Dispatch

Parliament Is Skeptical About Boris’s Brexit Deal

Still, if the new agreement fails to gain approval, the public may not blame Johnson at the polls.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is pictured.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson waits to welcome NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to No. 10 Downing St. on Oct. 15. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

LONDON—In a dramatic turnaround early Thursday morning, European Union leaders and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed on a new withdrawal agreement on the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU. However, key parliamentary allies of the Johnson government refused to back the deal, setting the stage for another rejection by the House of Commons when it sits on Saturday to discuss the new agreement.

The key concession in Johnson’s new deal was that he had effectively agreed to leave Northern Ireland inside Europe’s customs union while the rest of the U.K. left on Oct. 31. But the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose 10 parliamentary votes Johnson would need to get any deal approved by the Commons, has so far balked at the notion of an effective customs border separating Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain. More, DUP leader Arlene Foster insisted Thursday that her party stood firm in its insistence on a veto on continuing Northern Ireland’s remaining in the EU customs zone indefinitely.

“As things stand, we could not support what is being suggested on customs and consent issues,” Foster said in a statement. “We will continue to work with the government to try and get a sensible deal that works for Northern Ireland and protects the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.”

European leaders and EU officials publicly backed the deal as they went into a crucial two-day summit in Brussels, at which they are expected to green-light the formal withdrawal agreement. But several also expressed doubts that Johnson would be able to get the deal ratified by Parliament. French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed the Brexit deal as a positive breakthrough but added: “Based on past experience, we have to be reasonably cautious.”

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker suggested Thursday that with the deal reached, “there is no need for prolongation”—causing Euroskeptic parts of the British press to speculate that the EU would refuse to extend the deadline even if Johnson fails to get parliamentary ratification. But a Brexit extension is not in fact Juncker’s to give—it requires a unanimous decision by all 27 EU member states.

Even if Johnson does eventually twist the DUP’s arm sufficiently for the party to back the new deal, he still faces a hostile Parliament and will have an uphill struggle getting its approval. “It’s absolutely Groundhog Day,” said one senior British civil servant not authorized to speak on the record. Johnson has “being saying his usual Boris things about being vigorous and imaginative and bullish and all that, but the reality is that … we’re having the exact same arguments [over Ireland] that we were having three years ago.”

And the result has been, according to the civil servant, that Johnson is going to go back to Parliament with a deal “very similar, if not considerably worse,” than his predecessor Theresa May’s, which was voted down by the Commons by historic margins in January. “We’re totally predictably going to run up against the same brick wall.”

Johnson had campaigned to replace May this year on a promise to pursue negotiations with “vim and vigor” and to get Britain out of the EU by the Oct. 31 deadline, “do or die.” But in the end Johnson’s deal is likely to founder in the Commons for the same reasons as May’s failed withdrawal agreement—the conundrum of the border between Northern Ireland, which is the part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member. Under the terms of the 1999 Good Friday Agreement, which brought three decades of bloody sectarian conflict to an end, there can be no border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. If Britain wishes to leave Europe’s regulatory and trade area, Brussels has consistently insisted that Northern Ireland must remain behind—effectively creating a customs border between it and the rest of the U.K.

Two things have changed, though, since May’s deal was comprehensively rejected by the Commons in January. One is that Johnson’s government has lost its majority in the wake of a rebellion by 21 Conservative MPs who opposed leaving the EU with no deal. The other is that last month Parliament passed a law—known as the Benn Act—obliging Johnson to seek an extension of the Oct. 31 deadline if no deal has been agreed with Brussels by Oct. 19. Johnson said last month that he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask Brussels for more time.

The Benn Act has given Johnson—as well as many hard-line pro-Brexit MPs who formerly rejected May’s deal as leaving the U.K. too closely aligned with the EU—an urgent incentive to get any kind of Brexit deal approved by the end of the month in order to avoid the humiliation of being forced to request an extension. That urgency underlies Johnson’s willingness to abandon his earlier promises not to leave Northern Ireland behind. “At this point, he seems to be willing to say just about anything to get a deal, any kind of deal” from the EU, the civil servant said.

An emergency session of Parliament has been called for Saturday, Oct. 19, where Johnson will try to face down his opponents. Getting the new withdrawal agreement ratified will require not only the support of the DUP but also of the 21 Conservative MPs who were sacked after supporting the Benn Act and of pro-Brexit hard-liners who favor a no-deal Brexit—not to mention the votes of pro-Brexit MPs from the opposition Labour Party.

Some radical pro-Brexit MPs from Johnson’s own Conservative Party may also vote against the deal because it leaves the U.K. in close regulatory alignment with Europe. Nigel Farage, the head of the Brexit Party, blasted Johnson’s deal as “just not Brexit. … It should be rejected. The best way out of this would simply [be] to have a clean break.”

In the likely event that Saturday’s parliamentary session ends without his Brexit deal being passed, Johnson will be forced by the terms of the Benn Act to ask Brussels for an extension. Anonymous sources at No. 10 Downing St.—widely identified in the British press as Johnson’s special advisor Dominic Cummings—have hinted that the government could find procedural tricks to get around the Benn Act. But recent rulings by Scotland’s highest court suggest that any attempt by Johnson to avoid asking the EU for extra time will be challenged by the judiciary. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay appeared to concede Wednesday that “the government will comply with the law, and secondly it will comply with undertakings given to the court in respect of the law.”

That leaves the likelihood of Johnson’s minority government limping on beyond the Halloween Brexit deadline, in office but not in power. The Labour Party has promised to call a new general election once a Brexit extension is in place—but with their poll numbers trailing the Conservatives by 15 percent, some leading party figures have called for Labour to back a second Brexit referendum instead of an election.

Johnson himself—in command of a convincing poll lead—has repeatedly demanded a new election. But with a two-thirds majority required in Parliament to call an early vote, Johnson is at the mercy of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to set a date. If Labour continues to stall on an election, Johnson could resort to the unprecedented expedient of calling a vote of no confidence in his own government. That would be “crazy but no crazier than much of what has been going on in Parliament recently,” said a source close to the Johnson family. “Boris reckons, if the Commons has ripped up the rule book”—for instance, by recently allowing backbenchers to take control of parliamentary business out of the hands of the government—“he can do the same.”

The bottom line, for Johnson, is that if he fails to get a deal ratified by Parliament, then the only path to delivering Brexit will be to win a majority in a new election. The Conservatives are riding high in the polls. But more importantly, a recent ComRes survey showed that if Johnson fails to get Britain out of the EU by Oct. 31, then pro-Brexit voters are more likely to blame Remainers in Parliament and Brussels than punish the Conservatives by voting for the single-issue Brexit Party. That may change, though, if voters follow Farage’s lead and reject Johnson’s new agreement as being not a real Brexit.

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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