The reported decision of British prime minister Boris Johnson to suspend – or “prorogue” – parliament for over a month as the clock ticks down to the Brexitdate of October 31st will provoke a huge storm in the UK and almost certainly incite a parliamentary rebellion that his government is likely to lose.
This is most probably his intention. Such a defeat will likely lead to a general election in early October – if not before – in which Johnson will enjoy significant advantages. Some recent polls suggest that the Conservatives enjoy a strong lead and Johnson’s novelty as a prime minister, as well as his enormous capacity to speak to voters and be listened to, will make him a hot favourite to beat his rivals, especially Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, in a short, sharp campaign.
Crucially, Johnson can go to the country before Brexit – enabling him to run on a promise of delivering Brexit with or without a deal on October 31st, his already familiar mantra since taking office in July. Equally crucially, the election will come before the negative effects of a no-deal Brexit are felt by voters. So Johnson is in a pretty good position to fight an election in the coming weeks.
Why would he want an election? The first rule of politics: you have to be able to count. Johnson has no parliamentary majority, and he watched – and participated – as Theresa May was destroyed by her inability to command a majority in the House of Commons.
Whether Johnson presides over a deal, or a no-deal Brexit, he would face the same tyranny of the parliamentary numbers. The effects of a no-deal would destroy his government; but a deal might do the same, as Tory ultra-Brexiteers – and perhaps the DUP, depending on how a new deal treated the North – would surely stand against it.
So without an election, Johnson faces a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. If he wins an election, however – and this may be his best shot at that – he can either do a deal (and he stands a chance at getting a tweaked deal from the EU with a new mandate) and get it through parliament or he can hold out for a no-deal, which he can survive with a majority.
To get his election, though, Johnson needs to provoke his opponents into defeating him in parliament on a confidence motion. Judging by the reaction so far this morning, his opponents will do his bidding. Johnson’s outrageous act of seeking to suspend a hostile parliament, therefore, is entirely logical, even if it is a thrashing of the British constitution and its parliamentary democracy. It is also an astonishingly audacious move, which demonstrates how much he has seized the political initiative.
In Dublin and in Brussels, they will sit tight and watch. This fight is in Westminster, and then, probably, across the UK. In truth, it has been coming for months. Only once it is resolved will the Brexit deal-making resume, as all the while, the no-deal clock ticks louder and louder.