In case you haven’t been tracking Britain’s political cannon fire, let’s take a quick dash through the shrapnel. The shooting’s metaphorical, so we should be safe enough, but do stay together. We’ll be moving quickly.
We’ll start at the moment when the members of the Conservative Party (all 42 of them) chose our prime minister.
Why did they get to do that? Because their party came out of the most recent election with a whopping a majority of two in the 650-member House of Commons. That gave them the right to form a government. Forming a government means they choose the prime minister. And when the first prime minister they chose resigned in despair, they got to choose her replacement, even though the replacement, Boris Johnson, told everyone who’d listen (and several who wouldn’t) that he was going to move the country in a new direction, meaning not the direction the electorate might have thought they voted for.
But hey, that’s democracy for you. You cast your vote and you take your chances.
Does the Conservative Party really have 42 members? No. It’s something in the neighborhood of 180,000. Labour has upwards of 485,000. The Scottish National Party has 125,000. The Liberal Democrats have 115,000. Sorry, I’d give you a link on all this but it has to be downloaded and the link won’t work. If you’re worried about it, ask Lord Google.
How many registered voters does the U.K. have? Upwards of 46 million.
Did the Conservative Party really have a majority of two? Yes, but it’s down to one now. Long story and we’ll skip it. Remember where I said we’d be moving quickly?
Why do I ask so many questions? Because it’s an easy way to structure a piece of writing. It’s cheesy, but it does let you know where I’m taking you next. And we’re in a hurry. I need to get this online before it all changes.
The point here is that a very small proportion of the electorate got to set the country’s direction. Instead of a negotiated exit from the European Union, we were now barreling toward an exit at any cost: Johnson promised that the country would leave the EU by October 31, “do or die”–in other words, with or without a deal. So it was no surprise when EU leaders announced that he showed no interest in renegotiating the Brexit agreement his predecessor had negotiated and then failed to find support for.
Johnson prefers a no-deal Brexit, they said.
“Does not,” the British government said.
“Does so too,” the EU said,
Et cetera, with lots of links to make up for the one I couldn’t give you a few paragraphs back.
But a majority of MPs oppose a no-deal Brexit. What’s Johnson’s next move, then? Well, even before he became prime minister, he was playing publicly with the idea of proroguing Parliament.
Of pro-whatting Parliament?
Shutting it down. Sending the MPs home at exactly the time when they might be able to stop him from crashing the country out of the EU.
Here’s how that would work: Crashing out of the EU is the default setting in this process. If the time limit for a withdrawal isn’t extended and if an agreement isn’t reached, the country crashes out, no matter what Parliament says. So to crash out in the face of parliamentary opposition, all you have to do is kidnap 650 MPs at the right time, which will keep them from interfering.
But that’s illegal and offends most voters’ sensibilities, and the logistics are a nightmare, so you can do something simpler: You can send them all home, where their magic powers dissolve. And you don’t have to feed them or even tie them up, which you would if you kidnapped them.
As I write this, the MPs are at home–they left Westminster meekly for the usual summer break–and the ones who oppose a no-deal Brexit are plotting the moves left to them when their powers return in September.
The obvious one is to pass a vote of no confidence in the government. At that point, the prime minister’s magic powers are supposed to dissolve and parliament has fourteen days to find a prime minister with the backing, however reluctant, of a majority of MPs.
To date, though, no one can agree on who that should be. All the major parties are waving their hands in the air, yelling, “Me! Me! Pick me!”
If Parliament can’t find a majority to back any candidate, Parliament is dissolved and the prime minister’s supposed to call an election and resign.
In the meantime, Johnson’s advisor–and quite possibly his brains–Dominic Cummings has reportedly said that Johnson might refuse to resign, even if Parliament does form a government.
If that happens, he could presumably sit in the prime minister’s residence reciting nursery rhymes in Latin and entertaining the prime ministerial cat while the ship of state drifts toward the Brexit iceberg.
“Look!” he can say. “My hands aren’t even on the wheel.”
The cat’s name is Larry. He–or someone very like him only human, with thumbs and without fur–tweets at @Number10cat. Larry is known to snub fawning politicians without regard to their policies, powers, or parties, in full and satisfying sight of the cameras. As the nation’s chief mouser, he’s outlasted a small handful of recent prime ministers and done considerably less damage to the country. He may or may not be interested in any amusement the prime minister can offer.
During this time, Johnson would, presumably, call an election, but while it was being organized the country would crash out of the E.U.
When Johnson was asked if he might refuse to resign, he refused to answer.
Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and assorted important and formerly important people have warned, in a variety of ways, that refusing to resign would cause the worst constitutional crisis since Charles I was beheaded. Okay, since the Civil War, but that did lead to Charles being executed. As far as I can tell, no one’s advocating that, although they might be dropping a subtle hint about where this could all lead.
There’s been talk of getting the queen involved. She’s supposed to be above politics –or locked out of them, if you want to think of it that way–but she is the person who formally asks the leader of the parliamentary majority to form a government, so presumably she also has the right to ask the prime minister to resign if he no longer commands a majority. She apparently can “overrule ministerial advice” in a grave constitutional crisis. But focus on the words apparently and presumably. This is all new territory, because elections are controlled by a law that’s too new to have had much road testing. That may be why the wheels are wobbling so wildly.
A few voices have argued that refusing to resign would be plenty constitutional under the new law, thanks.
Parliament also has another possible way of blocking a no-deal Brexit: It could pass a law–not a motion; motions don’t have the power of laws–outlawing a no-deal Brexit or forcing the government to ask Europe for an extension. But to do that, MPs will have to take control of the Commons’ calendar, which the government normally controls. It can be done, but not easily. An assortment of precedents will have to be parked out in the hall while it happens.
To force Parliament to break precedent, which is always hard in a country that takes its traditions seriously, the government will have to refrain from introducing any new legislation between the time the MPs come back to work on September 3 and Brexit day, October 31. That includes legislation preparing the country for a no-deal Brexit. Why? Because MPs can amend any bill that comes before them in any way they want.
A third way to block a no-deal Brexit involves the courts. One lawsuit has been filed and others are said to be in the works. The one that’s furthest along would prevent Johnson from shutting down Parliament. Others (or another–the wording’s ambiguous) would force Johnson to resign if a no-confidence vote passes.
In the meantime, Britain first announced that it would leave the Interrail train scheme, which lets a ticket holder travel throughout both Britain and Europe, then a day later, when there was a lot of shouting about that, announced that it wasn’t leaving.
Do we know how to have fun over here or what?