It seems like British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is caught in a struggle against time, politics, and himself. The ongoing political wrangling surrounding Brexit only continues to increase as the deadline for Great Britain’s departure from the European Union grows ever closer. For the past few days Britain’s embattled prime minister has become the focal point of the Brexit controversy as last-minute negotiations attempting to negotiate a “soft Brexit” deal continue feverishly. Johnson, the former mayor of London and a former Eurosceptic himself, inherited a growing backlash against the exit process as soon as he moved into No. 10 Downing Street, following Theresa May’s resignation in July of this year. His often tense exchanges in Parliament and his combative personality have often elicited frequent comparisons to U.S. President Donald Trump. Johnson, however, seems to lack Trump’s apparently endless political survival skills, guile, and luck, and his PM-ship has been engulfed in controversy and political missteps. This has undermined an already complicated and controversial process following the June 2016 referendum.
Johnson’s position further deteriorated when, on 28 August, in an attempt to bypass continued discussion and deliberation regarding Brexit, he advised Queen Elizabeth II to call for an unusually long prorogation of Parliament which sought a suspension from early September until the Parliamentary session on 14 October. On his advisement the Queen granted the prorogation. This unusual move was met with open hostility by ministers on all sides and by the general populace. The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, called the move a “constitutional outrage”, and it lead to dissent among moderate and “remain” Tories which culminated in desertion from the party and a loss of a working majority for the conservatives. Among these losses was the prime minister’s own brother, Jo Jonson, who resigned from government. The prorogation controversy came to an end when it was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom on 24 September, ending Johnson’s gambit.
Johnson’s loss of a working majority and his mishandling of the prorogation affair directly reflected on the ever-increasing urgency regarding the specter of a no-deal Brexit. The prime minister’s race against time is a very real one. The deadline for Brexit is on 31 October, and so far there has been very little in the way of progress towards securing any deal between London and Brussels. On the contrary, the tone between both parties has only grown more acrimonious as the deadline approaches, with EU officials placing the blame on Johnson for “playing a stupid blame game.” On 8 October the prime minister held a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which reportedly ended badly over the impossibility of finding common ground with regards to Norther Ireland’s position in a customs union. Other high-profile meetings on 9 October faired similarly.
The only sliver of good news for Johnson’s government as the deadline neared was a meeting held on 10 October with Ireland’s head of government, or taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in which the possibility of an accord towards further negotiations was agreed to. Varadkar issued a statement after this meeting where he expressed hope for continued cooperation and the upholding of the Good Friday Agreement, a statement which Downing Street quickly echoed. Furthermore, The Guardian’s continuous coverage announced on 10 October that Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and the EU’s chief negotiator, Michael Barnier, were to meet on Friday the 11th in order to determine whether there was enough existing common ground to proceed with negotiations. The news of this possible breakthrough failed to assure already shaken business envoys that business would continue as usual after the 31st.
According to The Guardian, Johnson had to convince Brussels to get on board with any agreement that his administration would hammer out before the deadline in order to avoid a hard Brexit during the slim two-day window of 17-18th October. Reflecting Johnson’s last conversation with Merkel, no deal came to pass. There was an additional complication on the home front for the Johnson government, a complication that had already drawn the ire of the prime minister on previous occasions: the Benn Act.
The European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019, colloquially known as the Benn Act, was passed on 9 September 2019. It legally binds Parliament to a hard deadline in which it must negotiate a deal regarding Britain’s separation from the European Union. If a deal was not reached by that time then the act directs the prime minister to address the EU and ask for an extension on Article 50 for 31 January. The date when this act would be automatically triggered was the 19th of October. In response to this impending date, Parliament scheduled a session for 19 October, dubbed “Super Saturday”, which will be fully devoted to Brexit. This was the first time that Parliament met on a Saturday since the Falklands Crisis in April 1982. Prior to this session Johnson had declared that blame would fall squarely on Parliament if the Benn Act came into effect; disregarding the fact that Johnson’s own behavior and political maneuvering has repeatedly undermined his government’s negotiation efforts.
The extraordinary Saturday session provided some forward momentum for Brexit legislation, but only up to a point. Sir Oliver Letwin, a former Conservative member of Parliament who was one of those removed from the party last September for insubordination and is now an independent, proposed an amendment that would delay the implementation of any agreement until legislation had been implemented. This amendment passed, and with this delay the Benn Act went into effect, much to Johnson’s dismay. Downing Street responded by sending two letters. The first was the required text addressed to the European Council requesting the extension. This was seen as being compliant with the Act. The second letter was from the prime minister, underscoring his belief that an extension would be a mistake.
Following the implementation of the Benn Act the legislation for the withdrawal agreement, the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Act, was passed by Parliament was passed 329 votes to 299. This victory for Johnson, however, was fleeting. A programme motion to speed through the discussion of the bill was defeated by Parliament on 22 October. Time has not been kind to the Johnson government regarding Brexit, and the Benn Act constricted this time further. Even though the EU leadership has signaled its favoring of an extension, if Johnson’s presumptive preliminary deal with Varadkar falls through or fails to impress the EU, then the triggering of the Benn act would be assured. Inevitably, Johnson’s failure to secure a deal would be a considerable political blow, and perhaps a final one. An extension would possibly grant Johnson a reprieve. A more likely scenario is that, regardless of a last-minute deal being reached, Johnson will face a no-confidence vote from an already hostile Parliament. This might be a price—putting an end to Boris Johnson’s government—which many Tories in Parliament may be willing to pay in order to guarantee an extension of negotiations with Brussels. Whether this scenario will actually play out remains unclear, as do the results of the snap election that would be called after a successful no-confidence vote. Already talks of an election have become ever louder as Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn failed to come to an agreement regarding the timetable, and Varadkar, Johnson’s apparent last-minute ally, seemed inclined to favor an extension. The longer the Brexit question remains unresolved, the more polarized British politics become. The only certainty in this whole affair is that the repercussions of this increasingly acrimonious break-up threaten to be severe.