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The week in Brexit drama, explained

Parliament tries to block a no-deal Brexit. Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants elections but doesn’t get them. Here’s what else to know.

The Prime Minister Launches National Campaign To Recruit 20,000 Police Officers
Prime Minister Boris Johnson in West Yorkshire, where he gave a speech to police officers on September 5, 2019.
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Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The Brexit debate set off another wild week in British politics that started with Parliament rebelling against Prime Minister Boris Johnson, continued with Johnson trying (and failing) to call new elections, and ended with Johnson declaring he’d “rather be dead in a ditch” than delay Brexit.

So, you know, just another week in UK politics these days.

And that’s what all this drama has really been about: politics. This week’s hijinks had less to do with the actual substantive debate about Brexit and more to do with the political power games surrounding it.

That’s because the UK is more or less in the same situation it has been in for the past year: The only Brexit deal on offer is the deeply unpopular one negotiated by former Prime Minister Theresa May. Parliament has repeatedly rejected it, along with all other Brexit options. The only thing Parliament does agree on is that it wants to avoid leaving the EU without a deal.

That leaves exiting the EU without a plan on the October 31 deadline as the default option. But because Parliament doesn’t want a no-deal departure — or the potential economic consequences that go with it — and because Parliament can’t figure out what it does want in a Brexit plan, it is trying to stall for more time.

Everyone, that is, except Boris Johnson.

And that’s the only thing that’s really changed: there’s now a prime minister (Johnson) at 10 Downing Street who staked his political fortune on the promise of delivering Brexit, “do or die,” by October 31.

That set the stage for the contentious battle between him and Parliament that played out this week.

For those of you who have better things to do than to follow the day-to-day shenanigans of British politics, here’s a rundown of what happened this week and how it may (or may not) affect the future of Brexit.

The catalyst: Boris’s big promise

Before we get to Parliament, we have to talk about Boris Johnson. Johnson, who took over as prime minister in July, has promised he will pull the UK out of the European Union by October 31, with or without a deal in place outlining the terms of the divorce.

The deal that currently exists is the one that former Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the EU. Johnson and his band of Brexiteers oppose this deal because they see it as trapping the UK in the EU, without any say over the rules — Brexit without the exit, so to speak.

They mainly object to a provision referred to as the “Irish backstop,” which is a plan to guarantee that no matter the future EU-UK relationship, there will be no border checks or physical infrastructure on the politically sensitive border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and Ireland (a country that will remain part of the EU). The need for this has to do with the conflict in Northern Ireland, known as the Troubles, which formally ended with a 1998 peace agreement. An open border was a critical part of that truce.

The EU has said getting rid of the backstop is nonnegotiable unless the UK can come up with a legitimate and viable alternative. The UK has not come up with a legitimate and viable alternative, so the EU is not renegotiating anything. Which means the same old deal is the only deal that exists right now.

However, Johnson is arguing — to both Parliament and the British public — that he can get a better deal, if only Parliament will get out of his way. He claims that as long as the EU knows the UK is desperate to avoid a no-deal Brexit, the bloc has no incentive to budge.

But, Johnson argues, once the EU realizes the UK is deadly serious about leaving without a potential deal, the EU will finally crack and give the UK the concessions it desires.

There are a few problems with Johnson’s argument. First, while he’s correct in assessing that the EU definitely doesn’t want a no-deal Brexit because it will be bad for it economically, the reality is that it will still be way worse for the UK than the EU.

And while Brexiteers have embraced the idea that a no-deal exit is the “ripping the Band-Aid right off” approach, it isn’t — not really. A better analogy is that the process of Brexiting is like trying to take an egg out of an omelet: a clean separation is basically impossible. That’s why we’re hearing all those predictions of food shortages and recessions if there’s no deal in place: it’s not easy to just ghost a decades-long trading and economic partner.

The UK will almost certainly still need to reach an actual deal with the EU after the no-deal, and you might be able to guess who might have all the leverage at that point (hint: it’s not the UK).

Which brings us back to the British Parliament.

The rebellion: Parliament tries to block a no-deal Brexit. Boris fights back — and loses.

Members of Parliament (MPs), through numerous votes, have made it clear that they don’t want to put the country through the stress of a no-deal Brexit. They want to leave with a deal — just not the deal that’s actually available.

Johnson was well-aware of Parliament’s anti-no-deal proclivities. So he wanted to make it as hard as possible for MPs to foil his plan to leave on October 31 at all costs.

But the way he did it was controversial. He announced that he was going to temporarily suspend — or “prorogue” — Parliament for five weeks, starting as soon as September 9 and lasting until October 14. Remember, the Brexit deadline is October 31, so Parliament would have about one week in September, and then a little more than two weeks in October.

Proroguing is not usually controversial. It’s used to mark the end of one parliamentary session and the start of the other, and it’s often a thing that happens when a new government takes over, giving it time to set a new agenda.

But Johnson suspended Parliament for five weeks, an unprecedented duration that very much looked like an attempt to limit the time Parliament had to plot against him and block a no-deal Brexit.

In response, the opposition Labour Party and other smaller opposition parties returned from their summer breaks ready to rally together to get something done as quickly as possible. And — most critically — they peeled off a handful of Conservative Party members who broke with Johnson to “take control of the order paper.”

What that means is that backbench MPs — those who aren’t part of Johnson’s government — get to set the agenda. Usually, it’s the government (Johnson) who get to control what gets done in Parliament. Obviously, his government isn’t going to put forward a plan to stop a no-deal Brexit, so these MPs had to seize power so they could do it instead.

Parliament did this successfully on Tuesday, which gave members the chance to introduce that no-deal Brexit bill and vote on it Wednesday. In response, Johnson’s whip expelled the 21 Conservative rebels — basically kicked them out of the party — for their disloyalty, which also happened to completely tank Johnson’s majority in Parliament.

But it did little to stop Parliament’s plan, and MPs successfully advanced the bill to stop a no-deal Brexit, dealing Johnson his second defeat as prime minister in two days. It’s been a pretty awful first week of work for the new prime minister.

Oh, and it somehow got worse for Johnson after that.

Okay! So Parliament just stopped a no-deal Brexit. That’s great news, right?

No, that’s not exactly what happened.

Then why did you just say that’s what happened?

Sorry, I know. Just stick with me here.

The actual bill — known as the Benn bill, for the Labour MP Hilary Benn who introduced it — requires the prime minister to seek an extension from the European Union if he doesn’t have a new deal by October 19, or unless Parliament explicitly votes for a no-deal. The suggested extension is three months, putting the new deadline at about January 31, 2020.

All 27 EU leaders would have to unanimously agree to such an extension (they might, they might not, they may set a different date, who knows) and Parliament will also have to approve the extension that Johnson, or some other prime minister, brings back. It can’t stop a no-deal Brexit, but it binds the prime minister, by law, to at least go back to the EU and try to get an extension.

It’s not yet a law, though it’s expected to become one before Parliament is officially prorogued.

The problem is that Johnson says he’s not going to do it. He’s not going to ask for an extension, even if the law says he has to.

He called the delay “pointless” and blamed Parliament for undercutting his negotiating position. It’s not clear what would happen if he actually refused to follow through, but the simple answer is it would probably spark a constitutional crisis. But the UK is not quite at that point yet.

That’s because Johnson is trying to get around it in another way: elections. He’s saying, “let’s take it back to the people.” He asked Parliament for permission to call new elections, essentially giving the power back to voters to decide if they want his version of Brexit — get out, and get on with it — or Parliament’s continued dilly-dallying, which Johnson and his supporters claim are really just attempts to stop Brexit altogether.

Johnson asked for elections to be held on October 15, about two weeks ahead of the Brexit deadline. But he can’t just get them — he needs two-thirds of Parliament (around 434 MPs) to go along with his plan, thanks to the Fixed-Term Parliament Act 2011.

And here’s where Parliament foiled him again. It said no (well, members mostly abstained), but the end result was the same: no elections. At least not yet.

So you’re saying there’s a chance for elections?

Elections are going to happen — it’s just a matter of when. And that’s some tricky, tricky business for a whole lot of reasons.

Maybe the biggest one is timing: Again, Johnson wants an election on October 15, before the Brexit deadline. This is more or less the earliest it can be; by that same Fixed-Term Parliament Act, elections can’t be sooner than 25 working days after Parliament dissolves. It doesn’t have to dissolve immediately, and it can be longer than that, but that’s the soonest elections can happen through Johnson’s route of asking for one.

(There’s another way to get to elections, which is through a no-confidence vote in Johnson; that gives Parliament 14 days to form a new government. If it can’t, then elections can start 25 days later.)

But Johnson wants elections as soon as possible so he can hopefully get rid of enough of those meddling MPs to be able to make Brexit happen.

Johnson’s also betting on the fact that the opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn — the guy most likely to challenge Johnson for the prime ministership — is unpopular right now. Like, really unpopular. More Brits said they’d support a no-deal Brexit over having Corbyn as prime minister in a recent poll — in other words, they’d rather risk a recession than have him as prime minister.

The reasons for this are complicated. Corbyn’s basically a socialist, and he freaks out more moderate Labour members and Conservatives who are less enthusiastic about Brexit and dislike Johnson but are positively terrified of a Corbyn government. (He’s got other issues, too.) Corbyn has retained support with the active base of his party, which is how he’s managed to remain in control.

Corbyn, and by default his party, also haven’t handled Brexit particularly well. Corbyn’s strategy was to muddle through, attack Conservatives where he could, stop any no-deal Brexit plans, and get to elections so he could get power and be the one to negotiate Brexit.

Corbyn is also kind of at odds with many of the more moderate voters in his party. He’s always been skeptical of the EU, and he’s pro-Brexit at heart. And while there are definitely Labour voters who agree with him on that, the core of his party opposes Brexit.

Corbyn’s fence-sitting created an opening for the much smaller Liberal Democrats. They’re staunchly anti-Brexit and want to hold a second referendum. They’ve surged in popularity because of this stance.

Labour and Lib Dems will likely have to fight for the same votes in any elections. They could work together, but that means a lot of compromise, which is difficult in elections where everyone wants power. But that doesn’t solve the problem of Corbyn himself, so even with an alliance, it’s still not clear they could take down the Conservatives, according to recent polling.

After the motion to hold new elections was defeated on Wednesday, Johnson mused that the reason Corbyn voted against the measure “was that he doesn’t think he will win.”

Harold Clarke, a polling expert and politics professor at the University of Texas in Dallas, agreed with Johnson’s assessment. “They’ve got good reason to be scared,” he told me of the Labour Party. “They can do the math, just like I do.”

So Labour doesn’t want elections?

Well, not quite. They just want to be very strategic about when they go for them. Labour has said they don’t want to have elections until this no-deal Brexit bill is officially law, ideally binding Johnson to seek an extension he doesn’t want.

But this is not a foolproof plan, either. (For one, if Johnson does win an outright majority in new elections, he could always repeal the law.) What many Brexit opponents want Labour to do is wait until a Johnson, without a majority in Parliament and no new Brexit plan, must ask the EU for an extension. This would postpone a dangerous crash-out and force Johnson into breaking the core promise of his premiership: that’d he take the UK out of the EU on October 31, do or die.

That Johnson would be a lot less formidable to run against, and Conservatives could potentially face a serious challenge from the upstart Brexit Party, which, well, you can guess what they want.

Okay, so what happens next with Brexit?

Nobody really knows. It’s pretty clear that when the elections do happen (Johnson’s expected to try again on Monday, Labour has indicated it won’t support the motion, again) will be the closest thing to a second referendum voters are going to get — who you vote for is an expression of whether you want to leave the EU or remain.

Pro-Leave (the EU) and pro-Remain (in the EU) voters don’t evenly divide across traditional party lines of the Conservatives and Labour. That’s created some strange partnerships and elevated different parties — the new Brexit party, the Liberal Democrats — that’s eroded the domination, or started to change the character of, those two major parties.

And the UK is still almost evenly split between Leave and Remain supporters. Which means that even an election might not necessarily offer any more clarity on what the country should do about Brexit. But it might be the best chance.

Just one last thing: This thing about Boris’s brother. What’s the deal with that?

Johnson’s brother, Jo Johnson, announced Thursday that he was resigning from Parliament and the government (he was the universities minister) because he was torn between family loyalty and the “national interest.”

In other words, he loves his brother Boris but can’t support his Brexit plan.

He’s not the only Conservative member to defect or resign this week, but his resignation is definitely eye-catching because, siblings. It has also handed Labour and other Johnson opponents a pretty sweet attack line: Even your own brother doesn’t trust you to run this country.

To be fair, the Johnsons have been open-ish about their political disagreements: Johnson’s sister Rachel ran as an anti-Brexit candidate in the European Parliamentary elections earlier this year. But they’ve been careful to separate opposition to Brexit (or at least disagreements on the issue) from opposition to Boris.

Jo Johnson’s resignation has complicated that balance a bit. As if this could get even more complicated.