Boris Johnson has been British prime minister for barely a week, and the honeymoon appears to be over. His Conservative Party lost a special election, cutting his working majority in Parliament to just one seat at a critical moment for the country.

As the Brexit deadline looms, Europe remains wary of the poker player behind the clown mask.

In Scotland, he was booed by pro-European and pro-Scottish independence supporters. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's First Minister and leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, told local media that Johnson didn't have the "guts" to face Scottish people during his visit.

Parliament has thrice rejected the Brexit deal pushed by Johnson’s predecessor, and most lawmakers oppose a no-deal Brexit. With European officials resolute that the withdrawal agreement cannot be reopened, Mr. Johnson is preparing for a showdown over his plans.

Even with the support of 10 lawmakers from Northern Ireland, a working majority of just one seat leaves the new prime minister especially vulnerable.

In Northern Ireland, Johnson was greeted by protesters holding up signs saying that "Brexit means borders."

He is also personally unpopular in the province after comparing crossing the border to traveling between London boroughs -- glibly dismissing the decades-long conflict in which more than 3,000 people died. His cavalier attitude to the Northern Irish peace process continued during his leadership election campaign when he seemed ill-informed about the intricacies of reviving suspended power-sharing arrangements.

This is a problem for a prime minister who is staking his premiership on two things: delivering Brexit, come what may, on October 31 and uniting his country.

If he sticks to his word, striking a deal would require either him or the European Union, to reverse course.

When Britain held a general election during a crisis in 1974, the prime minister lost. Voters might have become less tolerant of disruption since then: Last year, when the KFC chain ran out of chicken, some angry customers contacted the police.

Johnson could face the voters before Brexit is completed, demanding a mandate from them to press ahead, while blaming Parliament and the European Union for obstructing him.

In his ideal world he would like to have definitive proof that Parliament is trying to stymie Brexit, and that the European Union is blocking him and that he has no alternative.

In terms of election timing, October is looking increasingly likely.

An alternative view is also that there is no certainty that Labour would win power at this stage. Various polls have made it clear that Labour is now about as unpopular as the Conservatives. An election, which probably could not be held for practical reasons before November, would probably only deliver many seats to the newly-popular Liberal Democrats. The party is also ridden by internal divisions, its leader Jeremy Corbyn is losing control and the leadership struggles to resolve a controversy over anti-Semitism. Finally, the party is so divided over Brexit that it makes more sense for it to await Brexit's happening, after which it can make a big fuss blaming the Tories for implementing Brexit and its immediately apparent negative consequences.

There also is an argument that one would not see how parliament can prevent Brexit as legally it cannot force the government to ask for another extension of the October 31. In terms of EU law, Brexit is the default position which cannot be stopped by UK MPs. All Johnson needs to do to implement it on October 31 is do nothing. The only way parliament could prevent Brexit would be to pass a law canceling its own law-making Clause 50 application to the EU to leave. This would amount to parliament's defying the public's majority vote in the referendum and breaking the promise of both major parties in the 2017 election to implement Brexit.

This still leaves open the question of what will happen to Boris if there is a new election?

And what if it is not about the clock to count down the seconds to Brexit day and it instead is there to remind Boris Johnson how long he has left before it becomes too late to avoid his own doomsday?

There are four scenarios in which crashing out of the EU can be prevented. But it will be a herculean task.

First, the commons could legislate to require the prime minister to seek a further extension.

Second, it could legislate to prevent the government from leaving without a deal.

Third, the Commons could legislate for a referendum before Brexit.

Finally, the Commons could vote no confidence in the government.

Of the above, all but the last require the Commons to take control of the legislative process. That could be achieved by the Commons agreeing to suspend standing order 14, which gives priority to government business. In April the Cooper-Letwin bill, which passed third reading by one vote, did precisely that, requiring Theresa May to seek an extension to the Brexit date to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

But any legislation designed to postpone or prevent Brexit has public spending implications. For were the UK to stay in the EU beyond 31 October it would have to make further budget contributions. But standing order 48 requires any charge on public revenue to be recommended by the crown, which, for practical purposes, means a government minister responsible to parliament and through parliament to the people, not backbenchers. So that standing order too would have to be suspended.

The practical difficulties would be enormous. Backbenchers would have to steer the relevant legislation through all of its stages in the Commons and deal with a host of amendments in committee together with endless filibustering by enraged Brexiteers.

If backbenchers were to succeed in taking over the legislative timetable, they would in effect be taking over the functions of government. Logic surely requires that they themselves become the government. That would require a no-confidence vote in which enough Conservatives would have to abstain or vote against the government to counter Labour Brexiteers prepared to abstain or vote with the government. But a no-confidence vote can only be moved by the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn.

A successful no-confidence vote does not mean, as would have been the case before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, an immediate dissolution. Instead, there is a 14-day window in which to find an alternative government capable of securing the confidence of the Commons. A Corbyn government would be unlikely to secure that confidence. Conservatives, the DUP and Liberal Democrats would vote against it. Another possibility, however, would be a government of national unity to forestall Brexit, led perhaps by someone such as Yvette Cooper or Keir Starmer.

Normally when a government resigns the Queen would send for the leader of the opposition. To depart from accepted practice, she would need a cast-iron guarantee in writing from a majority of MPs that they would support a government of national unity under a named prime minister.

The alternative is a general election, which would inevitably take on the character of a second referendum. The election would be called by the prime minister following the closure of the 14-day window. After dissolution, there must be 25 working days before the election. So if a vote of no-confidence took place on 5 September it could be held on 17 October just in time for the new parliament to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

The trouble is that dissolution need not follow immediately after the 14-day window closes. Under section 2 (7) of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, it is for the prime minister to recommend a suitable election date to the Queen. Only when he has done so is the date of dissolution determined. Were Johnson to delay the election date beyond 31 October he would be accused of acting unconstitutionally, but it would not be unlawful.

The caretaker convention dictates that no alteration of policy should occur during the pre-election period. Suppose the Commons had clearly indicated that it was opposed to a no-deal Brexit. How should the convention then be interpreted? Constitutionally, there is no clear answer. The logic of democracy suggests that the people should decide.

Update 5 August: The big questions now are…  Can Johnson succeed in getting the European Union to amend the withdrawal agreement that Th.May agreed with its negotiators, enough to overcome hard-liner Brexiteers’ opposition and implement a so-called Soft Brexit?

If he can’t achieve that, can he be stopped from implementing a no-deal Brexit on October 31? The EU insists that while it’s open to making changes in the good-intentions political declaration accompanying the main agreement, it won’t change any of the specific terms of the agreement itself, in particular the so-called “backstop” that forces the UK to remain within the EU’s customs union until there’s an agreed means to avoid a hard border between the two Irish territories.

All commentators seem to accept that Brussels’ negotiators mean what they stay. They won’t budge. Perhaps so, perhaps not. The European Union’s members are notorious for holding to tough negotiating positions in contentious disputes... then crumbling at the last minute, on deadline, making major concessions deliver successful conclusions.

 

 

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