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World & Nation

The question before Britain’s Parliament: Can Boris Johnson be trusted to obey the law?

Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reiterated to Parliament on Sept. 9, 2019, that he would not ask the European Union for another Brexit delay.
(Matt Dunham / Associated Press)

British lawmakers, now sidelined during a crucial Brexit countdown, weighed an extraordinary proposition Monday: whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson could be trusted to abide by a law to prevent Britain from leaving the European Union with no withdrawal agreement.

A marathon series of debates raged past midnight on the floor of the House of Commons as Johnson prepared to formally suspend Parliament for the next five weeks while the country barreled toward Brexit, the enormously consequential rupture with the EU set for Oct. 31.

The struggle over how and whether to leave the 28-nation bloc has convulsed the political scene for the last three years and placed unaccustomed stress on the country’s democratic institutions.

The 55-year-old prime minister and his hard-line pro-Brexit allies are engaged in intensive behind-the-scenes maneuvering as they search for a way to circumvent a measure passed last week by Parliament, which said he must strike a deal with the EU by Oct. 19 or ask it for a postponement of the current departure deadline.

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Johnson declared that he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than seek a new delay of Brexit, which was originally scheduled to have happened five months ago, and has been put off twice. On Monday night, he repeated to Parliament that he would not ask the EU for another delay.

The bill blocking a no-deal exit was one of a series of stinging parliamentary defeats for Johnson, a colorful and confounding politician who has been in office less than two months. His opponents last week denied his bid to secure a general election before the Oct. 31 deadline for leaving the EU. The litany continued with the House on Monday demanding the release of private government documents having to do with Brexit decision-making, and with lawmakers once again rebuffing his election plea early Tuesday, just before the suspension took effect.

The prime minister sparked an unprecedented confrontation with lawmakers last month when he set in motion the process to suspend Parliament. A short break between sessions is normally a minor housekeeping procedure when a new government takes over, but Johnson infuriated critics and many loyalists in his Conservative Party when he decreed the longest such suspension in 80 years. That was almost universally viewed as an effort to prevent Parliament from tying his hands on Brexit.

Lawmakers in turn used arcane procedural rules to seize control of the legislative timetable and pass the bill to prevent Britain from crashing out of the EU.

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The measure became law Monday with the assent of Queen Elizabeth II — an expected formality — but Johnson and his lieutenants are considering a variety of ways to get around the restriction.

The options being entertained, according to British media reports, include the government simply ignoring the law, thus risking jail time for the prime minister, who insists that the prospect of a no-deal Brexit gives him more leverage in negotiations with the EU.

His top aides suggested they were actively scouring for legal loopholes. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the government would “look very carefully” at how it would interpret what he called the “bad” legislation on Brexit that Parliament had passed.

Johnson’s opponents took deep offense.

“We have a prime minister who thinks the rules do not apply to him,” said Jo Swinson, head of the opposition Liberal Democrats, speaking on the House floor before lawmakers approved a resolution demanding respect for the rule of law.

Another option for Johnson’s camp would be securing a general election before the Oct. 31 deadline. Although the House twice batted aside that effort, Johnson could make a last-ditch effort by engineering a vote of no confidence in his own government. He and his aides believe they could overcome a fractured opposition and win back the working parliamentary majority he lost last week.

In an election, the hard-liners would seek to capitalize on sentiment that lawmakers are thwarting the will of the voters, who approved a referendum in 2016 to leave the EU. But opponents say many of those “Leave” voters — whose side triumphed only narrowly — envisioned an orderly departure from the bloc, not a potentially catastrophic crash-out.

Among the prime minister’s critics, even many who back his wish to split with the EU accuse him of acting irresponsibly in risking — even courting — a no-deal departure. The government’s forecasts suggest that abruptly cutting trade ties would be a major economic shock and could result in shortages of fresh food and medicines and the disruption of industrial supply lines.

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Johnson’s machinations over the last two weeks have set off fears of a constitutional crisis, as well as a schism within his party. Last week, he ejected from the party 21 members who defied him, including grandees such as the longest-serving member of the House and the grandson of Winston Churchill, an idol of Johnson’s.

His brother subsequently quit Parliament and his Cabinet post in protest, and another senior Conservative politician, Amber Rudd, resigned her minister’s post over the weekend.

Earlier Monday, Johnson made the first visit of his seven-week tenure to Dublin, another Brexit tinderbox. Irish officials fear a no-deal Brexit would endanger the 2-decade-old peace accord known as the Good Friday agreement, and Prime Minister Leo Varadkar pointedly repeated that message.

“The people of this island, north and south, need to know that their livelihoods, their security and their sense of identity will not be put at risk as a consequence of Brexit,” he told the British leader, who nodded but looked uncomfortable.

The Good Friday accord calls for an open border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Johnson has demanded that the EU drop its demand for a mechanism to ensure that the Irish frontier remains free of border checks and customs posts — a trigger for sectarian violence in the past — but he has not unveiled any practical proposals for doing so.

Standing side by side with the Irish prime minister, Johnson told reporters that leaving the EU without a deal would represent a “failure of statecraft” by both sides.

“I want to find a deal,” he said, in what some regarded as a slight softening of his fiery rhetoric about leaving the EU on schedule no matter what. “I want to get a deal.”

From next month onward, parliamentary debate will lack one colorful fixture: John Bercow, the white-haired, clarion-voiced speaker of the House of Commons, who has become a thorn in the side of Johnson’s government although he is a member of the prime minister’s party.

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Bercow, known for his trademark roar of “Orderrrr!” announced Monday that he would step down at the close of business on Oct. 31 after a decade in the speaker’s post — a date deliberately chosen so that he would still be presiding as the deadline passed. In a farewell speech, Bercow did not mention the prime minister by name, but took a last dig at Johnson’s efforts to limit the powers of one of the world’s oldest deliberative bodies.

“We degrade this Parliament,” Bercow said, “at our peril.”


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