Forget a government of national unity. To stop no deal, legislate

And do not give Johnson even the slightest wiggle room—he will use it

August 16, 2019
Photo: Tim Ireland/PA Wire/PA Images
Photo: Tim Ireland/PA Wire/PA Images

Once upon a time, Labour could tell the country a vaguely credible story about how it would ride to the rescue. The Conservatives, said Labour, would eventually pursue a disastrous no-deal Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn would put down a motion of no confidence in the government. The government would lose and a general election would follow. Corbyn would arrive in Downing Street, and ask the EU for an extension of the Article 50 period. The cliff edge would recede.

It may now be too late for that plan. Even if Corbyn tabled a motion of no confidence in the government as soon as parliament returned in early September, he could not now be confident that he would get access to the headed notepaper in Downing Street quickly enough to scribble out a letter to the European Council, asking for more time. In any case, it would be up to Boris Johnson to pick the date of the general election. Though the Labour Party has argued—with justification—that it would be unconstitutional for Johnson to set an election date after no-deal Brexit had already happened on 31stOctober, there may not be much that Labour could do about it.

That is why we are, instead, now talking about a so-called “government of national unity” (GNU). Under this plan, Corbyn would defeat the government in a confidence vote and then govern for a time without an election, propped up by the votes of some anti-no deal MPs from parties other than his own. The sole purpose of his government would be to seek an extension of the Article 50 period. After that, Labour would go to the people and seek a mandate to continue.

The idea must be politically irresistible to Corbyn and his allies, for a simple reason: it is easier to win an election from Downing Street than from the Opposition benches. There is also a relatively clear procedural route to this outcome, as the government is obliged to make time for a motion of no confidence.

There is also a problem, though. Corbyn does not have the votes. The GNU idea has had a lukewarm response from the Liberal Democrats, whose support Corbyn would need. It would be anathema, too, to even some of the most committed Europhiles on the Conservative backbenches.

Maybe someone else could cobble together a majority from several parties—Ken Clarke and Harriet Harman have been mooted—but the current crop of MPs have not inspired confidence in their ability to knock heads together and agree on a plan even when there are just three or four different options, let alone 650. The problem, in the end, is that a government of national unity requires some unity. Good luck finding it in this parliament.

In reality, stopping no deal is likely to be messier. Backbenchers will have to seize control of parliamentary time and pass anti-no deal legislation in the teeth of the government’s own opposition, just as Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin did in the spring. Procedurally, this is hard. MPs’ best hope is to apply to the Speaker of the House of Commons for an “emergency debate” under Standing Order No 24, and cross their fingers that he takes the unusual step of allowing them to use that debate for a substantive motion which wrests control of the House of Commons order paper from the government.

The bill would have to compel the government to seek an extension, as the last bill to prevent no deal did, but that in itself would not be enough. Downing Street has made clear that if anti-no dealers leave the tiniest gap in their plans, Johnson is limbering up to squeeze through it: he could seek an extension in line with the legislation, then reject whatever he is offered. So the bill would also have to compel him to take what he is given by the EU, or to do that after seeking parliament’s approval.

In that case, he would surely have no choice but to agree an extension. If he maintained his commitment to take the UK out of the EU without a deal on 31st October, “come what may,” “do or die,” ignoring the letter of the statute or even a court judgment clarifying it for him, then that would be the end of the rule of law in this country. It is no exaggeration to say that the United Kingdom would have become a failed state. MPs may well have to find out whether “come what may” really does mean “come what may.” We are getting very, very close to the edge.