When the majority of voters in the United Kingdom cast ballots in favour of leaving the European Union, they did so in the general belief that Britain would be taking back control of its future.
No more, the pro-Brexit campaigners argued then, would the United Kingdom parliament in Westminster be subservient to the principles of European law made in Strasbourg, or to the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice. Instead, Britain would be taking back control of its democracy.
Front and centre in that campaign was Boris Johnson, who famously — and very wrongly — stood time and time again before a red-painted Brexit campaign bus and said that the £350 million (Dh1.56 billion) Britain saved each week from its contributions would be spent on funding for the crumbling National Health Service (NHS).
The Brexit campaign was always based on the premise and understanding that the UK would be able to reach a deal with the European Union on the terms of leaving. There would be a withdrawal agreement.
Fast forward to Johnson’s campaign to replace Theresa May as prime minister, and he won the leadership of the Conservative party with roughly 66 per cent of the party members’ support. In actual terms, he became prime minister of the UK on the support of mostly pale, stale and male Tories who were mostly based in southern England and made up less than 0.13 per cent of the nation’s population. That’s an abject lesson in democracy. And so too is his decision yesterday to suspend parliament for five weeks between September 10 and October 15. It is a ploy simply to prevent the members of parliament from putting legislation in place to prevent his government from leaving the EU on October 31 without a Brexit deal.
Two torturous years of talks
Yes, a majority of Brits voted for Brexit. But would they have voted for Brexit if there was no withdrawal deal?
Right now, there is a Withdrawal Agreement, one hammered out over two torturous years of talks between the UK government, the EU27 and the European Commission. That Withdrawal Agreement is stalled in the House of Commons. It has been rejected three times by MPs and Johnson himself voted for that deal the last time it was put to a vote. And yes, it has the backstop, the guarantee that the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland will remain open and free. That’s a done deal, a necessary measure, and one that won’t be revisited, the EU27 is adamant.
Because the Conservatives have just a majority of one in the current parliament — prorogued or not — they also rely on the 10 votes from Northern Irish hard-line unionists, MPs who believe that Belfast has the same relationship within the UK as Bradford or Birmingham. It is they — these 10 — who are holding Johnson’s government and the entire Withdrawal Agreement as hostage. These ten MPs have no problem with borders and customs, security checks and the prospect of violence — they lived in the province under siege during the darks days of violence that killed 3,600 and wounded another 36,000 more.
As prime minister, Johnson is adamant that the backstop will go. The European Commission, Dublin, Berlin, Paris and all of the other 27 EU capitals have all said it remains an integral part of any withdrawal deal, is there to stay, and there can only be discussion on the terms of the ad hoc political agreement that accompanies the negotiation Withdrawal Agreement, not on the substantive Withdrawal Agreement itself.
Huffing and puffing
The only credible way forward
Besides, there simply isn’t time. And London, Johnson and all of the mandarins in Whitehall have failed to come up with a single credible alternative. Why? Because they know that the backstop, despite all of the Brexiteers huffing and puffing, is the only credible way forward.
Take trade. US President Donald Trump has said that there’s a great and tremendous trade deal waiting to be made with the UK as soon as it’s out of the EU. And while the Brexiteers may talk that up, there is the small matter of the backstop that needs to be considered.
Right now, Democrats control the House of Representatives in Washington, and they have made it very clear they will not approve any trade deal between the US and the UK unless the principles of the Good Friday Agreement are met. That’s the accord that brought peace and prosperity to Northern Ireland and allowed the border checks and security posts to be removed, opening the border up.
From the very first day he took office, he has been in election campaign mode. There were announcements on NHS, more front-line police officers, more spending on rail links between Manchester and Leeds, reviews of the unpopular High Speed 2 (HS2) projects, education reforms. These are not the stuff of a government planning for a no-deal Brexit. No, they are the stuff of a government laying the groundwork for a general election. And what better way of showing his mettle with hardline Brexiteers — whose support is critical for a majority — than showing his willingness to suspend parliament.