Brexit minus seven weeks: the procrastinating parliament

A large share of blame for the Brexit shambles goes to parliament, which can only procrastinate. Also featured: the September 17 Israeli election. Guest post by Adrian Beaumont.

Guest post by Adrian Beaumont, who joins us from time to time to provide commentary on elections internationally. Adrian is an honorary associate at The University of Melbourne. His work on electoral matters for The Conversation can be found here, and his own website is here.

Late on September 9, Parliament was prorogued until October 14, after Boris Johnson again fell well short of the two-thirds Commons majority needed for an early election. Earlier, the bill requiring Johnson to request a Brexit extension by October 19 received royal assent. An election cannot now be held until at least mid-November.

While a majority of the Commons opposes a no-deal Brexit, there is no majority for anything else. Theresa May’s deal was rejected three times by decisive to crushing margins. In late March and early April, several options were considered and all were defeated – even though Conservative MPs were given a free vote and the cabinet abstained.

Parliament’s only decision has been to delay the Brexit date, first from late March to late October, and now they want to delay until at least late January. The Commons could not even decide to hold an election.

Given this procrastination, you can see why polls suggest that voters are fed up with Parliament, and are more sympathetic to a no-deal Brexit than to further delay. Boris Johnson has exploited this sentiment.

The legislation passed by Parliament requires Johnson to seek a Brexit extension by October 19. If he does not request an extension, the courts would order him to. If he still defied Parliament, he would be held in contempt of court, and possibly jailed. However, I don’t think Johnson would stop being PM just because he was in jail. The only qualification to be PM is that you are an MP. Unless the sentence was 12 months or more, Johnson would not be immediately disqualified.

It appears that Johnson’s lawyers will attempt to find loopholes in the legislation, and appeal adverse court decisions. Courts can act far faster than normal when required, but Johnson will hope to get through the 12 days between October 19 and 31 without his actions being declared illegal by the Supreme Court, the highest UK court of appeal.

Prior to the passage of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act during the 2010-15 Parliament, a government defeated on crucial legislation could call an election – as Johnson tried to do. Almost all legislation concerns the general business of government, whereas this legislation seeks to compel just the PM to act against his wishes.

The Australian government cannot refuse to implement the Medevac legislation, as this legislation is carried out by civil servants. Any executive order directly contradicting legislation would be quickly struck out by the courts.

If a no-deal Brexit occurs on October 31, it will be because Johnson forced Parliament to choose between no-deal and something more unpalatable, with no procrastination available. Examples are: no-deal vs PM Jeremy Corbyn, or no-deal vs no Brexit.

Polls released last weekend were mixed. The Conservative lead was 3-5 points in four polls, ten points in Opinium and 14 points in YouGov. A ComRes poll released Tuesday had the Conservative lead falling from four points to one. Having alienated Remain voters, Johnson must avoid disappointing Leave voters, so it seems unlikely he will either extend Brexit or revert to a deal similar to May’s.

On the economic fundamentals, the Conservatives should be winning. In the latest figures, UK unemployment was 3.8%, and real wage growth in the year to July was 1.9% excluding bonuses.

Israeli polls suggest another deadlocked Knesset

Right-wing Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to have won his fourth successive term at the April 2019 election when right-wing and religious parties won a combined 65 of the 120 Knesset seats. But Yisrael Beiteinu demanded conscription be introduced for the ultra-Orthodox, which the religious parties opposed. Netanyahu was unable to form a government, and new elections were scheduled for September 17.

Polls suggest a similar outcome to March 2019. Netanyahu’s Likud and its allies have 56-58 combined Knesset seats. The left-leaning Blue & White and other parties who could support it have 53-55 seats. So Yisrael Beiteinu, which is not a left-wing party, may well decide if there can be a new government after the election.

All 120 Knesset seats are elected by national proportional representation with a 3.25% threshold. Netanyahu’s task will be easier if a far-right party clears the threshold. Polls close at 5am September 18 Australian Eastern Standard Time.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

104 comments on “Brexit minus seven weeks: the procrastinating parliament”

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  1. I submitted this article yesterday afternoon, before the Scottish court’s decision cancelling prorogation. I’m going to assume that Parliament is still prorogued until October 14 unless the Supreme Court says otherwise.

  2. So courts in Scotland and England disagree on an issue of critical national importance. Gee, I wonder which one is going to win.

    Why, oh why, do the Scots even bother pretending their opinion matters?

  3. Re “Why do the Scots bother?” Perhaps Scotland is to the UK what the UK is to the EU. What I’m getting at is if the audience is Scottish it makes sense “domestically”.

  4. Normally the plebeian masses don’t give a rat’s about court decisions, and the higher the court the less they care, but this one might be different. The scottish decision is so obviously morally correct and at odds with the legalistic one from south of the border, and on an issue of such importance to so many people, it could provide IndyRef2 with another boost. Many more such boosts and the momentum might become unstoppable.

  5. From what I have gleaned, the court may have made a different decision had they received a written statement from a Member of Parliament confirming reason for proroguing parliament. The fact that no statement was submitted is quite telling.

  6. Of course, if the court is capable of seeing the bleeding obvious reasons for the PM’s advice to prorogue, the person he advised should have been able to see them as well. So we have a court doing what the monarch should have done in the first place.

    If the monarchy weren’t a complete waste of space, that is.

  7. So, let’s say the Supreme Court upholds the decision that the prorogation of Parliament is illegal; I think this unlikely by the way. Parliament then returns. What actually changes? The Parliament is deadlocked. It can’t agree to a deal. It can’t agree to no deal. It can’t agree to revoke article 50. It can’t agree to an election. I just can’t see a scenario where bringing back Parliament at this point actually achieves anything; am I missing something?

    Labour’s Brexit divisions are back on show for everyone to see. The Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, has called on Labour to go to a GE as a completely remain party. This has been rejected by Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have now positioned themselves totally as a remain party by stating they would revoke article 50. But even this is looking increasingly irrelevant, considering there doesn’t seem to be a scenario where a GE can be held before October 31.

    It appears to me that it is either no deal, or Boris Johnson decides he needs to throw the DUP and unionism in Northern Ireland in general under a bus to get Brexit done. Either way, I don’t see a happy solution for Northern Ireland. Republicans won’t accept a hard border, and I recently read reports that loyalist paramilitaries are making it known they won’t accept anything that treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK, which is hardly surprising.

  8. Matt31,

    You’re not missing anything I can see.

    The parliament could sack Johnson and install a new PM who’s certain to ask for an extension, but they didn’t take their last chance to do that so there’s no reason to think they’ll change their collective minds.

    Nevertheless, shutting down a democratic chamber to avoid debate and scrutiny is not something that should be allowed to happen.

  9. Actually, there’s another possibility. The government could repeal the Fixed Terms Act by a simple majority (someone correct me if I’m wrong) and pave the way for a fresh election without the need for two thirds of MPs to agree.

  10. Maybe but I think Boris now has far less than a simple majority. The disendorsed Tories are not going to become Turkeys calling for an early Christmas.
    The impossibility of the DUP’s position is fascinating. They may be about to be shafted by the party which was founded on the principle of the Union and which still calls itself “Conservative and Union”

  11. Also there is the question of house of commons having voted for Boris Johnson to release communications that led to decision to prorogue parliament. Will Johnson comply?

  12. Something to remember is that any deal Boris does that shafts the DUP must also be agreed by the EU, and then it must also pass the Commons, which can’t agree to anything!

    Two polls today. In Tory-favouring YouGov, their lead falls from 14 points to 9. In Kantar, they maintain a 14-point lead. Kantar is not prompting for Brexit party support in their main question, and this assists the Tories.

    Westminster voting intention:

    CON: 38% (-4)
    LAB: 24% (-4)
    LDEM: 20% (+5)
    BREX: 7% (+2)
    GRN: 3% (-)

    , 05 – 09 Sep
    Chgs. w/ 19 Aug

    Note: Kantar do not prompt for the Greens and the Brexit Party on the same page as the other three parties.
    Britain Elects
    Westminster voting intention:

    CON: 32% (-3)
    LAB: 23% (+2)
    LDEM: 19% (-)
    BREX: 14% (+2)
    GRN: 7% (-)

    , 09 – 10 Sep
    Chgs. w/ 06 Sep

  13. It seems to me that the only way for Labour to avoid an electoral wipeout on the basis any of those polls is for Britain to simply bounce out of the EU without any arrangements in place and for Corbyn to allow Bojo to linger for a few months before the resultant socio-economic catastrophe is sheeted home in the minds of the hitherto feckless and gullible in voter land to BoJo, Farage and the entire congaline of Brexit bullshiters.

    A February 2020 election would do nicely.

  14. AE

    At this point, I agree that seems to be the best case scenario for Labour’s election prospects. But in that particular scenario, I’m actually not sure an early election happens. The insentive for the Tory rebels and the Liberal Democrats to trigger one would be gone, and Boris Johnson sure isn’t going to want one at that point.

  15. The Liberal Democrats probably wouldn’t mind an election around February. The problem is that the Tories won’t want an election if it looks like they’ll get smashed, just like Labour doesn’t want one now. That would rule out a two thirds vote for an election, leaving a no-confidence vote as the available path. A few vindictive Tory rebels might just do the trick, but it wouldn’t be wise to bet on it.

  16. If Boris refuses Parliament’s order to request a Brexit extension, he’ll likely face an immediate no-confidence vote. Question then is whether enough ex-Tories can vote for PM Corbyn to avoid no-deal (probably not).

    I disagree with “a few months after no-deal day”. I think an election held several weeks after no-deal would be very ugly for the Tories.

    Also, these two polls are good for the Tories, but the ComRes poll referred to in my article gave them just a one-point lead.

    Westminster voting intention:

    CON: 30% (-1)
    LAB: 29% (+2)
    LDEM: 17% (-3)
    BREX: 13% (-)
    GRN: 4% (+1)

    , 06 – 08 Sep

  17. Andrew_Earlwood @ #17 Thursday, September 12th, 2019 – 2:53 pm

    It seems to me that the only way for Labour to avoid an electoral wipeout on the basis any of those polls is for Britain to simply bounce out of the EU without any arrangements in place and for Corbyn to allow Bojo to linger for a few months before the resultant socio-economic catastrophe is sheeted home in the minds of the hitherto feckless and gullible in voter land to BoJo, Farage and the entire congaline of Brexit bullshiters.

    A February 2020 election would do nicely.

    Yep. How though to trigger it? (What Ante Meridian said.) I’m thinking now that it might be a slow descent from here. Unless someone emerges to actually lead rather than merely manage things, the next election would be on 5 May 2022.

  18. Also, Merkel’s words as reported today reflect her concern that the UK and the EU will become competitors. It’s worth thinking that while Merkel might be motivated by the problems that will cause the EU others in the EU will see it as further reason to prepare now to compete with the UK.

    My conclusion? The EU is continuing to prepare for Post-No-Deal-Brexit, with added urgency.

  19. Late Riser

    My Vibe today, and I stress today, is that a no deal brexit will not occur. Boris Johnson may lose his prime ministership before any type of brexit happens.
    Who knows what my Vibe will be tomorrow. Lol!

  20. Anyhoo has anyone in govt signed and submitted an affidavit confirming the motives for proroguration to the Supreme Court which is due to hear appeal on Tuesday.

  21. The Scottish sub-sample of the YouGov poll has the following voting intentions for Westminster elections:

    SNP 52%,
    Conservatives 19%,
    Liberal Democrats 11%,
    Labour 8%,
    Brexit Party 7%,
    Greens 3%

    There is a large Margin of error (~8%) because of the the small sample size. This is, nevertheless, the highest YouGov figure for the SNP for a long time. The LibDems are not doing so well in Scotland and the Labour Party is on par with the Brexit Party.

    Oh for an election 🙂

  22. If that Scotland poll is accurate, or even close, flag makers need to start planning for production of big red asterisks on white backgrounds.

  23. I hadn’t thought of this as a possible scenario, but it could certainly be in the mix. It is important to remember that for the EU to grant an extension of article 50, all member countries must agree. It only takes one country to bring about a veto. This would be perfect for Boris Johnson, as he could comply with the legislation demanding him to ask for an extension, only to have it vetoed.

  24. Ante Meridian

    “big red asterisks on white backgrounds.”
    What will they call it? The Union will be dissolved.

  25. Oakeshott Country

    I have my doubts also about a DUP compromise, and I really don’t think they can afford to even if they wanted to. The Ulster Unionist Party, who for those unfamiliar with Northern Ireland’s politics were the largest party in Northern Ireland for decades, are just waiting for an opportunity to make a dent in the DUP’s support. In many ways the UUP are more moderate than the DUP, particularly on social issues, and they actually supported Remain in the 2016 referendum. But they have been very definite in their opposition to anything that treats Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK. So the DUP would face a big Unionist backlash were they to accept anything that remotely looks like a backstop, and the UUP would be the likely beneficiaries of this, although a smaller party, the Traditional Unionist Voice, could also benefit. So I just don’t see the DUP having much if any room to move.

  26. I can’t see anything except Brexit on 31 Oct occuring. Boris isn’t going to be pushed around by Parliament anymore. If the Eu wants to avoid a WTO Brexit then it better start negotiating. I still expect the EU will cut off its nose to spite its face in order to act as a warning for any others thinking of leaving. Bad luck Ireland.

    I can see Hungary or Poland telling the EU to go shove it on an extension.

  27. So it’s a no go…….

    The DUP leader has refuted reports in the Times that the party is prepared to abide by some European rules after Brexit.

    The newspaper said the DUP had agreed “to shift its red lines” as part of a new deal to replace the backstop.

    It added the party had said privately that it would drop its objections to regulatory checks in the Irish Sea.

    Arlene Foster tweeted the “UK must leave as one nation” and “anonymous sources lead to nonsense stories”.

  28. I’d put France on the veto list too. Johnson is driving the bus. The most likely outcome at the moment is a No-Deal Brexit in 48 days.

    Regarding the EU not negotiating, from what I’ve been reading it’s the UK who have been cutting their negotiating team and effort. Johnson is a gambler. It may work for him or not. Problem is that Johnson isn’t playing with his own the stash.

    Regarding Ireland, how is a No-Deal-Brexit different to a No-Backstop-Brexit?

  29. Nah at this stage there will not be a crash out on the 31st October.
    Every chance that appeal hearing on Tuesday will support decision of Scottish court. It will be another nail in the BoJo coffin.
    And I will laugh and laugh if that transpires

  30. Late Riser

    “Regarding Ireland”


    There is delightful sense of justice if “Ireland” stuffs up the plans of the Eton Boys.

    I think the Germans have a term for that 🙂

  31. Bucephalus

    “Boris isn’t going to be pushed around by Parliament anymore.”

    Dear Oh dear, Bucephalus is revealing itself as a Fascist!!!

    Under the “unwritten Constitution” of the UK, its democractic pretensions are supported by only one principle: that the elected Parliament is supreme.

    So Bucephalus prefers a Dictator unanswerable to grubby electors!!!

  32. swamprat, starts with “Schaden…”?

    Victoria, I’ll laugh too, but I still don’t see a viable mechanism to stop the no-deal train. I don’t think Johnson is relevant any more. The situation reminds me of March. Once bitten, why bother… I’d be watching what the folks are doing that have resigned themselves to no-deal Brexit.

  33. Late Riser

    One issue from an unexpected direction is the different legal systems between England and Scotland.

    Under the 1707 Treaty of Union, inter alia, Scotland retained its seperate legal and education system.

    The High Court in London, under English Common Law, ruled that the matter was one that was not justiciable. That the subject was a matter for the Commons, not the courts, and so didn’t engage with any of the evidence. What this means is that according to English law, the suspension of parliament by an overweening government is a matter that can only be dealt with by the parliament that the government has suspended.

    Do you see a problem with English constitutional law?

    In comparison, the Scottish Court engaged with the evidence and decided unanamously that the PM was lying and therefore was breaching Scottish Law!!

    If the Supreme Court upholds the interpretation of the English Court, then the UK really doesn’t have a constitution and the Queen is just a supporter of Dictators.

  34. Thanks swamprat. I hadn’t considered that.

    Hmm. Is the Supreme Court then how English and Scottish law work out their differences? Do Supreme Court rulings constrain English and Scottish law? How then are they independent? Might the Supreme Court do a third thing?

    But the point I am stuck on is that we’re focusing on one side of the table and ignoring the other 27 sides. The 31st October 2019 will enter the history books unless all 28 want this to continue or 1 of the 27 (ie the UK) change their mind.

  35. Late Riser

    The whole Brexit play is straining the UK Union on more than issues of remain/leave.

    It seems the UK does not in fact have a real legal constitution. It may all be based on bluff and military force!!!

  36. I suspect, without the relevant legal knowledge, that there is a chance that the Supreme Court might rule was illegal under Scottish law but legal under English law, invalidating the existing prorogation (Agreed to by the Queen in Balmoral) but leaving the option open of a new prorogation in England.

  37. But… How can something be legal in one jurisdiction and illegal in another? isn’t that the point of a union?

    Asking on behalf of an equally confused friend.

  38. Ante M

    The Scottish Court’s decision is subject to appeal to the UK Supreme Court which may well confirm that the Executive can do what ever it likes.

    Of course, the idea that the PM “lied” to the Queen is a pious fiction. The Queen would be informed better than anyone of the state of play.

  39. The Scottish Court may throw up an even more challenging issue on an appeal to it by Scottish SNP Westminster MPs under the Scot’s Law concept of Nobile Officum. This is a request for the Court to take an action because the executive is not complying with the law.

    This refers to Parliament’s direction to request a further extension of the EU Brexit time and the PM’s statement he will not do it.

    I understand, it is theoretically possible under Scottish Law, should all the criteria be met, for the Clerk of the Court of Sessions to write to Brussels and ask for an extension on behalf of the Parliament!

    Now wouldn’t that cause horror and outrage in London!! And what great fun.

    I’m sure this will remain in theory only.

  40. The Guardian, approx 5 hours ago.

    Johnson hopes the Democratic Unionist party can be won over to some form of compromise, despite its previous objections to a border of any kind down the Irish Sea. The party’s leader, Arlene Foster, insisted on Friday that the UK “must leave as one nation”, after a report in the Times suggested her party’s stance was softening.
    It sounds more like “No, but we’ll give Johnson one more go. Thanks for asking.” But I haven’t read the original article in The Times. Maybe Johnson’s strategy to stay “King of the UK” is to keep everyone guessing including the DUP, and using their desire to stay relevant.

  41. “Bad luck Ireland”


    Except Ireland is quite happy remaining in the EU; both Northern Ireland and the Republic. We (I’m a dual Irish citizen) don’t want any part of your Brexit nonsense. It has brought the two parts far closer to reunification than they’ve been in a long time though. Joining the Republic of Ireland is how the majority of the Northern Irish can have their wish to remain in the EU respected. We’re not going to force our Irish brothers and sisters to do something against their will as the English are trying to do. England and Wales voted to leave the EU; Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain.

    Éirinn go Brách!

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