Johnson has promised that Britain will leave the European Union on Oct. 31, with or without a deal.
Last week, Johnson announced that he had asked the queen to suspend Parliament, which prompted protests in British streets, condemnation from rival politicians and even defections by senior allies. But Johnson’s move could ultimately prove to be a masterstroke in political maneuvering.
Though his request to prorogue Parliament for weeks ahead of the Oct. 31 deadline for Britain’s exit from the European Union is controversial, the suspension of Parliament itself is a regular occurrence; in practice, the timing is always decided by the prime minister.
The result will be that British lawmakers have significantly less time to debate the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union — adding pressure to what Johnson has already described as a “do or die” Brexit. With even less time on the clock, Johnson’s rivals are ultimately left with four options, none of which will be easy.
1. A no-deal Brexit
If Britain does not reach a withdrawal agreement with E.U. member states before its Oct. 31 deadline, it would be forced to resort to basic World Trade Organization rules on its borders. Economists predict that this could massively disrupt supply chains in key areas such as food and medicine.
The problem is that vote cannot be binding. “No deal” is the default, and unlike May, Johnson has refused to rule it out or ask for a delay. So unless lawmakers opposed to a no-deal Brexit find a way to block that scenario or form a majority following a possible snap election, “no deal” will happen.
2. A Brexit deal
The most logical alternative to a no-deal Brexit is, of course, a Brexit with a deal. But as May found when she was prime minister, that is not exactly easy. Britain’s Parliament is divided among those who support a hard break with Europe, some who want to keep many of the existing bonds and those who do not want Brexit at all.
Then there is Europe. Any withdrawal agreement needs to first be agreed to unanimously by all 27 remaining E.U. states before it goes to Britain’s Parliament. So far, the bloc has shown incredible consistency in standing up for its members; in particular, favoring the “Irish backstop” agreement that seeks to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
As with other Brexit hard-liners, Johnson opposes the backstop and wants to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement without it — something member states have said is not possible. But as a no-deal Brexit is in the interests of neither Britain nor Europe, he may try to use the shorter time frame to convince one side to relent.
The lawmakers seeking a further delay to the Brexit date this week may be hoping that a Brexit deal might still be possible, or that the dragging-out of the process could even result in a new referendum.
3. A vote of no confidence.
Johnson holds only the slimmest and most tenuous of majorities in Britain’s Parliament. When Parliament reconvenes Sept. 3, he might face a vote of no confidence among members — and given the discord among his own Conservative Party members about his decision to suspend Parliament, it is a vote he could very well lose.
In theory, this would allow other lawmakers 14 days to try to form their own workable majority in Parliament. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, has suggested he could try to form a caretaker government with support from smaller parties.
However, it is unclear whether Corbyn or anyone else in the current Parliament could form a working majority, and Johnson’s allies have said they might refuse to leave office even if that happens. Under a 2011 law that effectively changed Britain’s unwritten constitution, Johnson could use the no-confidence vote to argue that he has a mandate for a new election.
There is no guarantee that anyone could win a workable majority after such an election, and Johnson’s Conservatives remain considerably ahead in the polls. Just as importantly, Johnson is given a large amount of autonomy in when he sets the election. He could set it for a day or two after Oct. 31, for example, which would mean the no-confidence vote would end up resulting in a no-deal Brexit.
4. A legal challenge
Some prominent figures, including former Conservative prime minister John Major, have suggested that the right way to challenge Johnson’s move to suspend Parliament would be through judicial review in Britain’s legal system. Major’s argument rests on the idea that while the queen’s decision to prorogue Parliament cannot be challenged legally, Johnson’s decision to recommend it can.
Multiple courts are expected to see legal attempts to block the suspension of Parliament this week, with one Scottish court hearing from lawyers representing a group of parliamentarians this week that Johnson’s act was “both unlawful and unconstitutional.”
But without clear precedent, it is unclear how the legal challenge could proceed. Johnson allies have dismissed the legal merits of the challenges, with one telling the BBC in July that Major’s views about the case showed he had “clearly been driven completely mad by Brexit.”