The British Bill That Slows a Hasty Brexit

Parliament delivers a blow to Boris Johnson’s power grab.

By

The European Union withdrawal bill passed by the British House of Commons on Sept. 4—followed by its passage Friday in the House of Lords—did more than just block British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s bid for a no-deal exit, or Brexit, from the European bloc.

It also reasserted the authority of the legislature in the face of an unprecedented play for power. In a sense, British legislators are facing up to a challenge with which their counterparts in the U.S. Congress are all too familiar: an executive willing to break the rules and conventions of democracy to get his way.

Except that U.S. President Donald Trump has generally proved more successful at securing the loyalty of his own party than Johnson. Some 21 Conservative members of parliament bucked Johnson to support the bill, including Winston Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames. Further, the showdown precipitated the resignation from Parliament of Johnson’s own brother, Jo, who said he had to choose loyalty to country over family in this standoff.

The European Union withdrawal bill passed by the British House of Commons on Sept. 4—followed by its passage Friday in the House of Lords—did more than just block British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s bid for a no-deal exit, or Brexit, from the European bloc.

It also reasserted the authority of the legislature in the face of an unprecedented play for power. In a sense, British legislators are facing up to a challenge with which their counterparts in the U.S. Congress are all too familiar: an executive willing to break the rules and conventions of democracy to get his way.

Except that U.S. President Donald Trump has generally proved more successful at securing the loyalty of his own party than Johnson. Some 21 Conservative members of parliament bucked Johnson to support the bill, including Winston Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames. Further, the showdown precipitated the resignation from Parliament of Johnson’s own brother, Jo, who said he had to choose loyalty to country over family in this standoff.

Each Friday, Foreign Policy publishes a document that best captures the spirit of international diplomacy and politics. “European Union Withdrawal Bill No. 6”  requires that the House of Commons approve, and the House of Lords recognize, any decision by the government to leave the EU, with or without a withdrawal agreement. If they don’t, the prime minister must ask the EU to extend the Oct. 31 deadline on Brexit by three months, to 11 p.m. on Jan. 31, 2020, to allow more time for a debate, and presumably a decision, on the country’s break from Europe. It remains uncertain how Brussels will respond, or whether Johnson will turn ignominious defeat into electoral victory in the event of a snap general election. But for the moment, it appears clear that Johnson’s room for maneuver has shrunk.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.