The clock is the spur
Only a national government can stop Brexit, and that would mean splitting the Labour Party, reckons Eddie Ford.
Not really surprising anyone, the Liberal Democrats won last week’s Brecon and Radnorshire by-election - generating much speculation about the extent of a ‘Boris bounce’, following a series of favourable polls for the new prime minister, which indicated that Brexit Party supporters are returning home to the Tories.
Clearly, it was not an accident that Boris Johnson himself stayed away from the campaign - mainly because this was not a normal by-election, but rather the product of a recall petition. The sitting Tory MP and European Research Group member, Chris Davies, had been charged in February with claiming false election expenses and was sentenced to a community order of 50 hours unpaid work and a £1,500 fine.1 The recall petition received 10,005 signatures (19%) - meaning he was recalled and a by-election sparked. However, Davies had the support of local Tories and ended up contesting the seat again - much to the fury of Johnson apparently.
However, Jane Dodds - leader of the Welsh Lib Dems - won 43% of the vote on a 14.3% ‘bounce’, so to speak, with a 59.6% turnout figure that was the highest recorded in a Westminster by-election since Winchester in 1997. This by-election was also distinguished by the fact that there was an anti-Brexit alliance, with Plaid Cymru, the Greens, the Independent Group for Change (formerly Change UK), etc all standing down to support Dodds.
Given the atypical set of circumstances in Brecon, the Tories did much better than expected on 39% (down only 9.6%). In that sense, you can talk about a sort of perverse ‘Boris bounce’ - losing the seat, but still draining support from the Brexit Party, whose 10.5% was way down on its European election returns. Labour came a very bad fourth on 5.3%, its support declining by 12.4% - seemingly a lot of its votes went to the Lib Dems. Having said that, Labour has not been in the running in Brecon for quite some time. Though a Labour heartland between 1939 to the end of the 1970s, it was captured by the Tories in 1979, who since then have been slugging it out with the Lib Dems, who held the seat from 1997 to 2015. A solidly farming town, Brecon is the most rural of constituencies in England and Wales.
The Lib Dems are now on the up and up. Frankly, it has been a bit surprising that it has taken this long for them to experience a revival - but that is mainly explainable by the level of opprobrium directed at them for their role in the 2010-15 coalition government. With the referendum, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and now the Boris Johnson premiership, the Lib Dems are now in near perfect territory as a thoroughly pro-European party - as has been the case since at least the days of Jo Grimond, when the Liberals could famously fit all its MPs into a London taxi.
In terms of the Brexit split within the general population, the conditions are ripe for the Lib Dems to grow. Yes, many people have pointed out that if you add the Tory and Brexit Party vote together in Brecon, it comes to a majority. But at the end of the day there was no agreement between them and it is unlikely that there ever will be, because, when it comes to general elections, as opposed to by-elections, people vote for all sorts of reasons. Under conditions of a ‘first past the post’ electoral system and a Tory government pursuing a hard Brexit, the working assumption is that that the Brexit Party will be wiped out - with its current supporters, apart from a marginal residue, ending up back in the mother party. That is certainly what Boris Johnson and his advisors are banking on.
We now have a situation where prime minister Johnson only has a House of Commons working majority of one - where Tory whips cannot guarantee getting a vote through the Commons. Tense times for all the parties.
Hence The Guardian reports some interesting comments by shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth in response to claims from Dominic Cummings, now the senior political advisor to Boris Johnson, that it is “too late” for MPs to stop a no deal Brexit (August 4). According to Ashworth, there will be “opportunities” when parliament returns in September - by which he principally seems to mean a no-confidence vote against the government, followed by the formation of a temporary national government during the 14-day ‘cooling off’ period. This echoes recent comments by the prominent Tory anti-no dealer, Dominic Grieve, about “bringing down the government and setting up a new one in its place” - the queen is “not a decorative extra”, he said, but somebody who at the end of the day has “residual powers and responsibilities” (August 7). He added that she “might have to dispense” with the services of the prime minister - that is, give Boris Johnson the sack herself. In other words, the monarchy will save the day for the anti-Brexiteers.
Apparently, once Johnson has been given the boot by the monarch or simple resigns, this government of national unity would exist for the sole purpose of requesting another extension to article 50 - on the basis that Brussels negotiators have said on a number of occasions that they would be willing to offer another Brexit extension if there was a significant “event” (ie, an election or referendum). It is envisaged that this temporary or emergency government would dissolve itself, once the extension has been granted, in order to hold a general election, in which the anti-Brexit parties presumably campaign for another referendum or even to revoke article 50.
In reality, the lack of agitation so far for a national government has been surprising. It has been on the lips of various journalists, while both contenders for the Lib Dem leadership contest, for example, have mentioned it - but there has been no real urgency, even as the cliff edge approaches. Something has to be done, you would think. Even if some are still hoping, there is no chance of Boris Johnson picking up the phone and saying to Michel Barnier, or his replacement, that he was only kidding about the backstop and “do or die”. Ditto the EU shrugging its shoulders and saying is has no problem with an open border between an EU member and another country - just forget it. Boris Johnson is committed to getting rid of the backstop and the EU is committed to keeping it.
Yes, you can concentrate on Boris Johnson’s track record of cynicism and opportunism all you like, but that is to misunderstand politicians - and politics in general. We should take seriously the government’s determination to leave the EU “whatever the circumstances”.
So, if you want to prevent a no-deal Brexit, some sort of national government is the only way. But for it to happen a chunk of Tory MPs must be prepared for all intents and purposes to leave the party - they would lose the whip and get deselected. If you are Philip Hammond, you might do it in the ‘national interest’, as you have already reached the dizzy heights in terms of your career, and maybe the same goes for Dominic Grieve, who is willing to sacrifice himself for the grater good, as he sees it.
Of course, the same would apply to Labour MPs who switch to a national government: they are automatically no longer Labour MPs. But at this stage no-one knows if the numbers are there for such a risky venture, which could have all sorts of unpredictable and unintended consequences.
Yet it is doubtful whether a national government can be formed in the time period available to stop Brexit. There is no evidence that a sufficient number of MPs are willing to unite in this way, when it comes to the crunch.
The Labour leadership itself has stated it would reject any opportunity to form a cross-party unity government with the aim of stopping a hard Brexit and would instead push for a general election if Boris Johnson lost a vote of no confidence. Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey told Channel 4 News that the party “wouldn’t countenance a national government of unity” to deal with Brexit, as that would give Boris Johnson a “get out of jail free card” - though her logic is unclear. She added, surely significantly, that a national unity government would need to have a “clear majority” in the Commons. Why, a clear majority? In fact a majority of one would suffice. In a similar vein John McDonnell said on August 7 that the party would only be prepared to broker a Labour-led government. But Corbyn and allies such as Long-Bailey and McDonnell are, in fact, a tiny minority in the Parliamentary Labour Party. There are probably less than two dozen of them.
But the main thing working for a national government is the ticking clock - not for nothing has a fancy £500 Brexit countdown clock being installed in both 10 Downing Street and Conservative Party headquarters.2 The Financial Times carried a revealing story about someone putting to Dominic Cummings the suggestion that if the government loses a no-confidence vote then Johnson would have to resign - “he spat his drink out laughing,” according to a senior No10 official: “the idea we will hand over to a new government rather than leave with an election after October 31 is laughable” (August 4).
In other words, if we are to believe Cummings, Boris Johnson will refuse to resign if he loses a confidence vote and instead will call a post-Brexit election on the populist theme of ‘people vs politicians’. In this way, he expects, or hopes, to get a huge ‘Boris bounce’ as the man who delivered Brexit as promised, in the teeth of opposition from the ‘remoaners’, the political class, metropolitan liberal elite, cowardly establishment, unpatriotic socialists, etc - here is the route to a viable working majority in parliament. A risky gamble, sure, but far from impossible.
If that is the plan of Team Boris, which sounds perfectly plausible, then what on earth could MPs, parliament, judges, or anybody else, do about it? According to various constitutional experts, there is no legal or other obligation for a prime minister to resign if they lose a confidence motion - that is purely down to convention. If you have a prime minister determined to upturn the normal rules of the game - to hell with precedent and the old ways of doing things - then it is difficult to see how they could be frustrated. Boris Johnson is perfectly entitled constitutionally, when all is said and done, to call an election on a date of his choosing after October 31. In the opinion of Vernon Bogdanor of King’s College London, it would be a “Herculean task” for backbenchers to stop a no-deal Brexit at this stage.
There is a wider political point to be made. The scheming by the likes of Dominic Grieve, Oliver Letwin, Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn, Jonathan Ashworth, etc is exactly what Marx in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte describes as “parliamentary cretinism”: a total belief in parliamentary manoeuvres within the framework of the existing rules, when you yourselves by your manipulations have given the Bonaparte figure the ability to appeal to “the people” against these procedural rules - whether you are Boris Johnson or Dominic Cummings. It is just about feasible that if the anti-Brexit rebels come back to Westminster on September 3 (assuming parliament does not remain prorogued) with a previously agreed coalition plan, vote down Johnson and demand the queen appoint them as the alternative government - then perhaps that might work.
Recall petitions were first introduced in the UK in 2015 - an election being automatically triggered if the subsequent petition is signed by at least 10% of eligible voters.↩︎