Boris and Brexit
By Duncan Whitmore
At the time of writing, a bill to delay Britain’s exit from the European Union beyond the October 31st deadline is making its way through the House of Lords, following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s loss of all of his votes thus far in the Commons. Johnson has also lost his Commons majority after one MP defected to the Liberal Democrats on Tuesday while a further twenty-one were denied the Tory whip for voting against the government that same evening. It is, therefore, probable that the bill will be passed and, without the ability to call a general election, somebody will be carted off to the EU to grovel for a Brexit extension until January 31st.
Nevertheless, in contrast to the Maybot (whose repeated defeats ground her down into the appearance of an exhumed corpse), Johnson remains remarkably upbeat. If his chief strategist, Dominic Cummings, is as brilliant as he is reputed to be, then this may be no surprise. After all, every major obstacle to achieving Brexit, “do or die”, on October 31st was known in advance, namely:
- An overwhelmingly pro-Remain Parliament which could be expected to use the excuse of an alleged no deal “catastrophe” to tie the Prime Minister’s negotiating hands;
- The existence of a significant number of rebellious Tory MPs amongst a Parliamentary majority of just one;
- A Speaker barely able to feign impartiality through a willingness to bend constitutional propriety and parliamentary procedure.
Johnson may, of course, have lost a few more of his MPs than he would have liked; he may be lamenting the departure of his brother from both the government and the party. But, in spite of any despair that he and ardent Brexiteers may be feeling right now, there are no overwhelming surprises amongst what has unfolded in the last few days. Given this, therefore, is it the case that Johnson is, in the words of Owen Jones, “just a bit, well, s*it”? Or is it more likely that all of this has this been a tremendous exercise in manoeuvring predictable events to ensure some kind of outcome that would finally get us out of the EU as the Prime Minister has promised? With, admittedly, a bit of hopeful thinking, let’s explore the case for the latter.
If there is an overarching strategy, it is likely to be that the voting public must be left in no doubt whatsoever that Johnson and the Conservative Party are now the Brexit party, committed absolutely and unshakably to achieving our departure from the EU, in one form or another, on October 31st – and, moreover, that any delay or failure in this regard is absolutely and undeniably the responsibility of Parliament and the other parties, not of the Tory government. No more of the fuzzy vision we had of the proceedings under Mrs May – this is Johnson and “the people” versus an elitist, out of touch and unrepresentative Parliament. What support is there for this view?
The purpose and effect of prorogation has been less about preventing Parliament from stopping “no deal” and more about forcing the anti-no deal MPs to play all of their cards in a very short space of time. Whether or not prorogation is challenged in the courts is now, largely, irrelevant – MPs intent on stopping no deal have had to assume that their sitting days will be truncated. Thus, in just a single week, these MPs have gone from screeching about Johnson’s supposedly Nazi-like “coup” for calling the suspension, to they themselves hijacking the Parliamentary timetable in order to pass their bill. But the Prime Minister then called their bluff by offering the very general election (such a fascist!) which the opposition has been crowing for for at least a year – an offer they promptly denied as they now realise they will probably lose. (Labour’s excuse of wanting to pass the delay bill prior to any election is smoke and mirrors – a victorious government could either pass or repeal it after the election, at least if the latter is held before October 31st). Johnson has, therefore, manoeuvred the anti-no dealers into choosing paths which paint them as the undemocratic despots while positioning himself on the side of the people.
Thanks to the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, the bizarre situation of the government losing its majority while being powerless to call an election means that, even if the government successfully negotiated a new withdrawal agreement, its ability to get this (as well as new laws required for no deal preparation) past the Commons would be practically impossible. This reveals the extent to which the anti-no dealers are willing to go to force their agenda: crippling the government of the country before keeping it on mere life support so as to plough through a delay to Brexit while at the same time avoiding an election which would toss the anti-no dealers out.
Purging the Conservative Party
The unhesitating removal of the Tory whip from Tuesday night’s rebels and the threat of their de-selection has cleansed the Conservatives of unreconciled Remainers – a continuation of the same process that wrung them out of the cabinet back in July. The fact that the purge paid no heed whatsoever to rank, reputation, seniority, or (in the case of Sir Nicholas Soames) family pedigree makes the message all the more clear – the Tories are now the Brexit party. Nigel Farage’s eponymous party would campaign with the Conservatives if Johnson dropped all vestiges of May’s deal, an agreement which seems likely given the odds it has of achieving victory, and of a possible (according to The Times) opposing pact between Labour and the SNP.
Johnson has repeatedly, but carefully stated that he personally will not request an extension to Brexit beyond October 31st. Therefore, ruling out the incongruous possibility that he would simply ignore the bill should it become law, this may suggest that Johnson will find some (legal) way – including his own resignation – of forcing Corbyn (or another anti-no dealer) into being the official to go grovelling to Brussels. As The Times suggested on Thursday morning, Johnson’s resignation could allow enough time to put Corbyn into office to request the delay before then tabling a motion of no confidence in his (Corbyn’s) government that would trigger an election – an election during which the Tories could then charge Corbyn et al. with having scuppered Brexit. Ordinarily, this would seem like a ridiculously convoluted state of affairs, but we seem to be living in a time when the ridiculous becomes reality.
The EU itself may now be unwilling to grant a long extension (or any at all) unless it can see a clear way forward in negotiating an alternative withdrawal agreement. And yet, such a way forward – already mired by the refusal of either side to budge on the so-called “Irish backstop” – has just been made even more unlikely by Johnson’s loss of his Commons majority. It is improbable that the EU will refuse any extension altogether, but according to this morning’s Times, European governments – themselves fed up with the continued uncertainty – have moved towards “no deal” preparations as a default unless something is done to resolve the deadlock in British politics. It is, therefore, possible that the EU will only be willing to work with a British government that commands at least some kind of ability to pass any resulting agreement through Parliament. Thus, it may turn out that the EU will demand that an election is held prior to the October deadline as a condition for an extension, an election which, of course, Johnson could win.
Johnson has begun campaigning under the assumption that a general election is now inevitable. Indeed, the fact that the Conservatives are making no attempt to filibuster or otherwise disrupt the passage of the Brexit delay bill through Parliament (while pushing for another motion, on Monday, to call an election) suggests that they have been preparing for this outcome. (A further suggestion that they may persuade the Queen to withhold Royal Assent from the delay bill also seems unlikely – it is important for the Prime Minister to give the impression that he is not the one who has stepped outside of the bounds of constitutional propriety). Indeed, the Chancellor’s “end-of-Austerity” spending plan, announced before the Commons defeats on Wednesday, suggests that the Tories were already positioning themselves onto an election footing. Moreover, tens of thousands of people have registered to vote this past week, and so Johnson could easily whip up public support for an election. Thus, Johnson and the Conservatives will hit the ground running while everyone else is still wading through disagreement among themselves about the best course of action. Indeed, it may end up being better for the Tories if the election falls after a Brexit delay has been secured for the reason that all of the opposing parties are united only around the principle of stopping “no deal”. If the delay – which Johnson will claim, with credibility, was not of his doing – has been achieved by the time of the election then it may be harder for these parties to agree a joint election strategy that could defeat a Conservative/Brexit Party onslaught.
Needless to say the power of the pro-Remain establishment should probably not be underestimated – as The Spectator has pointed out, if the kind of analysis laid out above is correct then it is still a big gamble. Nevertheless there is, at least, some cause for optimism. As James Delingpole, responding to the current shenanigans, has said, the sovereignty of Parliament – a beloved, but much misunderstood phrase trumpeted by the Twittering classes – is and always has been ultimately subordinate to the consent of the governed, and it is the latter that has won in the end:
In the country at large, in other words, outside the Westminster Bubble, people are looking with a mix of horror and embarrassment at the antics of those of their alleged parliamentary representatives who are blocking Brexit and thinking: “Well they certainly aren’t representing me!”
So, courage mes braves! We’re on the right side of history. And the longer the other side prance around making pillocks of themselves and crowing about how well they’re doing, the more the decent, sensible majority are going to be irked by their preening prattishness – and will boot them off the political stage for all eternity.