As the October 31st deadline for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union approaches, internal divisions and constitutional debates continue to stifle British politics.
The current deadlock in Parliament is largely a result of the ongoing divisions between and within the various political parties. Despite numerous parliamentary votes since the 2016 referendum, where 52% of the population voted to leave the EU, no consensus has been reached on the path forward. While the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party have continued to call for the country to remain in the EU, the main dispute is largely on the question of whether or not to leave the supranational organisation with a deal.
Both the governing Conservatives and the main opposition party, Labour, are largely in agreement over the preference of departing with a deal but fissures have emerged amongst the Conservatives over the urgency. For Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the current deal negotiated by his predecessor Theresa May is unacceptable due to its inclusion of the so-called “backstop,” an insurance policy intended to preserve an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland in the absence of a new agreement. A key promise in Johnson’s leadership campaign was that the U.K. leaves the EU on Halloween, a position that he has reaffirmed since claiming that he’d “rather be dead in a ditch” than ask for an extension from the European Union. Despite this, twenty-one fellow party members were recently expelled from the Conservative Party for voting against the government, including former cabinet ministers as well as Winston’s Churchill’s grandson. At the same time, ministers from his own government have resigned from the cabinet, including the prime minister’s own brother.
However, the legality of the prime minister’s current strategy has been increasingly challenged. Under the country’s unwritten constitution, parliament is considered sovereign and has the final say over any agreement and can overrule the government. In early September, a narrow majority of members of parliament voted to block the government from carrying out a “no-deal Brexit.” Despite this being the law, which requires the government to request an extension if a deal has not been reached by the end of October, Johnson has stood by his pledge to not ask for a delay for Brexit. How this will be carried out remains unclear though could potentially occur by sending a formal request to the European Council, thereby meeting the letter of the law, while at the same time reiterating his opposition and the unlikelihood of any meaningful progress during ongoing negations.
The question of legality has been more recently highlighted by the British Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling that the government’s prorogation of Parliament was “unlawful.” The maneuver, intended to increase Johnson’s ability to implement a no-deal Brexit, has contributed to further divisions within the House of Commons and forced the prime minister to return early from New York. Without a parliamentary majority, and thereby unable to implement his goal, Johnson has challenged the opposition to call for early elections, which would be the third in four years. However, Labour’s condition, namely requesting a delay before the 31st and consequently allowing the next government to handle Brexit, has been rejected by the Conservatives, leaving Parliament paralysed. Even if new elections were to be held, the emergence of the Brexit Party, which was the most successful at the European Parliament elections in May, would risk further diminishing the Conservative Party’s hold of Westminster.
The European Council, made up of the various heads of governments and states from the remaining 27 member states of the EU, is set to meet in Brussels on October 17-18. The Council is likely to approve a three-month extension yet it is by no means certain as EU countries are increasingly at odds with one another with some, like France’s President Emmanuel Macron, wishing to maintain a tougher stance while others are more amenable.
The absence of a working majority has also impeded any long-term foreign policy planning, especially in light of the growing schism that has engulfed the political scene. While Trump has endorsed Johnson and might be a sign of a closer transatlantic Special Relationship, a no-deal exit could result in years of protracted trade negotiations between Britain and the United States, Europe, and other states. The U.S. would also be in a stronger bargaining position were it to deal only with the U.K. and not the continental bloc as a whole. On the other hand, the Bernie Sanders-endorsed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn might receive a cold reception unless if his fellow social democrat takes the White House in 2021.
Naman Habtom-Desta is the Senior Vice President of the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum and a writer with a focus on international affairs and security policy. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at the University of Cambridge where he is researching Swedish nuclear weapons policy during the Cold War.