Prime Minister Boris Johnson signaled an end to Britain”s era of Brexit deadlock Thursday, announcing a packed legislative program intended to take the U.K. out of the European Union on Jan. 31, overhaul everything from fishing to financial services and shore up the country”s cash-starved public services.
The commanding House of Commons majority won by Johnson”s Conservative Party in last week”s general election all but guarantees he will be able to turn those promises into law, although with Brexit casting a shadow over the British economy, there”s a question mark over how he will pay for it all.
In a speech delivered from a golden throne in Parliament by Queen Elizabeth II, Johnson opened the legislative floodgates after three years in which minority Conservative governments tried in vain to win lawmakers” backing for their Brexit plans.
This is the moment to repay the trust of those who sent us here by delivering on the people”s priorities, Johnson told lawmakers after the speech.
“They want to move politics on and move the country on.” In less than 10 minutes, the monarch rattled through more than two dozen bills the government intends to pass in the coming year. The first will be the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill, the law needed to make Brexit a reality, which is set to receive its first significant parliamentary vote on Friday.
The bill commits Britain to leaving the EU on Jan. 31 and to concluding trade talks with the bloc by the end of 2020. Trade experts and EU officials say striking a free trade deal within 11 months will be a struggle, but Johnson insists he won”t agree to any more delays. That vow has set off alarm bells among businesses, who fear that means the country will face a no-deal Brexit at the start of 2021.
The government also plans to pass several other Brexit-related measures, including a new points-based immigration system that will be introduced after Brexit, when EU citizens will lose the automatic right to live and work in the U.K.
There are also plans to overhaul agriculture, fishing, trade and financial services after Brexit in ways that will have a huge though still largely unknown effect on the British economy.
Johnson also promised an ambitious program of domestic reform, including a law committing the government to spend more on the National Health Service, which has struggled to keep up with growing demand during a decade-long funding squeeze by previous Conservative governments.
There were tough-sounding announcements on law and order, including longer sentences for people convicted of terrorist offenses and other serious crimes.
Several of the measures are likely to prove contentious. The government said it would hold a sweeping review of defense and foreign policy, and set up a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission that could lead to reform of institutions including the Supreme Court. The court angered the government by ruling in September that Johnson”s decision to suspend Parliament was illegal.
Shami Chakrabarti, justice spokeswoman for the opposition Labour Party, said the proposal looks like a vindictive revenge” for Johnson”s Supreme Court defeat, calling it another play from the Book of Trump. The government also intends to pass a law protecting military veterans from vexatious prosecutions. The question of whether veterans who served decades ago in Northern Ireland should be open to criminal prosecution is hugely controversial.
Also proposed is a ban on public institutions taking part in boycott, divestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries and those who trade with them without the government”s approval. The move is aimed at universities that have boycotted Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians.
The government also promised to lessen regional inequality and bring greater unity to the United Kingdom, which is made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But Brexit is making that more difficult. Scotland voted to remain in the EU in Britain”s 2016 referendum, and last week most Scottish seats in Parliament were won by the anti-Brexit, pro-independence Scottish National Party.