In recent weeks, news from our friends in the United Kingdom has been making its way across the pond with increasing frequency. Brexit. Backstops. Boris. Prorogation?! What does it all mean? Digesting developments from one of the most complicated political conundrums in recent history can be very daunting, especially given their notoriously complex and unique form of governance. But never fear, if you can make it through this piece, you’ll know WTF is happening in the UK.
What Even is the UK?
The very best place to start when explaining what is happening in the UK is by explaining what the UK actually is. The UK, or the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is a country made up of four constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
As if that weren’t complicated enough, there are several more terms used, often erroneously to describe various geographical areas of the United Kingdom. There’s the British Isles, which actually includes all islands off the northwestern coast of the continent of Europe. Great Britain and Ireland are the two largest islands. Great Britain has Scotland, England, and Wales and Ireland has the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The Republic of Ireland is not a part of the UK, but does share land and sea borders with it. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, the best way to understand what’s what is to look at a map.
If it seems like I’ve gone off into the weeds here, I promise there’s a reason for all of this. Namely, that shared border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. … But I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
What is Brexit?
Now that we’ve established which country we’re talking about, we can move on to what they’re trying to do with the whole “Brexit” thing.
The United Kingdom joined the EU, then the European Communities, in the early 1970s and was not an original member. From the moment the ink on the treaty dried, there was disagreement over Britain’s place in the union, with the first referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Communities happening just two and a half years after they joined.
Fast forward to the early ’90s when the UK Independence Party (UKIP) formed with the main goal of getting the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Starting in the early 2000s, they had remarkable election success for a minor party, securing seats in the European Parliament and eventually a couple of short-lived seats in the UK House of Commons too.
The rise of UKIP was one of many catalysts for then-Prime Minister David Cameron to put forward legislation to hold an in-out referendum on the European union in 2015. The act passed, and in June of 2016, the UK voted to either Remain a member of the European Union or Leave it.
All polling before the vote pointed to the Remain side winning the referendum, but in one of the most shocking returns in the history of democracy, Leave won by a 52–48 margin. And thus, “Brexit” (Britain + Exit = Brexit) was a go.
Enter Theresa May
The day following the referendum, after campaigning for the Remain side, David Cameron announced his resignation as prime minister, citing the result as his main reason for stepping down. In the UK, rather than having an election when the prime minister quits, the governing party can select a new prime minister from the existing members of Parliament. This is usually done through rather complex selection processes, but in this instance her rival withdrew, and Theresa May was able to forego the full leadership campaign, enjoying something of a “coronation.”
May was also a Remainer during the build-up to the referendum, but never campaigned passionately. During the leadership bid, she was seen as “the adult in the room” and a pragmatic choice. Prior to becoming prime minister, May was the longest serving home secretary in six decades (one of the four most senior roles in British government, responsible for security and immigration as well as other internal affairs). She seemed well-placed to handle the intense negotiations with the European Union. However, some Leavers, or “Brexiteers,” still harbored doubts regarding her dedication to the cause of Brexit and her will to see it through.
With a new prime minister in place, the next step was to trigger Article 50, a part of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty that outlines the leaving process and starts the clock on a two year negotiation period between the EU and the country seeking to leave the Union. The process of getting this through Parliament started in December of 2016 and received royal assent in March 2017. On March 29, 2017, Theresa May formally invoked Article 50, which set the latest Brexit date at March 29, 2019.
Just a few weeks later, May made a decision that would haunt her for the rest of her time in office, and even now haunts her successor. For the first several months of her premiership, May enjoyed a massive lead in the polls. Nearly every poll predicted she would command a large majority in an election, much more comfortable than the narrow majority she had when she entered office.
Public opinion seemingly on her side, May called for a snap general election. Parliament voted to allow it, and the election was set for the 8th of June 2017. I’ll spare you the details of the campaign, but in the end Theresa May lost her already thin majority and ended up in a Confidence and Supply Agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (DUP) in order to form a government. This agreement is, unsurprisingly, complicated, but in short it’s a special type of deal that ensures the DUP will vote with the government under certain conditions.
This was a huge blow to Theresa May’s legislative agenda. She was working with a majority that was held together with chewing gum and shoelaces, and she was faced with pushing through legislation enacting an extremely divisive and contentious referendum vote. Additionally, her government lost a vote in Parliament, forcing them to give Parliament a “meaningful vote” on whatever deal May negotiated.
Her hope from the beginning was that the UK could leave with a negotiated deal rather than “crashing out” with no deal. A deal would make the transition out of the EU much smoother and less catastrophic for the UK economy. But as in any negotiation, concessions would have to be made; concessions that weren’t likely to please the Brexiter contingent.
Despite her precarious position in government, May managed to negotiate a deal that could be put before Parliament for a vote. But there was one giant elephant in the room — the backstop.
What is a Backstop?
One of the major difficulties facing May when she began negotiations was what to do with the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the only land border between the UK and EU. Since both countries were a part of the EU, people and goods were free to move across the border through their membership in the single market and customs union. The single market is an economic territory that enables free movement of goods, capital, services, and labor. The customs union removes the need for tariffs on the intra-EU trade of goods, and sets tariffs on imported goods from around the world.
Most scenarios favored by Brexiters (contrary to what they tended to say during the 2016 referendum) now involve leaving that single market and customs union. This makes the prospect of a “hard border” in Ireland loom alarmingly large.
A hard border isn’t desirable for the UK as it harms the interests of Northern Ireland, and it isn’t desirable for the EU as it harms the interests of one of their members, the Republic of Ireland. But the EU wasn’t willing to maintain that seamless trade and border crossing for nothing. That’s where the backstop came into play.
The backstop was a part of the EU’s deal with May that ensured there would never be a hard border, by in effect stipulating that the UK would remain in the customs union after they left the EU, until a trade deal could be agreed. Furthermore, Northern Ireland would be subject to additional rules and regulations from the EU.
This was a sticking point for Brexiteers and the DUP. The concern was that the backstop could effectively trap the UK in a customs union with no incentive for the EU to negotiate a trade deal in a timely manner, if at all. The EU refused to put a time limit on the backstop, so Brexiteers viewed it as a mechanism for being de facto stuck in the EU with no political power to affect its policy making.
The DUP objected to Northern Ireland being treated differently than the rest of constituent countries in the UK, an issue exacerbated by existing tensions in Northern Ireland left over from The Troubles. Some felt the backstop would single them out further. On the other hand, a hard border looked likely to threaten the relative calm that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought the country, after decades of bloody sectarian violence. Peace in Northern Ireland is still a delicate balance. Ultimately, the backstop issue was the breaking point for Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
Brexiters said May’s Brexit was too soft, Remainers said it was too hard; the deal looked dead on arrival. A vote in January saw it defeated resoundingly. It was defeated two more times in March, even with more assurances on the backstop, and the exit date was extended from March 29th to April 12th to October 31st, the current exit date.
After May’s deal went down for the third time, Parliament held a series of “indicative votes” to take the temperature on different Brexit options and try to find a way forward. Unsurprisingly, none of the options got a majority.
They didn’t want May’s deal. They didn’t want “no deal.” They didn’t want to hold a second referendum. They didn’t want to revoke article 50 and go back to the EU. The parliamentary math seemed impossible.
After trying and failing to bring her deal back for a fourth time, May decided there was no way for her to continue as prime minister, and in late May 2019, announced her resignation.
What on Earth is Boris Johnson Doing?
One of Brexit’s most famous campaigners, Boris Johnson, was the likely choice to take the reins on Brexit. A quick leadership election put him in Number 10 just in time for Parliament’s summer recess and an eerily quiet first few weeks. Until the last fortnight that is.
Johnson was one of the most vocal opponents of the backstop, declaring that he would scrap it and find another solution to the issue of the Irish border. But many suspect that Johnson’s true intention, as a man who owes his position in large part to the ardent Brexiter wing of his party, is to leave with no deal on October 31st.
On August 28th, Johnson requested consent from the Queen to prorogue Parliament from mid-September until mid-October. Prorogation is, very simply, a sort of recess that isn’t in the regular recess schedule. UK Parliament has a recess every year during their annual party conference season in September and October for around three and a half weeks, but Johnson’s request brings this recess up to five weeks. Many MPs argue these are precious remaining days when the Brexit deadline is so quickly approaching. Not only that, but unlike other recesses, prorogation ends almost all parliamentary business (most bills, and all questions and motions). When Parliament returns, such business can’t usually be picked up again; a new session begins, in which a Queen’s Speech sketches out a new legislative program. Many view the prorogation as an attempt by Johnson to prevent Parliament acting to stop a no deal Brexit.
On Monday, September 2nd, the day before summer recess ended, news broke that MPs would use the first day in session to attempt to take over the order paper, or the parliamentary agenda, and have an emergency debate on preventing a no deal Brexit. Normally the order paper is under the control of the government, but this action would allow Remain-backing MPs to push legislation to block or postpone a no deal Brexit. The response from Johnson and Number 10 were that any Conservative MPs voting for this would have the parliamentary whip removed (effectively no longer be Conservative MPs). This sparked outrage within the party, and a small Tory rebellion started brewing.
Tuesday started off with a statement from Johnson on the G7 summit, and a defection by Conservative MP Philip Lee that lost Johnson his working majority in Parliament. When the vote results came in on Tuesday evening, Johnson lost by a 27 vote margin with 21 Tory MPs rebelling and having the whip removed. The 21 included former cabinet ministers and MPs who have been in the Conservative party for decades, including Winston Churchill’s grandson, and the “father of the House” (the longest-serving current MP Ken Clarke). It was an unprecedented act that led to more defections, including that of Johnson’s own brother Jo Johnson.
This vote was taken by Johnson’s government as a vote of no confidence, and after the results were announced Johnson stated that he would table a motion to hold a general election. If Johnson could win a majority, it could break the deadlock in Parliament.
An early general election would likely favor Johnson, based on current polling data. Leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has often been wildly unpopular with the British public, and general Brexit fatigue could favor someone who says they’ll get it done by October 31st. (Though 2017s turnaround and Remain activists’ tactical voting initiatives should caution us against being too sure of anything). In any case, Johnson needed a 2/3 majority (434 MPs) to call an early general election.
Wednesday saw the usual hour of Prime Minister’s Questions, then moved on to a debate that would be followed by a vote on a bill to address the issue of a no deal Brexit. Basically, the bill stipulated that if Johnson came back from the EU with a new deal on October 19th, Parliament would vote on it. If they voted it down, they would then vote on the possibility of no deal. If no deal was also voted down, the bill mandated that Johnson go to the EU and seek yet another extension to Article 50. This extension would likely be quite a long one, the last thing Johnson wants — if the EU agree to one at all. This bill passed, handing Johnson his second defeat in 24 hours. A surprise amendment to the bill also passed that requires yet another vote on May’s deal before an extension is sought.
As if that weren’t enough for one day, this was followed by a vote on the early general election. As expected, Johnson didn’t get the votes needed for the election and went 0/3 on his first three votes as prime minister.
On Saturday, Amber Rudd, secretary of state for work and pensions, resigned from the government and from the party whip. She cited the government’s lack of transparency and a lack of evidence that they are planning for anything other than a no deal Brexit. While not necessarily a massive blow to Johnson’s government, it could trigger a chain reaction of MPs to follow.
Bringing us back up-to-date, the following Monday (9/9), Parliament had its last day in session before the prorogation. There were more emergency debates on Brexit, followed by yet another vote on an early general election.
One of the 21 banished Tory rebels Dominic Grieve brought a motion seeking to force the government to publish documents outlining their plan for a no deal Brexit — the infamous Operation Yellowhammer report which outlines potentially hair-raising medicine and food shortages — as well as their communications leading to the decision to prorogue Parliament. The vote on that motion passed, handing the government yet another defeat. Johnson’s team looks unlikely to comply, though, with a government source telling The Daily Mail “Dominic Grieve can fuck off.” This sparked speculation of legal challenges to Johnson’s government in the courts — or should I say, further legal challenges, as we will see.
Then MPs sought confirmation that Boris Johnson’s government would abide by the law that had passed on Wednesday and received royal assent that morning, to postpone the possibility of a no deal Brexit. While the government maintains it is not seeking to break the new law, Johnson insisted “this government will not delay Brexit any further.”
And as expected, the government failed to get the 2/3 majority needed for an early general election. If you’re keeping count, that’s six votes and six defeats in six days for Johnson. Conservative MPs left the Commons for the ceremonial proroguing of Parliament around 1:00 a.m., with arguments breaking out, shouts of “shame on you,” and opposition MPs holding up signs that said “silenced” while they boycotted the ceremony in protest. The Speaker of the House John Bercow remarked: “I’m perfectly happy to play my part, but I do want to make the point that this is not a standard or normal prorogation. It’s one of the longest for decades and it represents an act of executive fiat.”
Where Are We Now?
Will Britain be stuck in Brexit limbo forever?
Over the past week, Johnson has lost his majority, watched the victory of several votes that obstruct his Brexit strategy, and lost two votes on a general election that could boost him to a working majority.
Today, Scotland’s highest appeal court ruled his proroguing of Parliament is unlawful. But even so, his government is resisting demands to recall Parliament. Outside of the UK, France has announced that even if the UK seeks an extension, they will likely block it under the current circumstances.
The implications of all of this remain to be seen. Johnson will be going forward with a minority government and very few cards left to play. But he and his advisors are notoriously unpredictable, and the remaining month and a half on the Brexit clock are certain to be eventful.