgeWParker) October 22, 2019
At any rate, this is a clever ploy by Johnson. The longer Parliament looks at this deal, the worse it will get for the government. For instance, Johnson and his deputies are claiming that the agreement allows Northern Ireland’s Stormont to veto the provisions that will set up a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea. One of Johnson’s erstwhile DUP allies stood up and declared that her copy of the enabling act seemed to be missing a few pages:
Emma Little Pengelly, DUP, asks if there has been a “mistake in the printing” of the withdrawal agreement, because she can’t find clauses referred to by PM saying the “terrible” arrangements will disappear on the signing of a free trade deal with the EU pic.twitter.com/Sknogym83y
— John Rentoul (@JohnRentoul) October 22, 2019
The more scrutiny that gets applied to Johnson’s deal, the more opportunity there is for soft support to peel away — especially the support based on the idea that a bad deal is preferable to no deal at all. If the EU offers another extension, why not use that to keep negotiating, or to rethink the idea altogether? To get this bill passed and deliver Brexit as promised, Johnson needs to keep it in crisis mode.
If that doesn’t work, then Johnson can press again to get what he really wants — a general election. He can’t use it to create a default no-deal Brexit, but an election victory would provide him a claim for a mandate to tell the EU to pound sand. He’d have to get cooperation from Nigel Farage, whose own assessment of Johnson’s deal with the EU is even more negative than May’s agreement. That means Johnson would almost have to campaign on a no-deal Brexit, which at least would clarify what the British people truly want for the first time since the referendum in 2016, which was phrased on a purely conceptual basis. As long as Jeremy Corbyn remains Labour leader, Johnson has a leg up in any election.
However, that doesn’t mean Corbyn will agree to an election, and Johnson will have to get at least some of the Labour contingent to go along with it. It takes a supermajority to call a snap election now, thanks to a 2011 change in the UK law that sets fixed terms for Parliament. Johnson can pull his bill, but that alone won’t get him an election — even though it’s clearly what the UK needs.
Johnson’s likely to get his predicate from the EU, too. The question isn’t so much whether the EU agrees to a Brexit delay, but for how long. The options run from no extension at all, which is highly unlikely, to an open-ended extension that’s probably even less likely. The real decision is between the Benn Act date of January 31 or some intermediate date:
Pros: A short, technical extension could be sold as not materially delaying Brexit while avoiding no deal — but at the same time it might not be sufficient to resolve all of the uncertainty still swirling in London, especially if British politics comes up with any new surprises. A further delay of “a few days or a few weeks” in order to avoid a no-deal Brexit would not be a problem, said German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier on Monday.
A short extension of just a few weeks would be most useful in case the ratification process in the U.K needs a bit more time for technical rather than political reasons. EU diplomats say that an extension granted only for technical reasons could be agreed without the need to summon EU leaders to Brussels for another summit.
Cons: The key question is whether a short extension would really be long enough to accomplish anything, or if EU27 leaders will have to come back and extend their extension once again? This is the nightmare scenario envisioned by leaders who are eager to move on to other things, and who believe the EU has already wasted enough time and resources on Brexit.
The Benn Act deadline is the most likely scenario, Politico concludes:
Pros: A delay until the end of January is probably the easiest option. This is the date specified by the Benn Act (the legislation that has compelled Johnson’s government to put in the extension request), so EU leaders can say they are simply complying with an ask from the British parliament.
It’s also the surest way to prove that the EU is not interfering in the U.K.’s internal political debates. “The EU will first and foremost want to isolate itself from the … process and avoid coming in on one of the sides in the debate,” an EU diplomat said. “So I assume we’ll respond in kind to what is asked.”
Cons: After all the tumult of Brexit, giving the Brits what they want could be seen as a dangerous and undesirable precedent.
That’s not “giving the Brits what they want.” No one in the UK really wants a delay; they either want a no-deal Brexit or a do-over on the referendum. It’s safe to say that few Brits want the deal Johnson’s touting, and that may also exclude Johnson himself. Agreeing to the Benn Act letter discourages both while leaving the EU outside of the parliamentary muddle. It’s the best option Brussels has, which is not a happy state of affairs by any means.
Will Johnson get his election when the EU grants the extension? Watch what happens with Corbyn. If he gets replaced, Labour will stampede into an election, and Johnson might have reason to worry about his prospects.
Addendum: Sinn Féin has a solution to the backstop, and thinks it might come well ahead of Johnson’s promised veto timeline:
Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O’Neill said #Brexit has become the catalyst for holding a border poll.
She said the “genie is out of the bottle” when it comes to a united Ireland and the EU, UK and Ireland need to start planning for it. pic.twitter.com/XZp8MaQHwD
— Áine McMahon (@AineMcMahon) October 22, 2019
Update: Johnson got good news and bad news. A second reading of his implementing legislation passed by thirty votes. However, Parliament shot down Johnson’s accelerated schedule for full consideration, and now he has “paused” the bill:
PM says Government will pause the legislation. No mention of an election. He says preparations for a no deal Brexit will be stepped up. PM to talk to EU about extension.
— Ken Reid (@KenReid_utv) October 22, 2019