Boris Johnson's Brexit gamble begins

Parliament will not sit for long enough for the opposition to block No Deal. This is unprecedented and daring, but not unconstitutional.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s audacious gamble may yet yield the breakthrough that eluded his predecessor, at least from the British side. The European Union is much less likely to bend on the question of the Irish backstop, however much that is desired by ardent Eurosceptics. Nonetheless in a Brexit process that is complex and multi-staged, it is logical for the British government to wish to surmount one challenge at a time. The immediate priority for PM Johnson is to get Brexit through by October 31st, even if that means a ‘No deal’ Brexit where rules for trade and transport links do not hold in place any longer.

There is a reason why PM Johnson has opted for such a controversial and high risk strategy. The UK has been stuck for three years in acrimonious and divisive debate on how to move Brexit forward, with a seeming inability to compromise on both sides, Remain and Leave. This is key to an impasse that has hindered the British political process. Nothing but Brexit has been discussed for three years and yet there is no progress on the issue. This is a tragicomic event stretching into farce, with the lingering uncertainty yielding substantial economic uncertainty. Businesses and governments globally need clarity on what is going to happen next. By leaning toward No Deal strongly, the Johnson government has provided that clarity.

The process Boris Johnson has used is to take advantage of the aftermath to a Queen’s speech to de facto suspend Parliament for longer than usual, so that opponents of No Deal Brexit will not have enough time to legislate against it. This enables the UK government to claim with some credibility that it is preparing for a No Deal. Hitherto, the EU may have been sceptical about preparation for No Deal. With Johnson increasing the likelihood of No Deal significantly, the level of scepticism in Europe regarding No Deal may change. That is the theory in any case.

What has changed is that Boris Johnson now has a viable route to get No Deal exit through, whereas previously he had to contend with a Parliament that was and is intrinsically hostile to No Deal. It is very unlikely the EU will accommodate the UK by removing the backstop, because the peace in Northern Ireland is at stake and also because the integrity of the EU itself is at stake. However No Deal will lead to considerable disruption, economic pain and security issues, costs that will be borne by both the UK and the EU.

Politically it is difficult to sympathise with those complaining about No Deal as there was ample opportunity to vote for Brexit with a deal through Parliament. This was stalled by extremists on both sides, Remainers who hoped to stall Brexit and Leavers who wished to see the backstop removed. A No Deal will be painful, but the process Johnson has used to get there is fully constitutional. He has cleverly used a routine piece of constitutional procedure- the proroguing of Parliament after the Queen’s Speech- to buy himself time to get his No Deal Brexit through. This sleight of hand merely demonstrates that the Brexit side is much quicker to act than the Remain side. The Prime Minister has not established a dictatorship, nor has he suspended democracy.

The real strategic issue of concern is that No Deal Brexit could cause long hidden questions about the integrity of the United Kingdom itself to come forth. It could imperil the Union, as Northern Ireland grapples with the reality of a hard border that comes with No Deal. That will threaten the peace at a moment when British security services are grappling with global threats and simultaneous declining budgets. There is also the question of the outcome of a General Election. If the Tories fail to win a majority – a real possibility if Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader resigns- then the political process will be back to square one.

Brexit is proving to be immensely complex, with few ready answers. No-one had taken the idea of a Leave victory seriously three years ago, so there was not adequate contemplation, let alone preparation for the serious challenges it would pose in terms of maintaining the fragile peace in Northern Ireland. Boris Johnson’s gamble takes him closer to overcoming the short term hurdle of ramming a No Deal Brexit through Parliament. Whether he has long term answers to emerging strategic challenges in Scotland and Northern Ireland, while managing a chaotic No Deal Brexit, remains to be seen.