The coordination in the Commons has given Remainers cheer but the strategy could backfire more easily than you thinkby Tom Clark / September 6, 2019 / Leave a comment
The opposition parties have just agreed to vote down Boris Johnson’s next request for a general election on Monday. The ramifications depend on whether the request is now put in a different form: things could get especially complicated if Johnson attempts to no-confidence himself. But, as things stand, it looks likely that the allied opposition forces plus (ex)-Tory rebels will thwart Johnson’s hopes of a 15th October election.
For most on the anti-Brexit centre-left this is unalloyed good news—both for the country and for the prospects of Jeremy Corbyn. One Prospect favourite, Jonathan Lis, has put the case for cheer with panache. In the face of a premier who is suspending parliament, sacking MPs and manoeuvring to take the country out of Europe with a ruinous no-deal, he judges that “the moral imperative is to thwart no deal, and the political imperative is to thwart the prime minister,” both halves of which are best accomplished by denying him the October date he seeks with the voters, forcing him to demand an extension and miss his “do or die” Halloween Brexit deadline.
It is a powerful argument, and one most of the Labour Party has bought. So why do I still harbour doubts? On the national interest front, I’m not sure that the new law against no deal is as watertight as it seems—even if parliament refuses to allow an election until after the European Council at which it is assumed an extension will be granted.
We’re amid a border-straddling diplomatic crisis, but our politics remain solipsistic. It is ultimately a matter of European rather than British law as to whether the UK remains a member after 31st October, and any member state could veto an extension. Now, the clear expectation is that with an election pending, this will be granted without difficulty. But very little is absolutely certain just now. The Sunday Times last weekend floated the idea that a London government set on its deadline could comply with the law by requesting an extension, but then—through back-channels—call on an unsavoury ally, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, to veto that request. That might feel a bit far-fetched, but what about other countries making their own decision to veto? In particular, one would need to know much more about French politics than most Westminster-watchers do to be absolutely certain that the patience of Paris will not run out. Is that really inconceivable—especially if Johnson is seen to be handing over a letter with his fingers crossed behind his back?
So much for the national interest, what about the opposition forces’ political interests in the looming election? “Trapping Johnson in office” is supposed to confirm to the country, after his last few shambolic days, that this is a leader who is incapable of getting a grip. His inability to deliver is also supposed to leave him exposed to a Brexit Party resurgence. And at the same time, too, Corbyn is supposed to earn points with the voters for acting like a responsible statesman, who is prepared to delay the election he has sought for so long in order to save the country from the multi-layered disaster of no deal.
But all this rests on an awful lot of assumptions. While I may think no deal will be a ghastly mess, my sense is that a very large number of voters disagree. I was speaking to one last night—a not especially political woman I’d never met before. “Well, they did ask what we wanted,” was her general attitude, and now “they just need to go on with delivering it. Get it finished.” Everyone was “talking about shortages” but they had all said the economy would crash immediately after the referendum—and it didn’t. Now “all the journalists on the radio are saying Johnson’s making a mess of everything, but I think he sounds strong, like he knows what he wants.”
She isn’t the only one. Diplomats and economists can explain till they’re blue in the face that there is nothing clean or final about “no deal,” that it will be only the start of interminable, grinding dealing to get our relations with our neighbours back in order. But when I tried this on my new acquaintance she wasn’t buying: “look, when I first got married we had power cuts and rubbish out on the streets. We got through that all right. But now there saying ‘it’s going to be total chaos, the worst we’ve ever had?’ I just don’t believe it.”
After all the endless wrangling there is real appeal in the idea of a “clean break,” even if it is a cruel illusion. Many people do not regard no deal as self-evidently a bad thing, and many more could warm to it if the proffered alternative is what Johnson will damn as another “pointless delay,” and perhaps a fresh referendum. That might be what I want, but to many that—too—will seem like a proposal for more drift and delay.
Nor would I rely on any calculations about what Nigel Farage will do, still less how he will fare. I suspect that procedural details, like whether or not Johnson ends up forced to ask for an extension, will count for less than the tone. The more rampantly populist the prime minister is, the less of a danger Farage will pose. And the longer Johnson can claim his opponents are “denying the people a vote,” the more populist that tone will get.
Last but not least there is the position of Corbyn himself, who has seemed more reluctant than his colleagues to postpone the reckoning. I can understand why. His success in closing the huge deficit he faced in 2017 reflected the enthusiasm with which he threw himself into the contest, a contrast with Theresa May, who hid away and ducked debates. A day or two of the “Dangerous Chicken” rubbish from the Sun is baked into the price with Corbyn. But if the stand-off continues, the argument that Labour “doesn’t want to see through the referendum, and doesn’t want an election either” could begin to sting.
All this would be especially true if the election delay goes beyond the European Council that would grant the extension, the last moment where the national interest argument applies, and into early November. Yes, Johnson’s do-or-die promise would then have been smashed. But Labour would have smashed it—and be seen to have done so. It will need an account of why. “We fancied bringing the rascal down a peg or two” won’t be good enough.