Brexit: Boris Johnson faces mounting legal, political, diplomatic challenges

Boris Johnson has pledged that Britain will leave the EU on Oct 31, either with or without a deal, and has said that keeping a no-deal Brexit on the table strengthens Britain's hand in seeking a new deal with the bloc.
Boris Johnson has pledged that Britain will leave the EU on Oct 31, either with or without a deal, and has said that keeping a no-deal Brexit on the table strengthens Britain's hand in seeking a new deal with the bloc.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON/HELSINKI (REUTERS/AFP) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Brexit plan was facing mounting legal, political and diplomatic challenges on Friday (Aug 30) as Ireland accused Britain of being unreasonable and former British leader John Major sought to stop the suspension of Parliament.

The ultimate outcome of Britain's tortuous three-year Brexit crisis remains unclear with options ranging from a frantic departure without an exit deal or a last-minute agreement to an election or referendum that could cancel the whole endeavour.

Lawmakers who are seeking to block a no-deal Brexit are making it more likely that Britain leaves the European Union without a deal, Johnson said on Friday.

Johnson, the face of the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, has pledged that Britain will leave the EU on Oct 31, either with or without a deal, and has said that keeping a no-deal Brexit on the table strengthens Britain's hand in seeking a new deal with the bloc - a threat he hopes will convince the bloc to give him the exit deal he wants.

"The more the parliamentarians try to block the no-deal Brexit, the more likely it is that we'll end up in that situation," Johnson told the BBC.

The European Union will not give Britain the divorce deal it wants if it believes that Brexit can be stopped, Johnson told Sky News on Friday.

"I'm afraid that the more our friends and partners think, at the back of their minds, that Brexit could be stopped, that the UK could be kept in by Parliament, the less likely they are to give us the deal that we need," Johnson said.

He warned MPs against trying to block Brexit from happening on Oct 31, saying it would do "lasting damage" to trust in politics.

 
 
 

"If we stop the UK from leaving on October 31, if that's what parliamentarians end up doing, it will do lasting damage to people's trust in politics," Johnson told Sky News.

In the eye of the Brexit maelstrom, though, Johnson was under mounting pressure: opponents in Parliament were plotting to tear up his Brexit plans or topple his government, while his suspension of Parliament was under scrutiny in the courts.

The government said British negotiators would hold twice-weekly talks with EU officials next month in an attempt to rework the Brexit agreement that Britain's Parliament has repeatedly rejected.

"We are ready to work in an energetic and determined way to get a deal done," Johnson said on Thursday.

"While I have been encouraged with my discussions with EU leaders over recent weeks that there is a willingness to talk about alternatives to the anti-democratic backstop, it is now time for both sides to step up the tempo."

Johnson wants the so-called backstop, the fallback provisions regarding the Irish border, scrapped completely.

His lead Brexit negotiator David Frost will be joined in Brussels by different officials depending on the talks' agenda, including experts on customs, regulatory issues and trade policy, the government said.

"Discussions so far have shown that the two sides remain some distance apart on key issues but that both sides are willing to work hard to find a way through," Johnson's Downing Street office said in a statement.

"The teams intend to run through a range of issues including the impasse around the backstop.

"The PM has been clear that there will be no new deal unless the withdrawal agreement is reopened and the backstop taken out," it added.

Johnson's bid to get the insurance policy for the Irish border changed was bluntly dismissed by Dublin which said London was being totally unreasonable.

"Boris Johnson is outlining a very clear and firm position but it is a totally unreasonable position that the EU cannot facilitate and he must know that," Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said in an interview with Ireland's Newstalk radio.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Britain should make concrete proposals as soon as possible but that the EU could not imagine reopening the Withdrawal Agreement that Johnson's predecessor Theresa May agreed with Brussels last November.

Britain insisted it had made proposals on the border backstop and that it was "untrue" to suggest it had not.

 
 
 

BREXIT ENSNARED

With just two months until the United Kingdom is due to leave the EU, Johnson's decision to ask Queen Elizabeth to suspend Parliament was under challenge from three separate court proceedings.

The queen on Wednesday approved Johnson's order to suspend Parliament from as early as Sept 9 to Oct 14, a move that ensures Parliament would sit for around four days less than it had been expected to.

Former prime minister John Major, whose 1990-1997 premiership included the 1992 disorderly exit of the pound from the Exchange Rate Mechanism, asked to join one of the proceedings to block Johnson's order.

A Scottish court will hear arguments on Sept 3, a case brought by campaigner Gina Miller will be heard on Sept 5 and a Northern Irish court will hear a separate case on Sept 6.

Ultimately, the cases could be combined to go to the Supreme Court - the final court of appeal in the United Kingdom which hears cases of the gravest constitutional importance.

"Legal proceedings can be fast-tracked as the judges in the case determine," Robert Blackburn, professor of constitutional law at King's College London, told Reuters.

"If the case of those bringing the legal proceedings wins, the Supreme Court could quash and/or declare unlawful the Privy Council order authorising the forthcoming prorogation," said Blackburn.

In Parliament, the battle for Brexit was due to begin in earnest on Sept 3 when lawmakers return from their summer break and will try to either topple the government or force through a law designed to prevent Britain leaving the EU without an exit deal.

Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth II has been drawn into the Brexit battle as it comes to the crunch, opening the politically neutral sovereign to potentially challenging positions for her role as a constitutional monarch. 

The 93-year-old head of state approved Johnson’s advice to cut down the number of days parliament will meet before Britain is due to leave the European Union on October 31. 

Experts say Queen Elizabeth had no option but to approve the request. 

Mike Gordon, professor of constitutional law at the University of Liverpool, said Queen Elizabeth may now face dangerous situations further down the line following Johnson’s move.  The constitution is unwritten, instead relying on precedent and convention. 

“This definitely puts the queen in a potentially tricky position because it’s drawing her into the most contentious and divisive political debate in the UK,” he said. 

Britain is a constitutional monarchy, meaning the sovereign has the right to be consulted, to warn and to encourage, but can only act on the advice of her ministers. 

“It’s the oldest rule in the constitution,” said Robert Craig, a constitutional expert at Durham University. 

Simply put, the checks and balances of power mean that the monarch has authority in name while the prime minister has effective authority.  The next steps may become trickier still.  Johnson’s opponents want to pass legislation to stop a no-deal Brexit.  If they succeed, “there’s the possibility the government might advise the queen not to give the royal assent – and at that point we’ll be in difficult constitutional territory,” said Gordon.  “The convention she gives the royal assent to anything parliament will pass clashes with the convention she acts on ministerial advice.”

The last monarch to refuse royal assent – signing a bill into law – was queen Anne in 1708. 

‘Constitutional outrage’

On the throne since 1952, it is hard to imagine anyone better-versed in the sovereign’s duties than Britain’s longest-serving monarch.  Unlike in other countries where the head of state might play a more active role in politics, British politicians are expected to sort it out among themselves before involving the sovereign. 

Queen Elizabeth has rarely been drawn into political crises.  The closest she came was the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis when her governor-general John Kerr sacked prime minister Gough Whitlam. She refused appeals to get involved. 

The current session of parliament has been the longest in nearly 400 years.  Johnson’s opponents see the closure and reset as politically-motivated and wrongfully using the prime minister’s powers by craftily involving the monarch in the Brexit saga. 

Even John Bercow, speaker of the House of Commons, branded it a “constitutional outrage”. 

The move has put the sovereign in a difficult position, with some seeing her as having taken sides over Brexit. 

Anti-Brexit campaign group Best for Britain tweeted: “If the Queen is asked to help, she would do well to remember history doesn’t look too kindly on royals who aid and abet the suspension of democracy.” It later clarified that its statement was not “intended to wish her harm”.