Dispatch

Now It’s Really ‘Do or Die’ for Boris Johnson

Following a high court ruling that his suspension of Parliament was unlawful, the lame-duck British prime minister will have to confront a hostile Commons.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives for a meeting with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 24.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives for a meeting with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 24. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

LONDON—The ruling by Britain’s highest court Tuesday that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent suspension of Parliament was unlawful has thrown the future of his premiership into doubt—and renders all but unachievable his promise to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union by Halloween. 

In a harshly worded unanimous verdict, all 11 justices concluded that the government’s decision to suspend Parliament earlier this month “was unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions.” Moreover, the court found that the government had “no justification” in suspending Parliament for a five-week period—and ruled that since the order to suspend Parliament was unlawful, the House of Commons had not, in fact, been suspended after all. 

Within minutes of the ruling, all opposition party leaders demanded Johnson’s resignation, and the speaker of the House of Commons called for Parliament to reassemble Wednesday morning. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called Johnson’s suspension of Parliament “an abuse of power” that demonstrated “a contempt for democracy.” Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson said that Johnson’s move was “an unlawful act designed to stop Parliament doing its job” that showed that he was “not fit to be prime minister.” The Evening Standard, an anti-Brexit newspaper, featured an image of Johnson under the banner headline “GUILTY.”

Johnson himself strongly rejected any suggestion that he would resign. “As I said earlier on, let’s be absolutely clear that we respect the judiciary in our country and we respect the court. I disagree profoundly with what they had to say,” said the prime minister, speaking alongside U.S. President Donald Trump at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In response to a question to Johnson if he might step down, Trump interjected: “I’ll tell you, I know him well, he’s not going anywhere.” Johnson concurred. “No, no, no,” he told reporters.

Johnson, who lost his slender parliamentary majority earlier this month after a rebellion by 21 of his own members of parliament, had responded by suspending Parliament for an unprecedented 45 days—supposedly to allow time for the government to prepare a new legislative program. The suspension had “nothing to do with Brexit,” said a spokesman for Johnson at the time. In Tuesday’s ruling, the Supreme Court essentially accused the government of lying.

The chorus of disapproval from the opposition likely does not signal the immediate end of Johnson’s career. Though the combined opposition now commands an overall majority in Parliament—paralyzing the government’s ability to pass legislation—it has so far held off on ousting Johnson in a vote of confidence or calling a new election.

The reason that Corbyn and other opposition leaders are reluctant to bring down the ax on Johnson’s premiership is simple electoral arithmetic. Johnson’s zealous promise to deliver Brexit by Oct. 31, “do or die,” has boosted his Conservative Party’s flagging popularity in the polls and apparently stemmed a tide of voters defecting from the Tories to the even more radically anti-EU Brexit Party. Opinion polls last week show the Conservatives polling around 32 percent of the vote—with Labour at 24 percent and the Liberal Democrats at 20 percent. In Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, a split opposition vote spells a big win for the Conservative Party and its promise to deliver Brexit—even though polls also show that a rerun of the in-or-out Brexit referendum today would produce a 49 percent to 44 percent split in favor of remaining in the EU. 

Unless, that is, Johnson fails to deliver Brexit as promised on Oct. 31.

The opposition-controlled Parliament’s final act before its suspension was to pass a law obliging the government to ask the EU for an extension of the Brexit deadline in the event that no deal is struck in the last remaining European Council meeting on Oct. 17 and 18. The political calculation is ruthlessly simple: If Parliament can force Johnson to renege on his “do or die” promise, Conservative hopes of election victory will be damaged by a wholesale exodus of hard-line Brexiteers to the Brexit Party, whose sole electoral platform is to get Britain out of the EU without any kind of deal at all. 

That logic will still hold once Parliament reconvenes Wednesday in the wake of the government’s defeat in the courts. Only one thing will really change between now and the end of October: Instead of a relatively quiet few weeks that Johnson was hoping to use to set out his domestic agenda for a coming election by visiting schools, hospitals, and police academies, the government will instead face a near-daily parliamentary kicking. 

A lame-duck administration with a government in office but not in power, unable to command a Commons majority, is unprecedented in British political history. Historically, the loss of a government’s majority automatically precipitated a general election. But the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act, originally conceived as an expedient to shore up a coalition government, mandated that a two-thirds majority was required to call a new election before a fixed five-year term expired. That new rule has placed control of the date of any election in the hands of Corbyn, who has regularly called for a new election but not until after the Brexit deadline. 

Another option for the opposition would be to bring down Johnson in a no-confidence vote and try to form a cross-party government of national unity—an expedient last used during World War II. But the Liberal Democrats, the second-largest opposition party, are strongly against any deal that would put Corbyn—who as leader of the opposition is the natural candidate for interim prime minister—into No. 10 Downing St., even as head of a temporary coalition. 

With Parliament now officially back in session, Johnson has little room left to maneuver. There are only two ways he can fulfill his promise and take Britain out of the EU on schedule. One is to strike a new deal with Brussels on Oct. 17 and have it passed by Parliament in the final two weeks before Oct. 31. The other is to defy the law that obliges him to seek an extension in the event of a failure to reach an agreement and take Britain out with no deal in place—triggering massive economic disruption to the U.K.’s trade as well as to supplies of food and medicines, according to the government’s own forecasts. 

Johnson has repeatedly insisted that a new deal is possible, claiming after his arrival in New York that he was “cautiously optimistic” that a new deal could be struck that allowed the U.K. to leave the EU without installing an unpopular hard border between the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, and Northern Ireland. But top EU negotiator Michel Barnier on Monday called the U.K.’s proposals for the intractable problem of the border “unacceptable,” adding that “it is difficult to see how we arrive at a legally operable solution” based on “current U.K. thinking.” A senior British official told Foreign Policy earlier this month that there was little of substance to Johnson’s new initiatives and that U.K. negotiators in Brussels were simply “going through the motions” rather than presenting realistic new proposals. 

In the absence of any revolutionary new solutions over the next three weeks, any possible deal that Johnson can strike will necessarily bear a very close resemblance to the deal originally painstakingly negotiated over the last three years by his predecessor, Theresa May—and rejected by historic margins by the House of Commons. Both opponents of Brexit and Brexit purists voted against May’s deal as the worst of all possible worlds, leaving the U.K. outside the EU while effectively being forced to follow all its rules. Johnson resigned his post of foreign minister in July 2018 rather than support it, describing the deal as “vassalage”—before eventually changing his mind and backing it. 

It’s possible that enough former opponents of May’s deal will follow Johnson in changing their minds and vote through a last-moment cosmetically tweaked version. More likely, though, is an ongoing showdown between Johnson and Parliament as the clock ticks down to Brexit Day. The battle lines have already been drawn by Johnson, who has frequently denounced the House of Commons for defying “the voice of the people” as expressed in the 48 percent to 52 percent result in 2016’s Brexit referendum. 

This “Parliament versus the people” strategy has some polling evidence to back it—a recent Ipsos MORI survey showed that just 9 percent of those polled ranked politicians as “trustworthy,” behind bankers and lawyers. But with Johnson’s political promises now a hostage to the will of an increasingly hostile and radical Parliament, his promise to take Brexit over the line, in apparent defiance of a majority of voters, is looking increasingly shaky.

Owen Matthews, the author of Stalin's Children, is based in the United Kingdom. He was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2016. Twitter: @owenmatth

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