February or bust: BoJo's Brexit wins big

Elections have consequences, as the saying goes, and sometimes very big consequences. Fresh off a massive electoral landslide, Boris Johnson easily passed his Brexit deal with the European Union through Parliament on a 124-vote majority. The bill not only set a firm exit date from the EU for the end of January, it also set a deadline for negotiating a trade deal one year from now:

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s bill, backed by a huge parliamentary majority, will take the country out of the 28-member bloc on Jan. 31, and lays the groundwork for sweeping foreign and trade policy shifts.

The 358 to 234 vote marks a significant breakthrough for Johnson, who stormed to electoral victory last week on a pledge to “get Brexit done.” The former mayor of London won the largest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987, confirming his position as prime minister after he took over from Theresa May in July.

Johnson’s election strategy paid off big-league, so to speak. He got precisely the Brexit he engineered, and ended up steamrolling both the hardline no-deal Brexiters and the Remainers. Labour leader — for the moment, anyway — Jeremy Corbyn offered rhetorical opposition, and the rest of his party voted against the bill, but it’s clear they’re ready to move on:

Responding to Johnson, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, confirmed his party would continue to oppose the bill – though some Labour MPs, including shadow cabinet members, have argued that the election result means they should support it and move on.

Corbyn said: “This deal will be used as a battering ram to drive us down the path towards more deregulation and towards a toxic deal with Donald Trump that will sell out our NHS and push up the price of medicines. We remain certain there is a better and fairer way for Britain to leave the EU.”

However, the Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck signalled that she would support the bill, saying that after last week’s general election result, it was time to put an end to “opposition for opposition’s sake”.

The bill that passed was not the exact same legislation that Parliament failed to pass before the election, however. The BBC notes some significant changes, including a hard deadline on ironing out the future trading relationship between the EU and the UK:

There are changes to the previous bill, which was backed by the Commons in October, but withdrawn by the government after MPs rejected a three-day deadline for getting it through Parliament.

The changes include:

  • Legally prohibiting the government from extending the transition period – during which a trade deal between the UK and EU will be discussed – beyond 31 December 2020
  • Allowing more UK courts to reconsider European Court of Justice rulings that have been retained in UK law after Brexit
  • Requiring ministers to report annually to Parliament on disputes with the EU under the prime minister’s withdrawal agreement
  • Repealing spent legislation that “now serves no purpose”

A passage on workers’ rights got taken out, but Johnson pledged to pursue that separately.

The deadline on a trade agreement “has set off alarm bells,” NBC News reports, raising fears of a de facto no-deal Brexit. Ireland’s finance minister called it a “very demanding” schedule for such a “complex” redefinition of the trading partnership:

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will have only 11 months to negotiate a trade deal with the EU’s 27 remaining members even if an agreement to exit to the bloc goes through the British parliament at the end of January. A rapidly negotiated trade deal will be a lifeline across the Irish Sea.

“It’s a very demanding deadline to have such difficult and complex work done by then,” Donohoe said in an interview with Bloomberg Television in Berlin on Tuesday. “But of course the European Commission and the European Union will be ambitious, and we will look to get the work in the negotiation completed as soon as possible.”

The Irish economy stands to sustain the most damage among EU member states in the event of a disorderly Brexit, though the risk of having no deal has receded amid speculation Johnson will able to push his deal through after the Dec. 12 election.

As the past three years have proven, both the EU and the UK need deadlines to make any progress at all. This deal took forever to develop, and it finally required Johnson cutting loose Northern Ireland’s fractious politics and a new election to make it work. With this kind of parliamentary majority, the EU can now comfortably negotiate with Johnson’s government on other trade issues, especially after this demonstration of Johnson’s political strength. In fact, this 124-vote margin might incentivize both sides to strike while the iron is hot rather than allow this to drift into next November before offering concessions that they will have to make anyway.

Speaking of opposition for opposition’s sake, though, Johnson has a Scotland problem all over again. Nicola Sturgeon, whose nationalist party SNP stripped the Tories of half their seats above Hadrian’s Wall, demanded a new referendum on independence yesterday in a letter to Johnson. Passage of this Brexit bill will only stoke those calls further, even if Johnson is trying to sell this as beneficial to a “united” country. Johnson has let it be known that he won’t approve a referendum, prompting Sturgeon to threaten to hold one anyway:

Speaking Thursday, Sturgeon said that if Johnson once again said no to her then she would “consider all reasonable options to secure Scotland’s right to self-determination.”

Sturgeon added it was now up to Johnson to defend his belief that the U.K. is a voluntary union of equal nations.

“It is for the prime minister to set out why he believes people in Scotland do not have the right to self-determination,” she added.

Scotland, part of the United Kingdom for almost 313 years, rejected independence by 55% to 45% in a 2014 referendum.

Sturgeon said Scotland had made it clear in last week’s election that it didn’t want to be ruled by a Conservative Party or to be taken out of the EU and therefore, another independence referendum is justified by a “material change in circumstances.”

The first minister added that the SNP had a mandate to offer people a choice on independence that was “normal by any standard of democracy.”

It’s actually the same exact principle by which Johnson and other Tories promoted Brexit. If it comes down to England refusing to recognize Scottish nationalism while promoting its own, Johnson’s not going to win that argument in the long run.

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