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CWA # 178, 28 October 2019

United Kingdom
As the Brexit deadline nears: Three Implications of Boris Johnson’s Election Call

  Sourina Bej

Johnson's election call rides on the Brexit sentiment but the election itself will not push for an immediate exiting of Britain. Standing on low numbers with no clear majority, the election would only strengthen the party positions in the Westminster and the Brexit will oscillate between EU deadlines and parliamentary approval

Johnson's election call rides on the Brexit sentiment but the election itself will not push for an immediate exiting of Britain. Standing on low numbers with no clear majority, the election would only strengthen the party positions in the Westminster and the Brexit will oscillate between EU deadlines and parliamentary approval. 

Brexit is in relentless stalemate despite the following: a new Brexit deal; an alternate round of approval and rejection votes on it; a meeting with the Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn to garner support for the deal; and Boris Johnson calling for a general election in December. The impasse seems beyond resolution.

An extension to the Brexit might be a reality as on 31 October. As the 27 European Union ambassadors once again pick up the arduous task to agree on another deadline in the forthcoming week, where does the Westminster stand on the withdrawal deal? Will Britain exit EU on an extended deadline in 2020 or a general election will split Britain further?  

The New Brexit Deal: What does the voting say? 
The new deal for the Brexit that removed the backstop and agreed to let Northern Ireland be a part of both the EU and British market is overwhelmingly appreciated but failed to pass in the British Parliament. 

The deadline to deliver Brexit will now be extended and Boris Johnson awaits the EU to decide “what they want to do.” The withdrawal amendment bill is major legislation that dealt with all the vital issues - security cooperation with the EU, the rights of British in Europe and the mechanics of the proposed checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. 

Despite succeeding in ironing out the details with both Ireland and EU why Johnson’s deal failed in the voting on 25 October in Westminster? 

The peculiar nature of the voting on the withdrawal deal demands a closer look. While all the Tories, Labour and independent parties agreed on the spirit of the Brexit, indicating the necessity to exit out of the bloc, the MPs booted out the timetable to debate and pass all the new laws that would actually make the Brexit happen. This has indeed rusted and stopped the departure process. 

The voting patterns indicate the following: first, the Brexit clauses are acceptable, which were until now a cause of concern. In the first voting, the MPs have voted by 329 to 299 for the withdrawal bill to take the UK out of the European Union ending a series of defeats for the government on Brexit. Boris Johnson’s bill passed where Theresa May had failed. However surpassing the details, the second voting failed to get approval for the swift timetable that would have allowed the bill to pass through the House of Commons by 25 October. Second, the voting pattern indicates that delaying through debate was more case in point than exiting the bloc in a rush. The government lost the timetable vote by 308 to 322 and the 19 Labour MPs who defied their leader Jeremy Corbyn to vote for the bill in the first time blocked the timetable votes. This reveals that even though the Labour party has been demanding a repeal of the no-deal and criticised Johnson’s dealing with the Northern Ireland issue, a portion of its members does agree with the current deal. 

If the clauses are agreed, then why do the MP’s resist a swift exit and need more time to debate? The debate on the clauses of the Brexit unfolds an emerging divide within each party on where they stand in case of an election later.   

A ‘Br-exit’ or ‘Br-split’? 
After failing to get the bill passed, the conservatives led by Boris Johnson has called for an early election. The Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrats and DUP parties have weighed options from a referendum to revamping the domestic security clause and now debate on voting on an election. 

The opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn who is routing for a complete repeal of the no-deal has also been touting the option of an election during May’s tenure. However, once Johnson called the election, he vilified it. The reason being this electoral strategy that lurks within the Conservatives frames the Brexit battle as “the people versus Parliament” agenda. The election call ushers the making of Johnson’s majority in the Parliament that would not only stand by his promise of debate then exit and also give him the numbers to pass the further bill.  

This election call has back footed the Labour party, especially Corbyn. A leader who called for an election at least 35 times since 2017 is now being seen as an indecisive one by most of his party members. The 19 Labour party members who have voted for the spirit of the bill have long been in a rift with their party chief and believe that time for a general election is now. Also, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP have joined forces to try and trigger a general election in December if the EU agrees on a three-month extension. 
If the MPs agree on an early election, they would have time until Parliament dissolves on 6 November before the 12 December election. This time is similar to what Johnson has tactically put in the timetable that the MPs have voted against. Once the MP’s finish debating before the elections, the new deal becomes a law and the Brexit enters in action irrespective of the election. 

Elections: Three implications
The most likely outcome in which the election would have an impact is if the MPs agree on an election and delay the passage of the bill through all its stages before 6 November. However, all hinges on the extended deadline to be announced by the EU. 

In case of an election, the impact would be threefold.  

First, the impact on the ballot box would be substantial. The pre-Christmas voting will add to the ordeal of the people. The organisation of the election at polling booths amid festivity would be a challenge. The worry has been that lots of these booths would be unavailable due to Christmas events or inaccessible by most voters. The making of Johnson’s election looks at bad winter months, which would deter voting to take place. It remains to be seen how it indicates taking into account a full public mandate where people would face the challenge to come out and vote. 

Second, the EU’ decision on deadline will impact the election, especially on how the opposition will respond. The Tories have predicted that the Labour party will pursue a delaying tactic. However, Boris Johnson has vowed to incite the political sentiment to a point where MPs vote day after day on whether or not to have an election. 

Third, the election will once and for all consolidate or desolate Johnson’s position in the Parliament. The delaying tactics have so far rolled back the public opinion against the Brexit. It remains to be seen whether this opposition is equally towards Johnson. 

A possible scenario after the election could be that if the MPs reject the EU proposal on an extended deadline and the UK fails to pass the deal again, the Brexit circles back to where it began; a new deal.    

Sourina Bej is a researcher with the Global Politics at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru. She can be contacted at sourinabej92@gmail.com

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