Combine an unwritten constitution, an apparently insoluble political problem and an unelected prime minister and what do you get? An unholy mess in the cradle of modern democracy, that’s what! Long regarded as the sensible sister, the UK is facing a political impasse over Brexit so thornily convoluted that veteran pundits find themselves searching for synonyms for “unprecedented.” What happens next is anyone’s guess, but here’s a quick outline of the unfolding debacle:
- After Parliament rejected Theresa May’s proposed Brexit deal, Boris Johnson was selected as prime minister by the Conservative Party membership on a promise to somehow force the EU to abandon its demand for a customs union “backstop” to avoid a hard border in Ireland. Johnson vowed to stare down the EU using the threat of a “no-deal” Brexit as leverage, even though the likely economic consequences of “crashing out” would be far worse for the UK than the EU.
- Facing a rebellion in the Tory ranks (as well as all the opposition parties) over his willingness to take the UK into a no-deal Brexit, Johnson sought to outmaneuver his rivals in the Conservative Party by asking the Queen to prorogue (dismiss) Parliament for five weeks, supposedly to prepare a new government agenda to be presented in the Queen’s Speech – but in reality to deprive his opponents of time to pass legislation preventing a no-deal Brexit. According to at least one respected scholar of English law, this move is an unconstitutional attempt to impinge on the sovereignty of Parliament, and might be struck down by the courts.
- His opponents responded by moving even more quickly to pass legislation that would force Johnson to ask Brussels for an extension to Article 50, which currently has Brexit scheduled for October 31 – Johnson’s own drop-dead deadline to leave the EU. The Article 50 vote is due tonight.
- Johnson has responded to the rebellion by threatening to call a Parliamentary election for October 14 if the Article 50 extension passes. Meanwhile he is also threatening to purge members of his own party who vote for the Article 50 extension through “de-selection,” preventing them from standing as Conservative candidates and thus removing them from the game board in the new Parliament. However this is a gamble, in part because it’s unclear whether their replacements would be reliable supporters of “no-deal” Brexit. Further, Conservative members threatened with deselection can simply change parties and stand for election again under a different banner.
- In other words, in the name of democracy (narrowly defined as the outcome of the Brexit referendum of 2016) an unelected prime minister has attempted to bypass Parliament and is also planning to give the boot to members of his own party who don’t agree with him. What’s next? Literally nobody knows! But extra innings are in the offing.
- UPDATE: The chaos is spreading with the news that Phillip Lee has defected from the Tories to the Liberal Democrats, ending Johnson’s razor-thin majority in Parliament, leaving him with little choice but to call a snap election as threatened. Meanwhile Lee warns that more defections from the Conservative ranks are likely, condemning the current government’s “political manipulation, bullying and lies.”
- UPDATE #2: Scottish First minister Nicola Sturgeon is seeking the legal power to hold a second Scottish independence referendum, once again raising the possibility of the dissolution of the UK in the wake of Brexit.
- UPDATE #3: And that’s it! The anti-no-deal rebels have succeeded in taking control of the agenda in the House of Commons, meaning Johnson has virtually other option but to call an election — which he is now in danger of losing.