PGI INSIGHT: UK – Uncertainty around Brexit likely to result in snap elections

- In-depth insight - Intelligence

19-08-2019


  • The current Brexit withdrawal bill, including the Irish backstop, remains deeply unpopular, complicating negotiations between London and Brussels ahead of Brexit scheduled for 31 October.
  • A majority of lawmakers in the House of Commons oppose leaving the EU without a deal but it is unclear whether lawmakers will be able to prevent this from happening despite recent legislation.
  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson is likely to announce snap elections to strengthen his mandate in the Brexit process. This is likely to result in a further delay to Brexit.

Opposition to current deal

In his first speech as prime minister on 24 July, Boris Johnson reiterated his position that the UK must leave the EU on 31 October with or without a deal. Johnson opposes the existing withdrawal agreement, negotiated by his predecessor Theresa May, in large part because it includes the Irish border backstop. The mechanism is designed to maintain a seamless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the only shared land border between the EU and UK, after Brexit.

The EU has rejected Johnson’s calls to renegotiate the withdrawal bill. Brussels had said the current deal is the only option available and the Irish border agreement is not open for negotiation. The current deadlock has prompted the UK to accelerate planning for leaving the EU without a deal, or a so-called no-deal Brexit.

Unclear whether parliament can block Brexit

It remains unclear whether lawmakers can prevent the UK from leaving the EU without a deal even though most lawmakers oppose this. The UK is currently set to leave the EU on 31 October with or without a deal, and there is a debate among lawmakers and experts over whether parliament has sufficient powers to prevent this from happening.

The subject has sparked a constitutional debate in Westminster. Numerous government officials have underlined the legal impossibility of preventing a no-deal Brexit by parliament. But lawmakers who oppose a no-deal Brexit have said they will take necessary measures to try to block it from happening. There are several available legal options which might potentially prevent a no-deal Brexit, but it remains unclear how these scenarios might unfold due to constitutional uncertainty.

Potential actions lawmakers could use to prevent no-deal Brexit

Legislation: Lawmakers can table emergency Brexit motions or even constitutional changes to disrupt the Brexit process as they have done in recent weeks. Lawmakers approved a bill in July to prevent the prime minister from suspending the House of Commons to push through a no-deal Brexit. However, it is not clear that stopping the prime minister from adjourning parliament would prevent him from forcing through a no-deal Brexit. The prime minister could still dissolve the body and call for a general election, allowing him to go ahead with Brexit on 31 October.  

No confidence vote:The strongest tool lawmakers have to prevent the UK from leaving the EU without a deal is a no-confidence vote tabled by the Labour Party, the main opposition. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has yet to push for such a measure as he seeks support from Conservative lawmakers who oppose a no-deal Brexit. However, he will likely announce a no-confidence motion in September, when parliament comes back from recess. If the vote is successful, parliament must agree on a new government within 14 days. In that case, it is likely that the parliament will designate a cross-party lawmaker to lead the caretaker cabinet by replacing Boris Johnson. The new government would have the power to block Brexit from going ahead on 31 October by announcing general elections.

Most likely scenario: snap elections

The most likely scenario is snap elections by the end of 2019. This would delay the UK’s withdrawal from the EU until after 31 October. New general elections can be triggered in two ways: either by a no-confidence vote if the government loses it or by the prime minister who needs support from two-thirds of lawmakers to go ahead with new elections. Both measures would likely attract support from opposition parties given parliament’s current deadlock.  

New elections could give Johnson, who currently has a one seat majority in the House of Commons, a stronger mandate. Johnson will likely blame the EU and lawmakers who oppose leaving the EU without a deal for the delay in leaving the bloc and focus on the need for a working majority in parliament to deliver Brexit as promised. This strategy has the potential to win back voters from the Brexit Party, a Eurosceptic political party under the leadership of Nigel Farage, which is in favour of leaving the EU without a deal. Johnson could benefit from recent popular policy pledges, including a reversal of austerity policies with the hiring of 20,000 extra police officers and spending more on the public healthcare system.

Johnson is also likely to benefit from a fragmented opposition. Main challenger, the Labour Party, made gains in the 2017 elections, but these have been reversed by the party’s disappointing European election results in May 2019 and a decline in recent polls. Labour leader Corbyn also remains a polarising figure even in his own party and appears to be far less popular than Johnson based on national polls. The Conservative Party is likely to benefit from a divided Labour Party, which has lost voters to other parties due to its ambiguous position on Brexit.

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