It was the strangest day yet in the ongoing soap opera that is Brexit. With suspension of Parliament due to begin in nine days, members of Parliament took power from prime minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday and voted to hold a vote on delaying Brexit. He has retaliated by calling for a snap general election as soon as October 14. If it happens, it will be the third general election in Britain in less than five years.

In a British general election, voters elect MPs to represent them, much as Americans do in Congressional elections. The party with the most MPs will name the prime minister. Johnson is obviously hoping that the election will give more power to the Conservative Party.

Brexit, Britain's exit from the European Union, won 52 percent of the vote in a 2016 referendum. That vote resulted in three years of nonstop political turmoil--so far--in the UK. It's taken down two prime ministers already. David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister at the time of the vote, campaigned to stay in the EU and resigned after the referendum went the other way. Theresa May took over the top spot, and managed to negotiate three different Brexit deals with the Europeans, but Parliament voted down all three of them. Downtrodden and deeply unpopular, May resigned, paving the way for Conservatives to vote in Johnson, former mayor of London and a forceful Brexit proponent. (In Britain, when a prime minister resigns, members of his or her party vote on a replacement.)

A fundamental issue dividing those who support Brexit is what to do if the government does not ratify trade agreements with the EU--and it now seems almost certain it will not. Some, including Johnson, want a "no-deal" Brexit, also referred to as crashing out of the EU. But many fear that without trade agreements in place, Britain could face shortages of food and medicine, much of which is imported from Europe or via Europe, and also general economic turmoil. 

The majority of MPs were not in favor of Brexit to begin with, and even more are against a no-deal Brexit. Johnson's move to suspend Parliament was clearly intended to prevent the legislative body from blocking a no-deal Brexit. The deadline for Britain to leave the EU has already been extended twice and is now October 31. Johnson would rather crash out of the EU with no deal than ask for yet another extension.

MPs vote to vote on Brexit deadline extension.

That brings us to Tuesday. To block Johnson's no-deal Brexit plans, Parliament would have to vote in a law requiring the prime minister to request an extension in the absence of an acceptable deal. MPs took the first step toward doing that by voting to hold a vote on the matter. Johnson retaliated by ejecting 21 Conservative Party members who'd voted against him from the party, and one party member made a show of crossing the aisle to the opposing side in the middle of Johnson's speech. As a result, Johnson no longer leads a majority-holding coalition, making the snap election something of a necessity.

What will happen in a new election? Recent polling shows the Conservative Party with the greatest amount of support, 33 percent. That's a lot better than Labour's 22 percent. But growing support for other smaller parties, including the Liberal Democrats (who oppose Brexit) and the Brexit Party (which supports it), suggests that governing will require building consensus among like-minded parties. The fact that both the ruling party and main opposition party are at historic levels of unpopularity makes election results difficult to predict.

Under current law, Johnson needs the support of two thirds of Parliament to call an election, which means he needs the opposition to agree. Jeremy Corbyn, who leads the Labour Party, has reportedly said he will only allow a new general election once a bill requiring the prime minister to request a deadline extension is voted in. 

As some experts have noted, Johnson might be wise to make that deal with Corbyn because if the snap election goes his way and the Conservatives gain power, they will be able to repeal that law. Whereas Johnson's power today is extremely limited and will remain that way until and unless a general election gives his party more seats.

No one knows how this will all play out, or whether Britain will still be an EU member on November 1. My best guess is that it will. But the future is murky, to say the least.

Published on: Sep 4, 2019
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