The first rule in setting an elephant trap? Don’t let the elephant see it. After Parliament wrested control of the agenda away from PM Boris Johnson and Tories expelled 21 of its MPs, Johnson demanded a snap election on October 15th and dared Jeremy Corbyn to agree to it:
Johnson cast the rebellion as an attempt to surrender to the EU, vowed never to delay Brexit beyond Oct. 31 and challenged opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to agree to an Oct. 15 election.
“Can I invite the leader of the opposition to confirm, when he stands up shortly, that if that surrender bill is passed, he will allow the people of this country to have their view on what he is proposing to hand over in their name with an election on October the 15th,” Johnson told parliament.
However, needing the backing of two-thirds of lawmakers, Johnson’s bid for an election is set to be initially thwarted as opposition parties are united in wanting to prevent a no-deal Brexit before agreeing to a vote.
Corbyn, however, appeared to have taken Tony Blair’s advice — or, perhaps, Johnson’s nemesis instinctually decided to thwart what Johnson so clearly wanted. Corbyn declared that Parliament would take care of its own business first before deciding on elections, leaving Johnson sputtering schoolyard taunts at the Labour leader:
A “chlorinated chicken” and a “big girl’s blouse” – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson kicked off his first questions in parliament by goading opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for not backing a new general election. …
“There’s only one chlorinated chicken that I can see … and he’s on that bench,” Johnson said, pointing at Corbyn who has criticised the British leader’s enthusiasm for a trade deal with the United States over, among other things, concerns over food standards.
He also appeared to shout at Corbyn that he was a “great big girl’s blouse” – a coward – over his decision to back an election only when a no-deal Brexit was off the agenda.
That’s quite a taunt from a party leader who just expelled nearly two dozen Conservative MPs for doing to him what, er, he did to Theresa May. It may be a bluff, too, considering that the Tories now have to run new candidates in those constituencies just to get back to a bare majority in the Parliament in the next elections. Kicking out Winston Churchill’s grandson is nothing if not commitment to that bluff.
Johnson insists that he can win because he will get the EU to break its vow not to renegotiate an exit agreement, and especially to abandon its commitment to the Irish border backstop:
Johnson said his strategy was to get a Brexit deal by an EU summit on Oct. 17 and “get Brexit done”. He said the British government was making substantial progress and would succeed in removing the Irish border backstop.
The election may not be Johnson’s only bluff. Ireland’s foreign minister later said that Johnson hasn’t proposed anything to replace the backstop, at least not yet:
Simon Coveney reiterated that as Johnson was advocating the removal of the Irish “backstop” arrangement aimed at preventing the return of post-Brexit border controls between Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland, it was up to the British premier to present a convincing alternative.
But none have been forthcoming, Coveney said, echoing what European Union officials in Brussels have been saying, categorically contradicting Johnson.
“This process cannot move forward unless and until the British government comes forward with actual proposals that make sense so we can interrogate them,” Coveney told reporters as the government launched a fresh appeal to business to get ready for Britain potentially exiting the EU without a deal to smooth the transition.
“The British government does need to hear this message very clearly both privately and publicly that this is a problem that’s real, that’s complex and needs a solution, and at the moment they haven’t come forward with any solutions.”
In a separate interview with national broadcaster RTE, Coveney added that “no proposals at all” had so far emerged from the new British government.
The EU won’t move on this issue without getting a recommendation to do so from Ireland. Even if they were inclined to act directly, they also haven’t heard anything from Johnson, and responded to him today by declaring it has no idea what Johnson’s talking about:
The EU said Wednesday it currently sees no alternative to the so-called “Irish backstop” in a Brexit withdrawal deal and warned the risk of Britain crashing out without an agreement has increased. …
But Brussels says that so far there are no other options which fulfil the EU requirements of protecting the Northern Irish peace agreement and safeguarding the European single market.
“The backstop… is the only solution identified that safeguards the Good Friday Agreement, ensures compliance with international law obligations and preserves the integrity of the internal market,” the commission said in its latest Brexit planning document.
That’s been the EU position all along, and for good reason. The UK’s Brexit project is explicitly designed to impose border controls — for both immigration and trade. It was fought and won on those specific grounds. Unfortunately, the UK already had a sovereign commitment to an open border in Ireland long before voting on Brexit, and more than three years later have yet to offer a solution that squares the circle. If the UK insists that Northern Ireland has to be part of Brexit –which Tory partner DUP insists — then border controls will have to go up again and violate the GFA. The backstop would preserve the GFA while giving the UK more time to find a solution, but it would also delay their ability to set their own trade policy.
That’s why Corbyn answered Johnson’s taunts in Parliament by challenging the PM to disclose his proposals to keep the border open. Johnson claims he has solid ideas to share with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in meetings later this week, but Johnson has also claimed that the Irish should just trust the UK to solve the problem eventually, too. The Irish, needless to say, are not filled with trust of the British for many reasons, but their complete refusal to deal with the Northern Ireland question on Brexit is high on the acute list.
Regardless, elections are inevitable. This situation is untenable, and all sides know it. The current majority in Parliament are only united in stopping a no-deal Brexit, but they’re not even going to be able to agree on how to avoid it. They could have done so by passing May’s Withdrawal Agreement in March, which would have marginalized Johnson, and could still do so today. Instead, they’ll default into a no-deal Brexit anyway, and then will either have to clean up the mess themselves or hold elections to see who gets to do so.
At least the debate was entertaining. It’s not often one hears a British PM use the word “shit” on the floor of Parliament. Or “great big girl’s blouse” or “chlorinated chicken,” for that matter. The only question will be who gets Corbyn’s tongue off the pole and whether Ralphie will get blamed for it.