Boris Johnson and the myth of ‘getting Brexit done’

In departing the premiership, Boris Johnson and his supporters will present a key part of his legacy as ‘getting Brexit done’. But, Meg Russell argues, this claim is distinctly dubious. Johnson helped secure the Leave victory in 2016, but was subsequently central to blocking Theresa May’s efforts to implement the result. Meanwhile his own Brexit deal was agreed despite his own team recognising its flaws, and leaves major ongoing problems regarding Northern Ireland.

As Boris Johnson steps down, how will his time in office be remembered? His premiership collapsed in July under a weight of allegations about honesty and integrity, which had dogged his record and were cited by a flood of ministers resigning from his government. His constitutional legacy was a troubled one, and his attitude to upholding important norms was lamented by many key figures. But these qualities were often seen as the Achilles heel of a Conservative leader otherwise imbued with winning qualities. In particular, many would cite his most important legacy as ‘getting Brexit done’, and using that pledge to win his party a sizeable majority in the general election of December 2019. During the first Sky debate of the recent Conservative Party leadership contest, while none of the five candidates raised their hand to say that they would be happy for Johnson to serve in their Cabinet, Penny Mordaunt nonetheless interrupted to insist that ‘he got Brexit done’. In his own valedictory tweet following the election of Liz Truss, Johnson celebrated ‘winning the biggest majority for decades, [and] getting Brexit done’.

But actually, what was Johnson’s Brexit record? A closer inspection shows good reason to question this epitaph, as the leader who succeeded where others had failed, delivered Brexit and discovered a winning election formula. Certainly, Britain’s membership of the EU ended on his watch; and yes, the election victory was resounding. But to a significant extent, these achievements rested on the selfsame qualities that came to dog him later. Ultimately, Johnson’s hastily-agreed deal generated major tensions over the status of Northern Ireland which remain highly problematic today.

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The continuing constitutional pressures of Brexit

Ahead of the launch event for their new book on the continuing constitutional pressures of Brexit, Oran Doyle, Aileen McHarg and Jo Murkens summarise the book’s introductory essay. They conclude that, five years on from the seismic constitutional event that was the 2016 referendum, it is clear that Brexit is exerting pressure on various aspects of the constitution, but it remains too early to tell the full impact of Brexit on the UK constitution.

The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union was clearly a development of major significance that affected the UK constitution and its three legal systems, and brought about a series of political crises. But the prolonged process of negotiating the terms of withdrawal and the future UK-EU relationship also imposed and exposed a range of other constitutional tensions and pressures. This is true not only in respect of the UK itself, but also for the EU – which experienced a major recasting of its external borders, a recalibration of internal decision-making dynamics, and challenges to core features of its constitutional order – and in particular for Ireland – which, by virtue of its geographic position and constitutional history, has faced unique political and constitutional challenges as a consequence of Brexit.

In The Brexit Challenge for Ireland and the United Kingdom: Constitutions Under Pressure, recently published by Cambridge University Press, scholars based in the UK and Ireland explore a wide range of constitutional, legal, and political issues affecting both countries which have arisen out of Brexit. These include questions of territorial governance within the UK, the renewed prospect and implications of a united Ireland, the use of constitutional referendums, the impact of Brexit on political parties, executive-parliamentary relations, and the role of the courts and law officers in constitutional disputes.

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The Fixed-term Parliaments Act did not cause the Brexit impasse

Next week MPs debate the government’s bill to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. One argument frequently deployed for scrapping the Act is that it generated gridlock over Brexit. But, Meg Russell argues, no clear counterfactual to support this claim has ever been presented. In fact, when considering the possible scenarios, it seems likely that the situation would have been made worse, not better, had the Prime Minister retained an untrammelled prerogative power to dissolve parliament in 2017–19.

Next week MPs debate the remaining stages of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which seeks to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA). It proposes to reinstate the pre-FTPA position, whereby the Prime Minister would effectively control general election timing using prerogative power. A key argument deployed by those seeking repeal of the FTPA is that it helped to cause the Brexit deadlock of 2019: that the FTPA, as the Conservative manifesto put it, ‘led to paralysis at a time the country needed decisive action’. But to what extent is this really true?

While suggestions that the FTPA created the Brexit deadlock are commonplace, most experts who contributed to the three parliamentary committees that have considered FTPA repeal (the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Lords Constitution Committee and Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act) argued that the deadlock resulted from other factors. Most obvious were the post-2017 combination of a minority government, the need to deliver on a contested referendum result, and deep divisions within the governing party. These problems were clearly serious, and it is very far from clear that the FTPA could have resolved them.

A careful reading of the evidence presented to the three parliamentary committees, and of the Commons second reading debate on the bill, finds that most claims against the FTPA over Brexit are distinctly vague. No clear counterfactual is offered. This particularly applies to events during Theresa May’s premiership, when the most intractable problems arose. The situation did change in the autumn of 2019 under Boris Johnson (as discussed below), but the FTPA’s targeting as a causal factor dates back far earlier than this. Likewise, during interviews with a series of senior figures for a current book project on parliament and the Brexit process, I have asked several critics of the FTPA how, if Theresa May had been able to trigger an early general election without parliament’s consent, things would have turned out differently. I have yet to receive a convincing reply.

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The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill – a return to constitutional normality?

Alison Young argues that the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill transfers power from parliament to the government, and not to the people, and that it is wrong to place the blame for the extraordinary events of 2019 on the provisions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) has not had a good press. So much so, that a promise to repeal the Act was included in the 2019 manifestos of both the Labour Party and the current Conservative government. However, as the second reading of its replacement, the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill demonstrates, the apparent consensus ends there. There appeared to be two strong themes to the debate. First, how far does the FTPA’s replacement transfer power from parliament back to the government, or from parliament back to the people? Second, to what extent did the FTPA cause the difficulties – however defined – for the then Conservative minority government in 2019?

Turning back the clock

The FTPA placed the prerogative power of the dissolution of parliament on a statutory basis. It fixed the terms of the Westminster parliament to five years, setting the dates for general elections. It provided two ways in which parliament could be dissolved earlier. First, it was possible for two-thirds of the members of the House of Commons to vote in favour of an early parliamentary general election. Second, dissolution could occur following a vote of no confidence, if, within a two week period, it proved impossible to form a government which had received the backing of a vote of confidence from the House of Commons.

The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill aims to return the Westminster parliament to the position prior to 2011. It repeals the FTPA (section 1) and ‘revives’ the prerogative power to dissolve parliament and to call a new parliament (section 2). However this is interpreted, it is clear that the bill’s intention is to ensure that parliament can be dissolved and recalled ‘as if the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 had never been enacted’ (section 2). Fixed terms of five years are now replaced with a maximum five-year term (section 4). Moreover, the bill seeks to make the dissolution and calling of parliament non-justiciable (section 3) – arguably making the prerogative powers even less subject to judicial review than was the case prior to 2011.

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Will the Lords block the UK Internal Market Bill?

Parliament will this week begin debating and scrutinising the UK Internal Market Bill, which the Northern Ireland Secretary has already acknowledged will, if passed in its current form, place the UK in breach of international law. When the bill reaches the upper chamber, what sort of treatment will it receive? Might the Lords block it? Unit Director and Lords expert Meg Russell offers her view.

Widespread shock greeted this week’s news that Boris Johnson hopes to set aside elements of the Withdrawal Agreement related to Northern Ireland – particularly when Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted to the House of Commons that the UK Internal Market Bill drafted to achieve this ‘does break international law’. Former Conservative Prime Ministers Theresa May and John Major, and senior government backbenchers, loudly protested. Former Conservative Solicitor General Lord (Edward) Garnier expressed surprise that the government’s law officers – those ministers expressly charged with protecting the rule of law – hadn’t resigned.

After an emergency meeting, the European Commission vice-president demanded that the UK withdraw the plans. The Irish Taoiseach described them as ‘extremely divisive – and dangerous’, while the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned that breaching international law would mean ‘absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement’.

There are clear questions over whether such a controversial bill – whose Commons second reading is on Monday – can secure parliamentary approval. Specifically will it, as some suggest, be blocked by the House of Lords? A prior question is whether these provisions will make it through the House of Commons. Despite Johnson’s majority, Conservative dissent is unusually intense. This is unsurprising since, as many have recently quoted, that most iconic of Conservative prime ministers Margaret Thatcher consistently emphasised respect for the rule of law as a core Conservative value.

There is actually a prior question even to this, regarding whether the Commons will actually be asked to approve the offending clauses. In parliament the ‘law of anticipated reactions’ generally applies: sensible governments facing a likely Commons defeat will retreat on legislation if they can. When Charles Walker, vice-chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, was asked whether Conservative MPs would vote against the bill (21:18), he responded ‘I doubt we are to get to the stage where we are asked’. This implied that the Prime Minister would hear the drumbeats, and back down.

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