Could this debacle known as Brexit become more unpredictable? Just three weeks ago (in an article published on 8/21) I felt arrogantly safe in guaranteeing that there would be an October 31 withdrawal by Britain from the EU (European Union). At the time I would have put the chances of it at 95 out of 100 or better (after all, there was a law in place mandating that it happen). Today I’d make the odds of it 50-50 (and probably dropping). Several weeks ago, all of the momentum seemed to be in Johnson’s favor. His controversial decision, backed by Queen Elizabeth, to suspend Parliament and thereby keep his critics in check, while it may have appeared brilliant when it was executed (I would have favored it myself had Boris Johnson asked), now appears to have been a clear (and costly) misfire. The move succeeded in leaving the inexorable impression that, at this especially-sensitive time, Johnson was seizing control of the government (in what would almost qualify as a coup-like fashion), eliminating the possibility of further debate, using this tactic to put a leash on his doubters and critics, doing so unfairly in the minds of many. In fact, it appears to me that, by infuriating individuals both in and outside of Parliament, Johnson’s folly destroyed all of the momentum he had accrued (it was a pretty sizeable momentum). Three weeks ago, Labour-Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was – in an effort that seemed hazy and vague – still doing his utmost to marshal opposition to Boris Johnson’s October 31 Brexit-or-bust strategy – efforts that were largely considered earnest but not serious, that were not being deemed likely to succeed. Well thanks to Johnson’s miscalculation, Corbyn has become a genuine player in the Brexit drama.
Everybody who has watched the Boris Johnson Brexit saga has heard or read his “dead in a ditch” analogy enough times to repeat it back to him by heart. Nobody questions Johnson’s resolve or his convictions, in either the concept of Brexit or this strategy he has embraced to bring it about – he entered office vowing to carry this off. On the other hand, the British Parliament was able to pass a measure (again after Johnson attempted to muffle opposition voices by sending members home) that prohibits an October 31 Brexit in the event that no EU deal is reached by October 19. If no deal is in place, the legislation specifies that an extension of Brexit into January of 2020 must be sought from the EU – a way to allow for continuing negotiations on a new or revised deal. This piece of legislation has effectively put handcuffs on the wrists of Boris Johnson. It doesn’t help matters either that he chose to cast 21 members of his own Conservative Party from Parliament after they sided with Corbyn and others of the opposition to push through the legislation prohibiting Brexit without a deal (pushing out those 21 members was another poorly-conceived maneuver by Boris Johnson; he emerges from it appearing petty and childish, like a spoiled kid who suddenly is denied something he wants (ring any bells?) – if Boris Johnson is willing to throw Winston Churchill’s grandson out of Parliament, it’s difficult to see how anybody would be safe who crossed him).
Johnson’s options to resolve his Brexit mess are rapidly disintegrating. Each new day seems to bring with it fewer remaining and viable possibilities. Prime Minister Johnson has attempted to call for an early election, one that would enable him to reform his Conservative majority, stock it after the bloodletting with reliable votes for his pro-Brexit-by-October-31-or-bust agenda – only to be thwarted in these attempts twice. Below are some possibilities (six of them) that pundits, experts, and other folks claim remain open to Boris Johnson (listed in the order of their likelihood by my own view). It’s kind of fun to watch from a distance and speculate.
Here’s what Boris could do:
6)Resurrect Theresa May’s Deal
This could entail either using May’s deal as is or reworking, renegotiating, or otherwise revising portions of it, the goal to make it more palatable to the members of Parliament who had rejected it before (some of whom have indicated publicly that they would likely support that same deal now, having been subjected by Mr. Boris Johnson to his terrifying alternative).
For those who don’t know the story, Boris Johnson succeeded Theresa May as British Prime Minister earlier this year. Her late-spring resignation opened the door to him, her resignation one that had could attributed almost exclusively to her failed Brexit policies. Indeed May’s cabinet was able to successfully negotiate a Brexit deal with the EU only to watch her clumsily attempt, three times, to move it through Parliament. Johnson was a malignant critic of the May-negotiated deal, a fact that makes it problematic for him to embrace that deal, even if it were to be amended somehow, with a straight face. There’s another problem. New deal, old deal, existing deal, revamped deal, May’s deal, Johnson’s deal, any deal really – the suspended Parliament will not reconvene until October 14 – a mere five days before the deadline requiring that a delay be sought for Brexit if there’s no deal with the EU in place. Five days is not long to accomplish something that has proved discouragingly difficult if not impossible for three years – achieving a consensus on what a Brexit deal should entail.
It would shock me if a scenario like this came about; it would surprise me even more if it came about before October 19.
5)Negotiate a New Different Deal
Even assuming that Johnson’s team could do a new deal with the EU between now and October 14 when Parliament returns, he faces the same set of problems he would trying to push through a version of Theresa May’s deal – thanks in part to his own antics (suspending Parliament that way), it’s difficult to believe that there will be time enough between October 14 and October 19 to accomplish something that has heretofore proved so elusive.
4)Dispatch Two Letters to the EU
What does this mean? In the law that it passed, Parliament has mandated that Johnson (or another PM presumably) submit a letter to the EU requesting a Brexit extension if no deal is in place between the two sides by October 19. The law specifies precisely what this correspondence between the UK and EU is to contain, giving Johnson no leeway, not an inch of wiggle room, to create his own conditions, terms, or timetable. For any politician in any city in any country in the world these kinds of constraints will probably be viewed as demeaning and unacceptable. Perhaps this explains why Johnson’s team has floated the idea of sending the EU a separate correspondence enumerating its own terms and conditions (which correspondence, since it had followed the earlier letter to the EU mandated by Parliament, would make it the de facto official position of the UK government).
There is some difference of opinion among legal experts as to whether such an approach would ever stand up in court. The very fact that it would certainly be challenged in the British courts by Johnson’s opposition might well remove it from any consideration. I am absolutely metaphysically positive – there will be no Brexit by October 31 (under any circumstances) if this Pandora’s Box is opened. Even worse, Johnson would be reneging on his “dead in a ditch” vow, something that I can’t fathom him risking.
3)Britain Uses Its EU Position to Kill any Proposed Brexit Extension
This is a clever notion here – Britain, still a full current member of the EU, could use its voting position as such to neutralize any extension to which other EU members agreed. The capacity of an EU member, Britain or any other, to actually do this is open to debate, however there is nothing in any present agreement between the EU and its member nations to actually outlaw it. In theory then, Britain could vote down the negotiated extension, and because Parliament’s recently-passed law designed to stop a deal-less Brexit isn’t clear about what would transpire next, what would happen if the extension was voted down by an EU member, Brexit would be left to go as planned on October 31.
It’s difficult for me to see this stunt being allowed to stand, it’s difficult to imagine the opponents of Johnson’s Brexit-by-October-31-or-bust strategy not undertaking drastic legal efforts or demanding some input from the court system before they even considered capitulating. Even if the courts ultimately sided with Johnson’s administration, that decision would come when October 31, 2019 was comfortably in the rearview mirror (with Boris Johnson clearly taking his October 31 deadline personally, it’s difficult to see him jeopardizing it).
2)Pretend the Pesky Law He Hates Doesn’t Exist
This is something that Johnson could do – but if he goes through with it, the British courts again are sure to be involved to the detriment of his cherished October-31-or-bust Brexit strategy).
1)Follow Theresa May’s Lead and Resign as British PM
Boris Johnson might reach the conclusion that he has no choice here but to take this drastic step. Could he remain in office if his October 31 promise to separate from the EU is torpedoed? Possibly, if he could successfully blame the resulting legal challenges and fouled-up court system for his broken promise – but that doesn’t sound much to me like Boris Johnson. Having been a strident critic of Theresa May and the version of Brexit negotiated and championed by her team that had repeatedly failed to pass Parliament, he used her failure to claim ownership of the process; the Brexit problem essentially became his. Think that Mr. Johnson doesn’t have a little better appreciation now for what Theresa May faced in her tenure as PM?
There is also the intriguing possibility that Johnson could resign and take measures to place his most vociferous political rival, Jeremy Corbyn (who has been the same rousing critic of Johnson’s policies that he had been once of Theresa May’s) exactly where he (Boris Johnson) is sitting right now.
This is because should Boris Johnson resign, he has the option of recommending to the queen, whose job it will be to appoint Johnson’s successor, the person he prefers to have the position. It would take a leader of some resolve to help install a rival, somebody who had proved instrumental in blocking (and mocking) the overarching purpose of his brief tenure as British Prime Minister. Boris Johnson strikes me as somebody who might be comfortable doing it. Matter of fact, I can picture him, standing in the background sipping from a margarita straw as he waves to the harried and apoplectic Jeremy Corbyn, the man now responsible for negotiating a satisfactory Brexit deal and somehow pushing it through Parliament.
1A)For good measure, here is another possibility that I find worth considering (and increasingly possible). If Johnson is unable to force an October 31 Brexit on the UK, the Brexit concept itself could drift into a state of limbo, die on the vine because there’s no clear consensus of how to proceed and little remaining enthusiasm to carry Brexit through anyway (it’s been three years since this referendum known as Brexit narrowly passed by a public vote – for three years this story has been confounding governments and impacting financial markets) – in other words, if the uncertainty and delays to get and pass a deal continue, a point may be reached at which Brexit never happens at all.