The time for Boris Johnson's opponents to stop fighting each other, and start fighting the approaching Brexit calamity, is long overdueby Jonathan Lis / August 22, 2019 / Leave a comment
It has not been a good week for British politics. Since Jeremy Corbyn proposed forming a temporary government in order to request an article 50 extension and hold a general election, Remainers have mostly been tearing strips off one another. The Lib Dems say they will only accept Corbyn if he can find a majority, and the Tory Remainers and Change MPs say they will never give him one. Corbyn, for his part, has not indicated that he might support anyone else.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has been ramping up the rhetoric on the “anti-democratic” backstop which he endorsed while Foreign Secretary in December 2017 and voted for in the withdrawal agreement this March. Angela Merkel’s suggestion on Wednesday that Johnson could resolve the backstop issue in 30 days was not a new revelation or offer, but simply a restatement of the principle that the backstop is intended to be temporary, and that the solutions to replace it remain, after three years, nowhere to be found. Johnson’s visits to Berlin and Paris this week have done little more than expose the terminal decline of Britain’s influence and reputation.
So, in the dying days of the summer, we find ourselves with ten weeks to go until the Brexit deadline, a diplomatically isolated prime minister seemingly hurtling us towards no-deal, and a fractured opposition in disarray. What on earth happens now? And more to the point, what happens after that?
First, and most important: no-deal remains highly unlikely. The leak of Operation Yellowhammer drives home the scale of the impending calamity. No government in modern British history has so wilfully declared war on its own people and no parliament could allow it to. As we progress further into the autumn it will become increasingly difficult for gung-ho ministers to justify medicine shortages in the name of democracy. As we stare into the void of no-deal, MPs will act.
As the rows of the last week have indicated, a legislative route has more chance of succeeding than a government of national unity. But even if MPs do enact a new law to force the PM to request an extension, the government is unlikely to survive. Johnson could conceivably call an election himself, echoing Theresa May’s confected outrage from 2017 when she accused parliament of trying to thwart her ambitions and enlisted the people—fatefully—to assist her. What all this means is that we are almost certainly heading for an election by November.
The next question to consider is the aftermath of a vote of no-confidence. If Labour triggers one early next month, as it has indicated, then that leaves just two weeks to either form an alternative government or see parliament dissolved. If Corbyn is the only alternative PM on offer, many Tories will feel unable either to support the initial no-confidence vote, or to back the Labour leader in the subsequent confidence vote. There may not be the requisite votes for any other figure.
And so parliament dissolves, and an election is called. But when?
Some sceptics have suggested that Johnson could really attempt to hold it on 31 October (a Thursday) or in early November. The democratic outrage can hardly be overstated. An election to determine whether we leave with no-deal would in fact be coming too late to stop it either way. Activists would certainly trigger a court case which would argue over written law and constitutional convention.
Worryingly for Buckingham Palace, the Queen would in these circumstances be dragged in. Her principal adviser is the prime minister, but her other advisers are the PM’s 649 fellow members of parliament. If they ask her not to call an election for 31 October, she will face a deep predicament. Johnson may have scant regard for people’s livelihoods, but he will not want to embarrass or destabilise the monarch.
Let us then assume that Johnson declines to follow that path, and the UK secures an extension in order to hold the election. Ignore Johnson’s current positive poll ratings. Everything will depend on his manifesto. Will he really go into a national vote promising to deliver an outcome which his own government admits could cost lives and shut down chunks of the country? At the moment just a third of voters support no-deal. At the end of a bruising campaign that number would be expected to fall sharply. The Tories may depend on Corbyn’s unpopularity trumping the public’s fear of economic and societal collapse, but that could prove a foolish risk.
The other great unknown is the Brexit Party. Nigel Farage’s outfit has declined sharply in the last couple of months, but again, timing is key. If Johnson has been forced to extend Article 50, Farage will sense blood. He will denounce Johnson as Theresa May in a blond wig, promising concrete deadlines which then fall away under the slightest pressure. The true believers, now ‘betrayed’ by Johnson’s broken promise, could flock back to the Brexit Party.
But what if Johnson has been felled in a vote of no-confidence and is in fact now calling for no-deal himself as Tory leader in the election campaign? This is when matters become uniquely dangerous. The true believers will stay loyal to the PM, and Farage will see his support fall away. It could be that the Brexit Party will still win just enough votes to deprive the Tories of key seats, and that Labour, Lib Dem, SNP, Plaid and Green voters hold their nose to vote for whichever candidate will stop the Conservative in any given constituency.
But that too is a risk, and demands a level of cooperation between, say, Corbyn and Jo Swinson that currently does not exist. The Tories could, just, win a majority. If they do, we must hope that Johnson uses his new leverage not to set fire to his country but to defeat the hardliners and accept what was always the truth: that Brexit cannot be delivered within the government’s red lines, and currently inconceivable compromises will have to be made.
Insofar as Johnson has any long-term strategy, it seems to take us as close to the 31 October deadline as he can without blinking, and then to win enough Brexit Party supporters to carry him to a fresh five-year electoral mandate. If he succeeds, on 5 November the Bonfire Night party will not be burning the Guy but the British economy.
The only possible prevention is if Remainers stop fighting each other and start fighting no-deal, both in parliament now and in the election which follows. Corbyn’s proposed cross-party meeting next Tuesday is a start. All participants must abandon posturing and treat it with the utmost seriousness, and the meeting must be the first of many.
The next few months will be wildly unpredictable, but this is certain: if Johnson’s opponents do not start engaging, negotiating and coordinating, they will all share responsibility for lighting the match.