Boris Johnson corners his opponents and pushes Brexit towards a showdown

VIDEO: REUTERS
Boris Johnson's  move to suspend parliament and avoid delays to Brexit comes as a challenge to opponents trying to prevent the divorce deal.
Boris Johnson's move to suspend parliament and avoid delays to Brexit comes as a challenge to opponents trying to prevent the divorce deal.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's move to suspend Parliament and make good on his promise to avoid any more delays to Brexit has set the clock running for his opponents to thwart him. The question is whether they can do it in time.

In another dramatic turn of events in the United Kingdom's three-year quest to leave the European Union, Mr Johnson was granted permission by the Queen to "prorogue" the House of Commons, shutting down the debating chamber on Sept 12 ostensibly so he can come back with a new legislative programme a month later.

That effectively gives parliamentarians two weeks to come up with a way to pass a law to stop Britain leaving the EU on Oct 31, the current Brexit day, without a deal. While Mr Johnson and his supporters say disruption would be manageable, companies warn of a severe hit to the economy.

It is enough time, in theory. Earlier in the year, a similar Bill passed in five sitting days. But even as opponents - from within his own Conservatives as well as other parties - reacted with outrage at Mr Johnson on Wednesday, it remained unclear if they can make it happen.

Although there is a parliamentary majority against a no-deal Brexit, the problem for those trying to corral the opposition groups is that they all want different things. Many MPs in the opposition Labour party want a second Brexit referendum. The result is everyone may be faced with Mr Johnson's version of a deal or the cliff edge.

One key player will be Mr John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons. He described Mr Johnson's gambit as a "constitutional outrage". That suggests he will facilitate opposition plans to take control of the parliamentary agenda when Parliament returns on Sept 3. As the legislature's referee, he can rewrite the rules of the chamber.

"However it is dressed up, it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop Parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty in shaping a course for the country," he said. "At this time, one of the most challenging periods in our nation's history, it is vital that our elected Parliament has its say."

 
 
 

TORY DILEMMA

The biggest question mark hangs over the Conservatives. For all of the time Mr Johnson's predecessor Mrs Theresa May was in office, the problematic section of the party was the pro-Brexit bloc. It repeatedly pushed her to go further and then tried to throw her overboard. Conservatives who wanted a softer Brexit, or no Brexit at all, were much smaller in number.

But Mr Johnson's arrival saw ministers, including Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, leaving government jobs, many offering warnings that they wouldn't allow the new prime minister to risk no-deal.

There are now around 40 Tories who have indicated a willingness to rebel to prevent a no-deal Brexit. That's easily enough to overturn Mr Johnson's parliamentary majority of just one - if they decide to.

"The prorogation can't be stopped, but he won't escape Parliament by doing this," said Mr Dominic Grieve, a Conservative lawmaker and vocal Brexit opponent.

Then there's Labour. Their leader, Mr Jeremy Corbyn, is more attracted by the idea of a general election, although he has accepted he would have to offer a referendum. But though a handful of Tories want to cancel Brexit, most of them, including Mr Hammond, want Brexit to happen with a deal.

They differ on the best approach, too. Labour this month proposed a vote of no confidence in Mr Johnson, after which Mr Corbyn would be installed as a caretaker prime minister, with a mandate to seek a Brexit delay and call an election.

A significant chunk of MPs on the opposition benches, including some from his own party, are horrified at the idea of making Mr Corbyn - a lifelong socialist who has struggled to deal with an anti-Semitism scandal within Labour - prime minister, even briefly. The idea went down very badly with rebel Conservatives, too.

STARK CHOICE

It may come down to parliamentarians who oppose no-deal having to decide what they hate most, according to Ms Maddy Thimont Jack at the Institute for Government. "If they don't want the government to do this, then they should vote down the government," she said.

As Mr Johnson's opponents try to agree on a plan and rebel Tories decide how rebellious they really are, the government is moving to chip away at their votes.

The ground for Wednesday's move was laid on Tuesday, with an official saying the UK now saw the prospect of EU leaders moving towards giving Mr Johnson the changes he wanted to the Brexit agreement that Mrs May negotiated. Alongside that, Mr Johnson's office signalled that the prime minister might be willing to moderate his demands.

The underlying message to Conservative MPs worried about no-deal was that if they just gave Mr Johnson time, he would be able to deliver a new Brexit deal and present it to Parliament in triumph. And, as Mr Johnson himself pointed out, there would still be time when Parliament returned to stop a no-deal departure if he failed.

He said on Wednesday that his decision to seek the suspension of Parliament was about being able to push forward his agenda on health, crime prevention and education. "There will be ample time in Parliament for MPs to debate the EU, to debate Brexit, and all the other issues," he said.

While Mr Johnson's supporters argue that it is all routine and will only cost a week, another one will be lost with general debates following the Queen's Speech that sets out the legislative programme. And the effect of prorogation is to cause all pending legislation to die.

Mr Johnson's move restricts his opponents' room for manoeuvre, and forcing them into a corner could be counterproductive. Suspension means the rebels know they will only have one chance. It won't be a long wait to see how they use it while Mr Johnson's Brexit hard-liners stand firm.

"Boris' move today is not a 'coup' or an outrage," said Conservative lawmaker Bob Seely. "Losing World War II to Nazi Germany would have been a catastrophe. Leaving an unpopular, glorified federated trading block is not."