Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, vowed to make Brexit happen by Oct. 31 when he moved into 10 Downing Street on July 24. In just six weeks in office, that possibility now looks much more remote.
In only his second time at the dispatch box, Johnson on Tuesday lost the first House of Commons vote he has presided over, lost his majority, and lost control of the Brexit process. It’s quite a record.
Despite his promises of leaving the European Union on Oct. 31 with or without a deal, which won him the necessary support to become Conservative Party leader (amounting to just 0.1 percent of the electorate in real terms), Members of Parliament decided to flex their combined muscle and stop Johnson in his tracks, winning a vote by 328 to 301 to bring a bill to seek a third delay to Brexit.
If that bill succeeds without amendments, it will technically be illegal for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union without Parliamentary support. It won its first round of voting Wednesday, when the government was defeated by 329 votes to 300. MPs are now debating possible amendments to the legislation before another vote Wednesday evening.
If the government loses again, the bill will be debated in the House of Lords on Thursday, where pro-Brexit Tory peers are aiming to kill it through “filibustering”—or talking the bill to death so as to run out of time—by tabling over 100 amendments.
Currently, under the terms of the proposed legislation, Johnson will have until Oct. 19 to either pass a deal in Parliament or get MPs to approve a no-deal Brexit. Once this deadline has passed, he will have to request an extension to the U.K.’s departure date, taking it from Oct. 31 to Jan. 31, 2020.
Unusually, the bill includes the wording of the letter the Prime Minister would have to write to the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, in his request for that extension. If the European Union responds by proposing a different date, Johnson will have two days to accept that proposal. But during this two-day period, MPs—not the government—will have the opportunity to reject the EU’s date.
If passed, the bill could be given royal assent by the Queen and become law as early as Monday.
Johnson, who has stoked anti-EU sentiment for decades and who infamously campaigned for Brexit only after a last-minute change of heart, has tried to bulldoze his way through a Brexit process that has already derailed two Tory Prime Ministers (David Cameron and Theresa May).
Making good use of the Parliamentary recess, on Aug. 18 the U.K. government signed legislation into force to ensure EU law will cease to apply in Britain after Oct. 31. The following day, the government announced “freedom of movement”—which allows EU citizens to live and work in the United Kingdom (and vice versa for British citizens) without visas, skills requirements, or means-testing—would also come to a halt then, too.
But it was his next move that rubbed MPs the wrong way. On Aug. 28, Johnson formally asked the Queen to prorogue—or suspend—Parliament just one week after MPs returned from their six-week summer recess, shutting the House of Commons from Sept. 10 until Oct. 14.
The request (which was granted) was ostensibly to allow the government to close current Parliamentary business and set out its legislative plans for the next Parliamentary session. Most MPs, however, saw it as an effort to narrow the available timeframe for further Parliamentary debate ahead of the final EU leaders’ Brexit summit on Oct. 17—seen as the last opportunity to make any changes to the EU Withdrawal Agreement (which MPs have rejected three times) before the actual Brexit deadline. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow—himself a Conservative MP—said it was a “constitutional outrage.”
Proroguing Parliament has proved to be a step too far. Despite threats to expel Tory MPs from the party if they voted against the government, 21 Conservative MPs defied Johnson and voted against a “no deal” Brexit. Another Tory MP, Phillip Lee, actually defected to the opposition Liberal Democrats while Johnson was speaking at the dispatch box, costing the government its Parliamentary majority in the process. The Conservative Party has expelled all 21 rebel MPs from the party with immediate effect, reducing the government’s support in Parliament further.
The Prime Minister has warned that if he lost control of the Brexit process, he would call for a general election in October to regain it. Constitutional experts, however, say that under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act—introduced in 2011 by David Cameron—the Prime Minister is not in a position to call an early general election: The motion has to have the agreement of two-thirds of the House of Commons (at least 434 MPs). And given the government does not have a majority, and that the main opposition parties—Labour, Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish National Party—are unwilling to back a strategy that might likely give Johnson a four-year term in office and the capability to leave the European Union without a deal, the Prime Minister’s chances of getting his own way are slim.
There are several permutations about what might happen next.
Theoretically, the government could still call for an early general election by passing new legislation through Parliament that would only require a simple majority, rather than a two-thirds majority required under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. This would then allow the government to set its own general election date—possibly as early as Oct. 15 to campaign on a “no deal” platform, or—as some MPs fear—after Oct. 31 once Brexit has taken place. As normal convention is that Parliament is closed down 25 working days before an election occurs, this would provide MPs with even less time to prevent a no-deal scenario.
Meanwhile, opposition MPs could push for a no-confidence vote if the bill to prevent a no-deal Brexit is scuppered. If a majority of MPs back the motion, there would then be a 14-day window to see if the current government—or an alternative one with a new Prime Minister—could win a vote of confidence. A new government would likely seek a Brexit delay (however limited in scope). But if no one wins a confidence vote, a general election would likely be triggered, and Johnson—still as Prime Minister—could choose to hold it after Oct. 31 when Brexit would have already happened.
Other possibilities—such as a second referendum, negotiating a new deal before Oct. 31, and even cancelling Brexit altogether—technically exist, but are very remote.
For over three years, U.K. and EU business has wanted certainty about what Brexit means for them: There are still no answers. With just eight weeks to go, the European Commission on Wednesday published a checklist for EU companies trading with the United Kingdom to help them prepare for Brexit, especially a “no-deal” scenario in which there will be no transition period in terms of rules, regulations, and tariffs.