Johnson’s Brexit Mess Now a “Constitutional Crisis”

September 11, 2019

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to undermine parliament and the Brexit process by temporarily suspending parliament, but now a court has ruled that the suspension is unlawful and a constitutional crisis unfolds, says Grace Blakeley

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to undermine parliament and the Brexit process by temporarily suspending parliament, but now a court has ruled that the suspension is unlawful and a constitutional crisis unfolds, says Grace Blakeley


Johnson's Brexit Mess Now a "Constitutional Crisis"

Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

The chaos and confusion over Britain’s possible departure from the European Union, also known as Brexit, intensified yet again on Tuesday when a Scottish court ruled that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s temporary suspension of Parliament was unlawful. Johnson had suspended Parliament for five weeks beginning on Tuesday as a strategy to prevent further parliamentary debate on Brexit, allowing it to reconvene only shortly before the October 31st deadline when Brexit would finally take place with or without an agreement about Britain’s future relationship to the EU.

Meanwhile, wrangling between the parties and members of Parliament continues as no clear majority for any solution to the Brexit process is found. For example, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has proposed extending the Brexit deadline, holding a new general election followed by a second referendum on Brexit. Here’s a clip of how Jeremy Corbyn presented his plan to a gathering of the Trade Union Congress on Tuesday

MP JEREMY CORBYN: Johnson’s reckless no-deal would destroy jobs, push up food prices in the shops, and cause shortages of everyday medicines that people rely on. Our first priority is to stop no-deal and then to trigger a general election. In that election we will commit to a public vote with a credible option to leave and the option to remain.

GREG WILPERT: Also, a cross-party coalition of members of Parliament is seeking a Brexit deal that is based on the previous plan that Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, had worked out with the EU. Finally, the EU is pushing Johnson to accept the so called Northern Ireland-only backstop where Northern Ireland would essentially remain part of the EU’s free trade area, while the rest of the UK leaves. Johnson, however, has been ambiguous about whether he would accept such a solution for the problem of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Joining me now to discuss this continuing Brexit confusion in Britain is Grace Blakeley. She’s an economist, member of the UK’s Labour Party’s National Policy Forum, and author of the book Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialization. Thanks for joining us today, Grace.

GRACE BLAKELEY: Thanks for having me.

GREG WILPERT: It seems that Boris Johnson has completely lost control over the Brexit process. First, he lost his parliamentary majority because he expelled 21 members of his own party because they voted against him. Now he doesn’t have enough votes to force an early election as he had planned. On top of it all, now a Scottish court, as I mentioned, ruled that Johnson’s temporary suspension of Parliament is illegal. So, what happens now? Last week Parliament voted against a no-deal. Brexit. Does that mean there will be an extension? What is going on? What are the possible scenarios as far as we can tell at this point?

GRACE BLAKELEY:          Well, as you’ve laid out, it is a very confusing situation and I think a large part of that is because we’re effectively going through a big constitutional crisis at the moment in the UK. In Canada you have a similar model to the Westminster model of parliamentary sovereignty, where Parliament’s supposed to be sovereign. The decisions made by MPs are supposed to be taken and brought into law, subject to a balance of power between the Executive and the Legislature, so between the courts and the government.

What we’re seeing at the moment is the government and the courts at odds with the legislature, and often the legislature at odds with the courts and the government. So figuring out who’s going to win this battle— is it going to be the government? Is Boris Johnson going to get his way? Is it going to be MPs and broadly Remain-supporting MPs going to get their way? Are the court’s going to stymie the whole process? It’s very difficult to say to this point, and a lot of it hinges on the question of who has power in our democracy.  You’ve seen today that the courts in Scotland issued a ruling effectively saying that Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament is unlawful. What does that mean? Does that mean that some MPs have taken it to mean that they can come back and effectively hold Parliament even if the government isn’t there allowing them to do so?

The issue is, I think, is that aside from the rules and checks and balances that exist within our system, we do have a very powerful executive. Our government is quite powerful and is often able to push things through that Parliament doesn’t agree with. Even sometimes that the courts say are not technically constitutional because they are the ones that are supposed to be able to control the law. So in this situation, I think what happens will depend on who wins in this tussle between the government and Parliament. At the moment, and for a long time we have thought that Boris Johnson would come out of this process and be able to push through a no-deal— just through sheer force of will, through ignoring the courts, through ignoring MPs. But we’re starting to see the limits of his ability to do this.

MPs, as you mentioned, are pushing back and using lots of different mechanisms to try and prevent Johnson from doing this. The courts are now obviously getting involved as well. So it does look as though the only way out of this impasse is going to be another election. Effectively, to take this division between these different areas of the state and put it to the people, and saying you decide.

GREG WILPERT: I want to get back to the point of the election in a moment, but first, one of the other main sticking points in all of this is the Northern Ireland situation. Give our viewers an idea as to what the so called backstop proposal is about, and why it’s such an important sticking point.

GRACE BLAKELEY: Yeah, so as part of the agreement that was negotiated by Theresa May, there was a backstop put in place so that if a free trade deal with the EU wasn’t agreed over the transition period, along which—It’s basically a two-year transition period in this deal where current arrangements with the EU would continue to apply, so that the UK could arrange a trade deal with the EU, and obviously in an attempt to arrange some sort of free trade deals so that there wouldn’t have to be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Because of course, if there’s any dis-alignment there in terms of regulation, if there’s tariffs, et cetera, then that would require a border between the Republic of Ireland and Ireland.

The backstop was intended to ensure that that didn’t happen basically. That if there was no free trade deal negotiated, then there wouldn’t be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The issue in Ireland is of course that this potentially undermines the Good Friday Agreement, which was negotiated to bring peace to Ireland not really that long ago. There is still a lot of violence in Ireland over the issue of the relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom. A lot of people now and Johnson is looking into this idea of potentially having some sort of set of checks or basically regulatory checks and tariffs, et cetera, in the Irish Sea.

If we do get to a point where the backstop came into effect, rather than having the checks on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, those checks would take place in the Irish Sea. The issue there is that that’s a big issue for Unionists, for people who want Northern Ireland to retain its relationship with the UK because it potentially leads to divergence between Britain, between Wales, Scotland and England and Northern Ireland. That worries people who want to make sure that Northern Ireland continues to remain part of the UK.

Having said that, on current trends, it does look as though, based on demographics, based on the views of young people towards the Union, that a united Ireland is something that’s becoming more and more likely. Whether that is accelerated as part of this Brexit process is something that we have yet to see.

GREG WILPERT: That’s very interesting. Now, I just wanted to return to the issue of the possibility of new general elections. There seems to be agreement across the board to hold new elections. The big disagreement is over when they should take place exactly. What is your sense of what is happening with regard to the scheduling of elections and also what does this really mean for the Labour Party because it looks to me, according to the recent polls, they’re actually behind in the polls?

GRACE BLAKELEY: Yeah, so in terms of the timing of the election, opposition MPs have been arguing for an election for a very long time, especially the Labour Party. They’ve really been pushing and saying the only way to get out this deadlock is to have a general election and let the people decide.

Johnson is now coming forward and saying, “Okay, I’ve lost my majority. We will have an election and let the people decide.” The issue is that if that election was called now, then there is no mechanism in place to prevent the UK from leaving without a deal on the 31st of October because that would take place during the election period. There wouldn’t be a new government before that deadline of the 31st of October was announced.

So opposition MPs have come together and said, “We’re not going to vote for a general election unless there is an assurance that we will not leave the EU without a deal on the 31st of October.” There are disagreements about how strategic this move is. It does allow Johnson to say, “The opposition is scared about the prospect of a general election.” I don’t think that’s the primary reason that they aren’t voting for it. I do think that it is because they want to prevent a no-deal Brexit, but it does potentially make the opposition look a little bit weak on this issue and not to want to come to the country.

Whereas for Johnson, it allows him to look as though he does want to take this back to the people. He wants to respect the will of the people. He’s really gearing up for an election that will be based on what we’ve been hearing, which is people versus Parliament. So Johnson basically says, “I wanted to deliver the will of the people as expressed in the vote to leave the European Union. And to do so, you need to give me the power I need to push these MPs who are stopping me out of the way.” That could potentially be a very popular message and it could be damaging to Labour if their vote as well is cut down the middle by the Liberal Democrats and other parties that have delivered a consistently stronger Remain line.

Really, we’ve got this problem at the moment in British politics of the traditional division, which basically has been between the left and the right largely on economics, is being cut over by this Brexit division. And now, often people take their loyalties as a Remainer or Brexiteer more centrally and more importantly than they do their traditional party loyalties, so whether or not they vote Labour or Conservative. That’s a real problem for the incumbent parties.

GREG WILPERT: Okay. Well, we’re going to leave it there for now, but hopefully we’ll have you back on soon. I was speaking to Grace Blakeley, economist, writer and member of the Labour Party’s National Policy Forum. Thanks again, Grace, for having joined us today.

GRACE BLAKELEY: Thanks for having me.

GREG WILPERT: Thank you for joining The Real News Network.