OVER the past fortnight, the prospective date for a General Election has been a moveable feast.
Until then, the expectation was that an ostensibly anti-No Deal – in reality a Stop Brexit – vote of no confidence in PM Boris Johnson’s government would be tabled, either by Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour alone, or in conjunction with the other parts of the loose Remain-Alliance, as soon as the Commons returned from recess, and that, if lost, Johnson would immediately seek to dissolve the current Parliament and call a General Election for mid-October.
That plan folded when allies of Corbyn privately admitted that he did not have the numbers required to bring down the Government, prospective support from Continuity-Remainer Tory rebels collapsed, and Corbyn was persuaded to adopt the legislative route instead. This had the effect of moving the anticipated date out of early or even mid-November, i.e. after Britain is due to have left the EU.
However, Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament for a further few sitting days beyond its normal party conference season prorogation – which, despite all the theatrical, confected Remainer outrage and bloviating hyperbole, was neither unprecedented, nor a ‘coup’ – has had the effect of goading not only the Remain-Alliance with its risible, wholly hypocritical and constitutionally illegitimate alternative ‘People’s Parliament’, but also the Tory-Remainer rebels, led by Hammond and Gauke, to accelerate and intensify their legislative guerilla campaign.
The result is the proposed European Union (Withdrawal) (No 6) Bill 2019, which in effect forces Johnson to beg the EU for an Article 50 extension, and accept whatever duration of extension the EU deigns to stipulate.
The drafters of the Bill protest that they have included a parliamentary veto over a long EU extension: but they have also said, in advance of the Bill’s publication, that the veto cannot and will not be used, because Parliament cannot and will not allow No Deal under any circumstances. The Bill, therefore, in effect hands the EU control over the Government, Parliament, Brexit, and by inference whether British democracy itself still exists.
The number of Tory-Remainer rebels pledging to support the Bill and vote against the government is already confirmed at ten and will possibly rise to 20 or 25, meaning that a Government defeat looks increasing likely.
In response, Johnson has already insisted that there are no circumstances in which he would seek a delay, so that, according to sources within Number Ten, in the event of a Commons defeat Johnson will dissolve Parliament and call a snap General Election for 14 October, which would in itself require the support of two-thirds of MP under the terms of the Fixed-Terms Parliament Act.
Crucially, that date would be in advance of the next European Council meeting, scheduled for 17-18 October. This does not augur well for the proper, clean-break Brexit that Johnson has given the impression – but not much tangible evidence – of both favouring and working towards since becoming Prime Minister.
If he gets a fresh mandate on, say, 14 October, then he can use that European Council meeting, and the last two weeks prior to 31 October, to stitch up a new Brexit deal – which I believe he wants, much more than he’s been prepared to admit, and much, much more than he wants a No-Deal, clean-break Brexit – for the narrow personal and tribal objectives of securing his own legacy and keeping the Tory party together.
Any such deal would be not much different to May’s, except possibly for the Northern Ireland backstop. Johnson has already dropped a hint, at the end of August, that that he might seek changes to the backstop, but could leave the rest of the Withdrawal Agreement intact. It would still have all the vassal-statehood disadvantages and disasters which have been so eloquently warned about by, among others, Professor David Collins, Briefings For Brexit’s Caroline Bell, and Lawyers For Britain’s Martin Howe.
But in my view, Johnson doesn’t care. I’m convinced he just wants something he can push across the finishing line in Parliament. He has hitherto delivered nothing much more than bluster, despite his insistence at the Biarritz G7 that ‘the Withdrawal Agreement is dead’. But his next sentence specifically referenced that pronouncement to Parliament, suggesting he could mean ‘dead’ only in the narrow political sense that the House of Commons would not pass it in its present form. That patently did not, and still does not, exclude it re-emerging to a greater or lesser extent in different form.
Cynical I may be, but I will believe that May’s execrable (non)-‘Withdrawal’ Agreement and integral Political Declaration are ‘dead’ only when either they are replaced by an acceptable Free Trade Agreement along the lines of a Canada++, or failing that, when we exit on a WTO-reversion No-Deal.
Moreover, a No-Deal, Clean-Break, Real-Brexit would be far more likely to be the catalyst for the sorely-needed upending of our entire political system: which, in my view, for all his bluster, Johnson doesn’t want. Politically, he is invested in our current, democratically-deficient settlement in which the two main parties have largely rigged the system to ensure their own advantage and perpetuation, and he has no desire to see it changed to something more genuinely pluralist and robustly participatory.
Which brings us to the role of the Brexit Party in the coming election, and why it will potentially be vital.
It’s rare for me to disagree with the Daily Telegraph’s Allister Heath, whether on economics or politics – the public realm has far too few small-state, low-tax, free-market, sound-money Hayekians – but on his hypothesis that it’s time for the Brexit Party to shut up shop because the battle has been won, I believe he’s wrong.
Firstly, it treats TBP as a one-issue party, which it isn’t, because it’s about more than Brexit, which it correctly sees must not only happen if we’re any kind of democracy at all, but must also be not merely an end in itself but also that catalyst for changing the way we do politics which I suspect Johnson does not especially want.
Secondly, in the light of the preceding paragraphs, and as former Leave Means Leave head and now Brexit Party MEP John Longworth emphasised on these pages only a day or two ago, the dangers of a new Brexit betrayal are very real. If, as it looks, we may be heading for merely a largely cosmetic re-packaging and re-branding of May’s deal as something ‘new’, then the role of the Brexit Party in the election in drawing attention to that fact will be critical.
Thirdly, Heath has been vociferous for several years in (rightly) castigating the ‘Conservative’ Party in numerous policy areas other than Brexit: its pandering to leftist Social-Justice-Warrior obsessions and to those who would curb free speech; its disastrous energy policies and gullibility on the Green agenda; its neo-Keynesian monetary and fiscal policies, and its excess regulation, spending and taxing. But without the more or less permanent threat of a Brexit Party snapping at its heels to keep it on the straight and narrow, the still overwhelmingly Fabian-Blairite Tory Party would be back to its bad old ways in no time at all. They are not to be trusted.
As political scientist Matthew Goodwin points out, the Conservative defection rate to the Brexit Party has slumped from 37 per cent before Johnson became Prime Minister, through 25 per cent when he entered Downing Street, to a mere 16 per cent as at 31 August. It’s presumably on this re-defection pattern that Johnson and Dominic Cummings believe they can secure a Leave majority for the Tories with a snap election.
But that surely also pre-supposes that, to compensate for losing Remainer votes in the South to the LibDems or a Remain Alliance, the Tories can capture enough working-class Leave votes in the Midlands and the North repelled by Labour’s coming-out as an unabashed Remain Party. That is something of a gamble, to put it mildly, because the Tory brand, rightly or wrongly, is still toxic in many of those areas. The Brexit Party would be far better placed to bring those votes under the Leave banner, which is why the Tories should not close the door to the Brexit Party’s overtures for a tactical alliance.
The resignation of Ruth Davidson as Tory leader in Scotland ought to support that hypothesis still further. Her departure potentially weakens the Tories in Scotland, which must put at least half, if not all, of their seats in Scotland – without which they wouldn’t have been able to form a Government in 2017 at all, even with the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party – at risk, especially as Scotland hates Johnson anyway. Which in turn means that Johnson could end up needing support from, or even that Leave tactical alliance with, the Brexit Party even more to secure more seats in England.
It’s a risky strategy. As Matthew Goodwin set out yesterday, it could all go wrong for the Tories and Johnson: his problem is that things are starting to work against him and for Farage, and will do so even more if he’s forced by Parliament to scrap No-Deal and gives the appearance of settling for a Remain-Lite, Brexit-In-Name-Only because that’s the very most that the majority-Remainer, anti-Brexit Parliament would approve.
Johnson should swallow his pride, make temporary accommodation with the Brexit Party, and enter into that tactical alliance. To win this coming election, and deliver the Brexit 17.4million voted for, both he and the Tories need it.