Heads I win, tails you lose
Stay focused, urges Eddie Ford. Prorogation was not a ‘coup’ and the central question still remains transforming the Labour Party - not a general election.
Frankly, it is getting hard to keep up with events. First, Boris Johnson declared on August 28 that he had asked the queen to prorogue parliament from September 10 until the opening of a new parliamentary session on October 14 - with the monarch approving his request, of course.
Then, after MPs returned to parliament on September 3, as expected, they inflicted what looks like serious harm upon the government - voting by 328 votes to 301 (a majority of 27) for the motion tabled by Sir Oliver Letwin to seize control of the Commons order paper in order to push through a bill to effectively delay Brexit yet further. The bill states that, unless a deal is reached with the European Union or parliament approves a no-deal Brexit by October 19, the government would be required to write to the EU seeking an extension to article 50 until January 31 next year.
Twenty-one Tory MPs defied the whip and voted for the Letwin motion - it would have been 22, but Phillip Lee dramatically crossed the floor to the Liberal Democrats earlier in the afternoon. Either way the 21 had the whip withdrawn meaning that Boris Johnson now definitely leads a minority government. Meanwhile two Labour MPs (Kate Hoey and John Mann) voted with the government - will they also lose the whip, I wonder?
The next day, the bill itself was passed by an almost identical margin - 327 votes to 299. But now it must go to the Lords for approval and Tory peers have put down over 100 amendments in an attempt to block it. In other words, Conservative peers are having a go at US-style filibustering to sabotage the bill. They will almost certainly fail.
Finally, after his first defeat on September 3, the prime minister announced that, as it was clear MPs would now be able to block any no-deal Brexit, he had no alternative but to call an early general election, so as to gain a working majority to force through an EU withdrawal by his October 31 deadline. A slight problem, however: the 2011 Fixed-Term Parliament Act lays down that a two-thirds majority is required to dissolve parliament and call an election before its five-year term has ended. Well, not only did Johnson fall far short of that on September 4: he only won the support of 298 MPs - not even a majority of the 650 in the Commons. True, the votes against amounted to only 56, but that was because Labour (and many others) abstained - Jeremy Corbyn stating that the party would only vote for a fresh election after the bill to prevent a no-deal Brexit had become law.
Anyhow, the intended prorogation - one of the longest in recent history - gives the government a certain level of plausible deniability, even if nobody believes a word of it: ‘What’s all the fuss about? It’s perfectly normal for a new government to prorogue parliament and have a queen’s speech. There was going to be a three-week recess for the party conference season anyway and you still have time to debate Brexit.’ But at the end of the day we all know the prorogation was about restricting parliament’s ability to prevent Brexit happening on October 31 - it is almost embarrassing at this stage to pretend otherwise.
For the record, the CPGB is not remotely surprised about the prorogation - it has been obvious for some time that it was in Boris Johnson’s toolbox. However, we did not expect the actual timing - assuming that he would just run the clock down until October 31. But instead Team Boris must have calculated that allowing time for parliament to create mischief was to their advantage - creating a ‘Heads I win, tails you lose’ scenario, even though they are the ones calling for a general election that enables them to secure Brexit “do or die” by October 31.
The calculation is, of course, that, while there has never been a clear majority for any sort of Brexit among MPs, that does not reflect public opinion. Johnson believes that his insistence on leaving the EU by October 31 “do or die” has left him well placed to secure a comfortable majority for the Conservative Party in a new election - finally voters will be able to defeat the ‘undemocratic elite’ and make sure the 2016 referendum result is actually carried through.
However, Jeremy Corbyn is not a fool and refused to play ball - indeed, a special meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party expressed the near-unanimous view that Labour should refuse to support any snap election until after October 31. Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary, told the BBC’s Today programme that Labour wanted a general election, but “on its terms, not Boris Johnson’s” - the party did not “trust” the prime minister, suspecting that he might use his prerogative powers to change the election date until November at the earliest. This follows on from Tony Blair’s warning that having a general election before Brexit would be an “elephant trap”, which seems an accurate prognosis. According to some reports, Labour is now examining the possibility of using parliamentary procedure to force the Tories to hold an election on a particular date, rather than leaving it in the hands of Boris Johnson.
Meanwhile, the Court of Session in Edinburgh has ruled that Johnson’s prorogation of parliament is lawful - saying the decision was “nonjusticiable”, as it was matter of high policy and political judgment. Something else that was not surprising. The group of 75 MPs and peers behind the legal challenge - headed by the Scottish National Party MP, Joanna Cherry, and Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson - have said they will immediately appeal against the ruling, but they do not stand a chance. The same goes for the two other impending court challenges - one in the High Court of Justice for an urgent judicial review on the legality of the use of the royal prerogative by Gina Miller and John Major; and the other in the High Court in Northern Ireland, where it is claimed that prorogation is a breach of the Good Friday agreement.
Furthermore, a group of members of the European Parliament, representing all of the mainstream political groups, plan to trigger an inquiry regarding the suspension of parliament, under article 7 of the EU treaty, which requires member-states to act in accordance with “rule-of-law standards and fundamental rights” - another long shot. The real action is in parliament.
Perhaps this is an unpopular thing to say, but the prorogation of parliament was not the ‘death of democracy’ or a ‘coup’, or even that much of a ‘constitutional outrage’ - such rhetoric is overblown, if not slightly hysterical, and totally unhelpful. If anything, it just makes us into liberalistic defenders of the existing constitution, which for communists is neither democratic or defensible - who voted for the queen, for example? Having said that, Johnson’s move was obviously motivated by the anti-democratic intention to restrict and curtail parliamentary debate and therefore deserves to be condemned.
Boris Johnson is making out that the latest parliamentary manoeuvres are ruining his chances of getting a deal with the EU - but no-one takes that seriously. Whilst it is not totally impossible for the EU to blink at the 11th hour and make some sort concessions on the backstop, this is extremely unlikely. Dublin is already building customs posts on its side of the border, as there is absolutely no way that the EU will allow an open border with an external entity. Of course, the Republic of Ireland will suffer under Brexit - but Northern Ireland will be hit the hardest. The British government might start giving aid to the Six Counties statelet, if only to keep the Democratic Unionist Party happy.
In terms of the Tory Party as it is now, we have a rightwing leadership that is determined to satisfy its rank and file, which is even further to its right - in that way becoming what Ken Clarke called “the Brexit Party rebadged”. There are many stories about the EU council of ministers offering to extend article 50, but that has to be a unanimous decision of all the member-states. Can you really imagine Johnson signing up to an extension? It goes without saying that he will veto any such thing. Obviously, any such gesture from the EU would be pure gamesmanship - it is Britain’s fault, not ours (although, of course, that is largely true). In turn, Johnson cannot row back now from his Brexit commitment - that would be political suicide. Therefore he has to blame the EU for playing games.
If he somehow manages to secure a mid-October election - not impossible using this or that trick or device - he and his advisors are confident of victory. Nigel Farage has said Johnson will be a hero if he goes full steam ahead for a no-deal Brexit, and so his Brexit Party would enter into an electoral arrangement or pact of some description with the Tories - something certainly advocated by Steve Baker of the Economic Research Group. The polls currently look favourable. For instance, YouGov has the Tories on 34% against Labour’s 22%, while the Lib Dems are on 17%, the Brexit Party 13% and the Greens 8%. The combined total of the pro-‘leave’ parties adds up to not far short of 50% - enough to give Johnson an absolute working majority to drive through Brexit, once you take into account Britain’s ‘first past the post’ voting system. Even if Johnson makes one stupid gaffe after another, with Jeremy Corbyn running another brilliant election campaign. as in 2017, the ‘remain’ campaign is divided four ways - with radically different policies once you get beyond Brexit (even there you do not have total agreement). Any sort of national government cobbled tougher under these conditions would be a weak hodge-podge and fall apart quickly, with Boris Johnson widely seen as our ‘national saviour’ - the ‘man of the people’ against the Guardian-reading, metropolitan elite.
We in the CPGB advise people not to panic: a sense of calmness is necessary when everyone around you is losing their head - why do you get thousands carrying ‘Stop the coup’ and ‘Save our democracy! Parliament must sit!’ placards? Why else are there court cases, judicial reviews, talk of a government of national unity, desperate clever tricks in parliament? Because people are panicking. Stay focused. From the communist point of view, the immediate task is not backing the plan to install Jeremy Corbyn at the head of a “caretaker government”, going to Brussels to “extend article 50” and then demanding a “general election and a Corbyn led government” (editorial The Socialist September 4 2019). The SWP, Socialist Appeal and John Rees’s People’s Assembly have also been pushing essentially the same ‘general election now’ line.
The CPGB hopes that the Brighton conference goes ahead. We must keep up the pressure on Jeremy Corbyn for reselection - the most important task in this period remains the fight to transform the Labour Party into a vehicle for working class advancement and the rebuilding of the labour movement as a whole.