This much can be said for Britain’s buccaneering prime minister, Boris Johnson: He doesn’t disappoint his most ardent fans, no matter how terrible the potential consequences for the rest of Britain. With all the delicacy of a swashbuckling pirate — swinging from a chandelier and crashing onto the banquet table — Johnson on Wednesday made his most reckless move yet to ensure that Britain’s departure from the European Union, known as Brexit, not only occurs on schedule, but also that it occurs without any kind of deal in place to govern future trade with the E.U., any customs issues, joint security concerns … and never mind resolving that pesky matter of reinstating an Irish border that no one on the island wants.
Thus, he effectively silenced the opposition by invoking the queen’s consent to shut down Parliament until mid-October, just two weeks shy of the country’s still-pending E.U. departure date.
To understand what Johnson has done, one would have to imagine President Donald Trump sending Congress on a forced vacation at a time of national crisis in order to exclusively govern by executive order. While proroguing Parliament — the official term for shutting it down temporarily — is technically par for the course for new governments in Britain, it is usually done for no more than a couple of days to hold a queen’s speech outlining plans for the year to come.
Johnson’s unsubtle decision to prorogue for nearly six weeks — effectively waiting out the clock until Brexit, thereby ensuring that Parliament cannot legislate against it — has been dubbed “bold” by supporters and a “coup” by opponents. Whichever it turns out to be, it’s unlikely to have positive ramifications for the country’s future relationship with its European allies, for its own (ostensibly democratic) system of government and even for its monarchy. (By forcing her hand, Johnson has ensured that the queen will be forever associated with whatever chaos Brexit brings.)
But in the weird political vortex in which Britons now find themselves in, where recklessness is more highly prized than steady and reasoned debate, it may nonetheless play out in Johnson’s favor, at least in the short term.
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Many commentators have suggested that, in addition to wanting to deprive the opposition (both within his own party and outside of it) of a voice at a crucial time, Johnson’s ultimate goal may be to force an early general election. With only a few days to maneuver before their session is suspended by Johnson, the opposition parties in Parliament may decide their best option is to trigger a no-confidence vote and, in such an event, it’s unlikely that Johnson would have the numbers to survive. If no other coalition could then form an alternative government with a new prime minister within 14 days (and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is particularly unpopular at the moment) a new election would automatically be triggered — though there is no guarantee that it would happen before the current Brexit date.
Although, to rational people, it would seem like a rather crazy waste of government time to hold a new election right now, especially with only two months left to institute plans for the no-deal Brexit to which he seems committed — ensuring food and medicine supplies and so on — that’s not likely to deter Johnson.
Although it’s hard for Americans to imagine a national election playing out in six weeks or less, it’s quite feasible in Britain: If Parliament holds a no-confidence vote as soon as they return in September and Johnson then immediately calls an election without running out the 14-day clock, the election could happen as soon as Oct. 11. If Johnson then wins the election on a pro-Brexit, deal-or-no-deal platform, and returns to government with an increased majority, there might still be enough time to pressure the E.U. into making some concessions to him — whether on the Irish backstop or on other aspects of the current withdrawal deal — that it wouldn’t make to his predecessor. And with both a bigger majority in Parliament and a stronger mandate to deliver Brexit, Johnson would have the numbers to get his deal passed.
That all depends of course, on whether E.U. negotiators are really willing to play his game in the end.
Since he came to office, the prime minister has reduced negotiations with the E.U. to a game of chicken. By proclaiming that he was ready to take Britain out of Europe with or without a deal by Oct. 31, Johnson seems to have been hoping to force his European counterparts’ hand. After all, there is little appetite among European leaders for Britain to crash out of the union with no deal because, while the worst of the economic shock from such a scenario would be felt in Britain, most European economies would take some hit.
But, despite the threat of no-deal, the E.U. negotiators have not blinked, refusing to reopen the withdrawal agreement. Johnson, for his part, has said that his negotiating hand has been weakened by Parliament’s threats to block a no-deal Brexit. Now that he has silenced the opposition and may essentially overthrow them in a new election, he may be hoping the E.U. takes him more seriously.
For now, however, all anyone can do is speculate on how this scenario is actually going to unfold.
Johnson’s proroguing ploy is likely to face a court challenges: The Scottish National Party had already mounted a legal challenge in Edinburgh prior to Johnson’s making it official and the former Tory Prime Minister, John Major, has indicated that he will mount a similar challenge in English courts.
Meanwhile the opposition parties are not planning to go quietly into the good night. The day before Johnson’s maneuver became law, Labor, Liberal Democrat, Green party and even some Conservative members of Parliament held a symbolic meeting at Church House in Westminster — the same spot where members met in crisis during the Second World War — and more than 160 signed a declaration that they will use “whatever mechanism necessary” to stop Johnson, including forming an alternative Parliament. In other words, they have told him, to “bring it on.”
And, meanwhile, the U.K. is still scheduled to exit the E.U. automatically on Oct. 31.
By the time this matter has resolved itself, instead of swinging from chandeliers, Johnson may be wishing he was trapped once more on that zip line in London, suspended midair “like a damp towel on a (washing) line,” far removed from the chaos he has wrought on his country.
Sadhbh Walshe is a filmmaker and journalist whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Irish Times and Al Jazeera. She was a staff writer for the TV series "The District" and is currently working on a screenplay.