BORIS Johnson has admitted for the first time that the UK will not be leaving the EU on October 31, despite having claimed for months that he would be dead in a ditch before he let this happen.
Where, we wonder, are all those loopholes in the Benn Act we were promised, all those threats to challenge the constitutionally dubious law in court?
The successful renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement is what came of all that. I say successful, since it was, to be fair, a renegotiation in which the EU reopened the WA and changed it in a direction that the UK were demanding. Nonetheless, the vast majority of it is no different from May’s vassalage ‘deal’, and the enthusiasm with which Brexiteers, particularly in the parliamentary Tory party, have embraced it is somewhat unseemly and far in excess of its merits. Relief, perhaps, is the best explanation for this, and (perceived) electoral advantage – the new WA is, at the moment, very popular with the electorate.
But you would have thought the fact that the DUP still are not happy with it would have given pause for thought, given that the big reason the original backstop was so unacceptable was that UK divergence from EU regulation would have meant leaving Northern Ireland behind. So what’s changed? It is still stuffed full of unwarranted payments, egregious liabilities, undemocratic subjection, and more room for mischief than a Commons chamber full of monkeys. Which, coincidentally, is not far from what it will face.
Well, whatever you think of Boris’s ‘deal’ – and we have to accept that even Leave and Tory voters seem for now to be keen – it is the reason ‘no deal’ has all but disappeared from the government’s agenda. Instead now it’s all about getting the Boris lipsticked pig, sorry, I mean WA, over the line. In this the EU are cheerleaders (unsurprisingly, given it now gives them 99 per cent of what they want, rather than all of it), meaning that suddenly it’s the Boris government who are looking to Brussels for back-up. This is not for a no-deal exit, of course, but to pressure MPs into voting for the deal – meaning it is not hard to see through the threats, as MPs did last Saturday when they called Juncker’s bluff and refused to endorse the WA. Sure enough, along came Tusk with his extension, though bad cop Macron was still there to keep up some semblance of threat. Not, though, enough to convince MPs to go along with the government’s lightning legislative programme.
So now Boris threatens an election. Except he still can’t call one for the same reason he couldn’t call one last time he wanted one, which is that the Fixed Term Parliaments Act won’t let him. Last night he tabled a motion under the FTPA for a December election, which to pass needs votes in excess of two-thirds of the number of seats in the Commons (not merely two-thirds of the votes cast). Labour appear to have chickened out again and will abstain, meaning this vote, scheduled to take place on Monday, will fail – though Labour have said they will review this decision once the details of the EU’s extension offer (expected today) are known.
Jeremy Corbyn, who had said he would back an election once the Benn Act extension was in place, has now shifted the goal posts again and said no deal must be ‘off the table’ before he backs an election. Pressed on what would count for this purpose, he was non-committal but said that Boris’s WA still includes no deal as a ‘threat’, suggesting he regards the possibility of the Free Trade Agreement negotiations breaking down and the UK leaving the transition period without an FTA as counting as no deal still being on the table. But since it was precisely the inability to escape from the backstop in this way that was the single most offensive element of May’s WA, and Boris removing it was his single greatest improvement, Corbyn here appears to be asking for the ridiculous and impossible. If restoring the inescapable backstop is what he means by taking no deal off the table then he is playing silly games and should in no way be taken seriously.
So where does that leave us? Challenging the opposition parties and Brexit-blocking MPs to an election certainly burnishes Boris’s beleaguered-Brexit-hero credentials, but it doesn’t actually get us any nearer to a way out of the deadlock.
Boris might try instead for a simple Bill to call for an election, which would require only an ordinary majority to pass. But that Bill could be amended, and the opposition could demand unacceptable measures in exchange for supporting it, such as votes for 16-year-olds – something the Tories should never accept, both for partisan electoral reasons (most of them would vote for Labour and Left-wing parties) and on principle, since children are not yet ready to exercise the responsibilities of voting, particularly if still in education and under the tutelage of the state.
Why not just take an extension to the end of January and pass the WA bill in the extra time? The problem with that is that it is not clear the Commons would pass it without attaching various unacceptable, and hence wrecking, amendments to it, such as a second referendum. This would again result in stalemate.
In the meantime it is rumoured that the government may reduce its activity to a minimum to dare the opposition to bring it down in a confidence vote. The reason the opposition are wary of that is it’s not clear they would be able to install a caretaker or ‘unity’ government instead of triggering an election. First, because they can’t yet agree on who should be PM – Labour insist it should be their leader, but the other parties will not accept Corbyn, who is tarnished in numerous ways, not least through anti-Semitism, and is not popular in the country. Second, because it’s not clear they would be able to install a new government without a GE anyway, as the PM doesn’t appear to be under any obligation to resign, so they would rely on the Queen dismissing him, a highly political act that she is unlikely to countenance.
Yet surely the EU will not keep on offering extensions for ever. Even allowing that most of their threats are strategic, there will be something genuine behind the French President’s (and others’) displeasure – they really do want to move on from Brexit.
Unless Labour unexpectedly relent and finally submit to an election, the only way to break the stalemate appears to be if the EU (or the government if they want to test the lawfulness of the Benn Act in its binding of the prerogative) ramps up the no-deal threat. But if MPs call their bluff, will they actually follow through? What if they call their bluff again? We seem to be heading into a phase of high-stakes brinkmanship. Such high drama politics should be entertaining. Yet somehow it manages to be simultaneously tense and tedious, compelling and boring. Welcome to groundhog Brexit, where every week is critical, every vote is crunch time, yet somehow every day feels the same.