Brexit: Boris Johnson loses control

5:17 pm on 4 September 2019

By David Townsend*

Opinion - Today in Westminster Prime Minister Boris Johnson proved he is not the master of the UK's Brexit destiny.

A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit Boris Johnson responding to his defeat on Standing Order 24.

Photo: PRU / AFP

The political problems of Theresa May, his predecessor whose Brexit deal efforts he helped sabotage, have come back to haunt him.

Worse, his Parliamentary majority of one vanished as he stood to make his speech. Dr Phillip Lee MP crossed the floor to join the Liberal Democrat Party.

What does it all mean?

Parliament has never been as unpredictable and undisciplined as it is now.

Back from their holidays and refreshed by weeks in Tuscany or the South of France, Members of Parliament voted for a motion to take control of the Brexit legislative agenda.

The vote reflected the fact that a majority of MPs do not, under any circumstances, want a "no deal" departure.

They argue that the Brexit referendum vote did not envisage nor support a "no deal" departure.

The government's own assessments of the results of "crashing out" were outlined in leaked papers (codenamed Operation Yellow Hammer) last month. The supply of medicines and food, spare parts and transport problems were all listed.

The government denied the veracity of the assessments. As they say in politics, never believe anything until it is officially denied.

Tomorrow Parliament will debate a Bill that would rule out a "no deal".

Brexit on the 31 October and an extension of the period before departure until the end of January 2020.

This despite Mr Johnson's threats to his own Conservative MPs that voting for the motion and the Bill would result in their expulsion from the Parliamentary Party and a recommendation that in any (and increasingly probable imminent general election) they would be recommended for deselection.

The threats made no difference to Conservative heavyweights such as Philip Hammond or Rory Stewart both Cabinet Ministers until Mr Johnson sacked them when he formed his government a few weeks ago.

In all, 21 Conservative MPs voted for the motion. All of them have had the whip removed. Which makes it all the more likely they will vote against the Government tomorrow. The Bill is likely to be passed, though with possibly a smaller majority.

Mr Johnson's arguments that removing the threat of a "no deal" would mean the EU was off the hook and would not need to negotiate seriously were greeted with scepticism. Asked repeatedly what stage his renegotiations after six weeks of bluff and bluster had reached he and his ministers gave no answer.

The Daily Telegraph which, up to his elevation to the Premiership, had been Mr Johnson's vanity publishing paper, obliged. The paper said no serious Brexit negotiations are going on. The EU is still waiting for any new proposals from the UK.

The EU meets on 17 October to consider the state of play.

Mr Johnson has said that he holds to departure date by the 31 October. And he will not seek an extension of the deadline whatever happens.

Having denied he would do it, Mr Johnson pro-rogued (suspended) Parliament from next week for the longest period (five weeks) for decades. That limited debate on Brexit. The pretext? That debating a Queen's Speech on law and order, Transport and Education, was more important. Few in Parliament believe that.

Part of his personal problem is that he is regarded across all parties as devious and dishonest.

So when Mr Johnson threatens that if he is defeated, he will seek an election by the 14 October, there is doubt about his honesty. He could, argues the Labour party, alter the date till after 31 October and maybe the UK's EU exit. It is his prerogative as prime minister. It requires a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons to support a general election.

In the meantime, he will mobilise all his forces in the House of Lords to filibuster the Bill against a no deal assuming it is passed in the Commons. Reportedly 90 amendments have been prepared. They might all have to be debated. His hope that there will not be enough time to pass the legislation.

And if there were a general election?

Predictions are dangerous. The consensus is probably more of the same. No outright winner. The UK is making it up as it goes along.

* David Townsend is an ex-UK Parliamentary Labour candidate, a former Labour ministerial speech writer and special adviser and contributor to The Guardian, The Independent and The Times.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs