The saga continues
With the Brexit bill ‘paused’ and the October 31 deadline ditched, writes Eddie Ford, Boris Johnson is going for a December election.
Forgive the clichés, but events are moving so fast it really is getting difficult to keep up. One thing that seems near certain, however, is that we are heading towards a December election. But, as dedicated Brexit-watchers know, almost anything can happen.
The latest phase of the Brexit saga was triggered when on October 22 MPs rejected the government’s “programme motion”, or parliamentary timetable, by 322 to 308 (14 votes) - just after having backed Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) ‘in principle’ on a second reading by 329 votes to 299, a majority of 30. It is worth noting that 19 Labour MPs, including Gareth Snell, Gloria De Piero and Ruth Smeeth, defied the whip by voting for the second reading of the WAB and five supported the “programme motion” - yet no sanctions have been taken against them, another sign of the profound timidity of the Labour leadership.
On the previous day the ‘meaningful vote’ on the WAB had to be scrapped by the government when the speaker, John Bercow - as widely predicted - ruled that the motion was “essentially” the same as the one defeated on ‘super-Saturday’ (October 19). Naturally Brexiteer Tory MPs and the rightwing press fulminated about Bercow being a ‘remaniac’, hell-bent on wrecking Brexit.
Even though it might seem like a long time ago for some readers, the first weekend sitting of the Commons since the Falklands war in 1982 was meant to deliver a crunch vote - decision time - on the prime minister’s newly struck deal with the European Union, Johnson triumphantly waving his piece of paper from Brussels that was so much better than anything Theresa May ever brought home. But that was quickly scuppered by Sir Oliver Letwin’s successful amendment (322 to 306 votes) withholding support for Johnson’s deal until all the necessary legislation had gone through parliament. Therefore Boris Johnson pulled the motion as the ‘meaningful’ vote had become “meaningless”. Of course, one immediate consequence of the prime minister’s decision was that he was forced to ask for an extension to article 50, as required by the Benn Act, something he swore blind never to do. He would rather “die in a ditch”, we were told. He would never “negotiate” a further extension. Watch my lips.
Despite the massive setback to his plans, the prime minister still tried to meet his self-imposed October 31 deadline with his blistering three-day timetable for MPs to scrutinise the 110-page WAB - the parliamentary version of a Blitzkrieg. Needless to say, the WAB is a dense, opaque, sometimes incomprehensible text, which often refers to other bits of law, which you also have to read to really understand the bill. On top of that you have the explanatory notes, memorandums, briefing papers, etc, which are much longer than the actual bill itself. Crazily, this vast volume of material was only published late on October 21 after the junked ‘meaningful vote’ and less than 24 hours before the vote on the timetable.
Even a professional expert in constitutional and other areas of relevant law would struggle to digest that amount of information in such a short time. In other words, it was a less than noble democratic exercise - a bit like the 2016 Brexit referendum itself. Kenneth Clarke, the now ‘independent’ Tory MP, pointed out that even government ministers were “still discovering” on the morning of the vote what the deal in its present form actually meant.
For instance, trying to make sense of the complicated dual-tariff system set out in the new WAB, the hapless Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, had to embarrassedly admit under questioning from the European Union select committee that all businesses sending goods from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK would have to fill out various export declaration forms - he had to hurriedly correct a statement made only a few minutes earlier, when he explicitly said businesses in the statelet exporting to mainland Great Britain would not have to complete such documentation.
Prior to October 22, Boris Johnson had made clear that neither the timetable nor the bill itself could be altered or amended except in the most minor way - take it or leave it. Do not even think of adding stuff about the UK as a whole remaining within the EU’s customs union, a second referendum, extending the transition period beyond December 31 2020 in order to avoid a ‘no deal’, publishing economic-impact assessments of Johnson’s deal, and so on. Voting against the timetable, declared Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, was voting against Brexit itself - October 31 was sacrosanct.
Unfortunately for him, the Commons rejected this, with the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party proving to be crucial. The DUP obviously objected to Johnson’s plans to create a customs border down the Irish Sea that would leave Northern Ireland within the EU’s regulatory system. It is also angry because its effective veto over future arrangements has been abolished - the principle of “cross-community consent”, as laid out in the Good Friday agreement, being replaced by a simple majority vote in Stormont. On the other hand, the supposed ‘Spartans’ of the European Research Group have pledged a muted allegiance to Johnson’s deal, even though - apart from the Irish backstop - it is essentially identical to Theresa May’s, which they hated, and they had always boasted of how they took their ‘lead’ from the DUP.
Anyway, with his frenetic timetable defeated, Boris Johnson abandoned his bill and put the legislation on “pause” - he claimed that “our policy remains that we should not delay, that we should leave the EU on October 31”. But this means absolutely nothing, as there is no way now of leaving the EU by that date unless the prime minister has some extraordinary wheeze up his sleeve. In reality, the October 31 deadline has been ditched and Brexit is now in limbo.
On October 23 Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings met Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and Seumas Milne, as well as the two parties’ respective chief whips. The Labour leader had said he was prepared to work with the government to agree a “reasonable timetable” to examine the Brexit legislation properly - but there was “no meeting of minds”, we are informed. Downing Street sources sourly stated that Corbyn “made clear he has no policy except more delays and to spend 2020 having referendums”. A political correspondent from the Financial Times, Laura Hughes, observed that both leaders “looked like two men who didn’t know what they were going to do next”.
His Brexit plans thwarted, the general political situation in deadlock, Boris Johnson is once again attempting to trigger a general election on the grounds that parliament is “broken” - it is certainly in zombie mode. He is, of course, waiting for an official reaction from the EU to his letter requesting an extension. Or to be more accurate, his three letters.
The first was an unsigned photocopy of the request he was obliged to send under the Benn Act; then there was an explanatory letter from the UK’s ambassador to the EU - as if European officials are not fully aware of the political context; and finally a personal signed letter, explaining why Downing Street did not want an extension - it was parliament asking for the delay, not him. Johnson went on to say that the Commons had “missed the opportunity to inject momentum into the ratification process”, yet remained confident Brexit legislation would be passed by October 31 - an assertion that was totally groundless, as we quickly learnt. It is still just about possible that the prime minster might find himself in contempt of court, as his letters are clearly against the spirit of the Benn Act - arguably the letter of the law might have been violated too. If the Edinburgh court rules against him, it is hard to work out what the political consequences would be - but there is little doubt that it would not be damaging for Johnson.
Trying to spook the opposition parties, various government sources have attempted to cast doubt on Brussels granting an extension request. In his meeting with Johnson, apparently Corbyn reacted with “incredulity” to the suggestion that French president Emmanuel Macron would veto the request - you can understand why. Donald Tusk, the European Council president, has already said he would “recommend” an extension as a way of avoiding a no-deal Brexit, while the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has expressed very similar sentiments. A statement from the Irish government said it “would still be possible” for the UK to leave before January 31 - the ending date for the proposed extension - if the withdrawal agreement “has been ratified in advance of that date”.
As for Norbert Röttgen, chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee and a senior member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, he is in “no doubt” an extension would be approved. Obviously referring to the huge People’s Vote demonstration on ‘super-Saturday’, Guy Verhofstadt, coordinator of the European parliament’s Brexit steering group, said that the “marches outside the parliament show just how important a close EU-UK future relationship is”. David Sassoli, the European parliament president, has observed there was only one request “on the table” and it “deserved” the EU27’s support.
Once the extension has been secured and no deal is off the table, Labour claims it will be up for an election battle - whether wisely or not, as the polls do not make happy reading for the party. Labour has twice abstained when the prime minister asked for an election under the terms of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (FTPA), which requires a two-thirds majority.
Not everyone agrees with this approach, unsurprisingly. At a testy shadow cabinet meeting on October 22, Labour frontbenchers discussed the timing of a potential election, with Corbyn loyalists Laura Pidcock and Dan Carden calling for the party to back an early poll - the latter telling colleagues that the “referendum first” stance was a “fantasy”, which would not win a majority in parliament and which the government would anyway refuse to implement. Dan might be on to something. As we know, attempting to undermine Corbyn, deputy leader Tom Watson has been arguing openly that the issue of Brexit has to be settled in a referendum - followed by a general election on a wider set of issues.
At the same meeting, Keir Starmer suggested existing Labour policy meant the party must support any amendment to the government’s WAB calling for a referendum on Johnson’s Brexit deal, and then campaign for ‘remain’ - which did not go down too well with some. Ian Lavery, Labour Party chairman, accused Starmer of “ramming this policy down my throat for 18 months”, whilst Jon Trickett pointed to the motion passed at last month’s Labour conference in Brighton, which said: “The party shall only decide how to campaign in such a referendum through a one-day special conference, following the election of a Labour government.”
Labour has other election worries, polls notwithstanding. Under the terms of the FTPA, the actual date is fixed by royal proclamation - meaning that the prime minister would set the date. Though it seems very unlikely that Boris Johnson would want to wait so long, in theory he could deviously arrange for the election to be held after January 31 - risking a no-deal Brexit if the EU sticks to the original extension period, as set down by the Benn Act. Depending on the EU’s next move, Labour would need some sort of cast-iron, legally binding assurance from the prime minister of the election date - no moving of the goal posts.
If Boris Johnson cannot get the two-thirds needed to trigger an election under FTPA stipulations, he might resort to calling for a vote of no confidence in his own government - which only requires a simple majority. That might sound a bit weird, but this is Brexit we are talking about.