I am sometimes asked by my family members and confused friends to explain Brexit and the drama that is unfolding every day in the United Kingdom. At a pool party last Saturday, after the threat of Hurricane Dorian off our coast had barely subsided, my long-time cricketing friend Mahdi commented with exasperation, “I have been following Brexit for more than three years, but I am not sure I understand a bit of what is the problem with the British public! Can’t they make up their mind once and for all?”
I was going to tell Mahdi that the problem does not lie with the public, but with their politicians! Even a casual observer of the shenanigans in the British Parliament will confirm that the three-plus years that have elapsed since the voters decided to leave EU in a referendum in June 2016 is evidence of the disconnect that exists between the ruling class and the masses. And British politicians, who have honed their skills at chicanery over centuries of colonial rule and domestic intrigue, are now engaged in another master game over Brexit.
It is clear that Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, wants to pull UK out of EU by October 31 as planned. And one cannot blame him for his “do or die” stance. Since the referendum on Brexit on June 23, 2016, he has been a staunch advocate of leaving with or without a deal with EU, no matter what the cost of the latter option is. And the Tories gave him the mantle of the PM on July 24 based on his commitment to leave the EU by October 31, Halloween Day.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s hands are tied by the Parliament in more than one way. It has now forbidden him from leaving without a deal with EU. Currently, there is no deal on the table that the Parliament will approve. The deal, secured by Theresa May after two years of negotiations with EU, was voted down several times by the Parliament. So, Boris Johnson only has six weeks, until October 19, to extract some concessions from EU on the Irish Question, also known as the “backstop”. The backstop provision was included in the existing deal at the insistence of Ireland to avoid a physical (or “hard”) border between Ireland and Northern Ireland which is part of the UK.
Therein lies the problem. October 31 is fast approaching, and Boris Johnson has not scheduled any new round of negotiations with EU to modify the deal. EU has repeatedly declared that it will not work with UK to amend the existing contract, which was crafted over two years of protracted negotiations. In other words, the unanimous EU strategy is “take it or leave it”. But, Boris Johnson is not prepared to take it because the Parliament will not approve it and he can’t just “leave it” since the Parliament just voted to forbid a “no-deal Brexit” and seek an extension until January 2020 if a deal cannot be reached.
Boris Johnson’s detractors suspect, and some of them have said it openly, that he wants to wait until one of two things happen. The first possibility is for EU to bend after it realises that Johnson means it when he warns that he would take out UK without a deal, i.e. crash out of EU. Then EU would give in to Johnson’s demand for a better deal and without an Irish backstop. Brussels would then roll over and give what Johnson needs to have the revised deal passed by the British Parliament. The second possibility is for the Labour Party to join the Conservatives and schedule a general election in October. Opinion polls show that pro-Brexit hardliners would gain a majority in the new parliament and either approve the existing deal (which Johnson would not want anyway) or agree to a “no-deal” Brexit.
So, as outlined above, for Boris Johnson who is now playing a high-stakes game of chess, the players he is dealing with are his opponents in the British Parliament and EU. With EU, his options are limited: to seek an extension or call for immediate negotiations. With his parliamentarians, he has decided to shut them out by suspending the Parliament. In August, the government used the sovereign’s powers, through the Privy Council, to prorogue (suspend) Parliament for five weeks starting September 9.
But, he cannot win the game unless he gets a new election and can crash out. The leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn had earlier wanted a general election. But now Corbyn is opposed to it since he knows that Johnson will be victorious with an even greater majority in the new parliament.
Boris Johnson still believes that if he holds steady and stays on course with EU by asking for no extension, Brussels will take his threat of a no-deal Brexit seriously to give him what he wants, a revision of the Brexit divorce deal.
With the British Parliament, he hopes to keep it prorogued to silence any naysayers. That will rule out further interference from the pro-EU group if he decides to negotiate with EU or seek an extension. In either case, he wants to come out with a victory sign!
Now, what about the option to delay Brexit? In a speech on September 5, the PM ruled it out categorically and said that he preferred to “be dead in a ditch” rather than ask for another Brexit delay. He rallied his supporters by pointing out that a delay was costly for the British economy. While his numbers have been questioned in the past, he repeated that the continued membership in EU “cost a billion pounds a month, it achieves absolutely nothing,” and asked, “What is the point of further delay?”
But there is another possibility. What if he does not negotiate with EU and lets the deadline pass? Well, on November 1, UK will find itself freed of EU regulations but shy of a free-trade agreement with EU. Will Boris Johnson be found guilty of breaking the law? Let us all wait until events come to such a pass!
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and works in information technology. He is Senior Research Fellow, International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA.