Johnson has done what many said was impossible in asking the Queen to suspend Parliament, thereby significantly reducing the time for Brexit scrutiny in Parliament. The launch of legal action swiftly followed from previously successful campaigner Gina Miller, and anti-no deal MPs quickly rallied, but in truth the possibilities for preventing this course of action are increasingly slim. After all, MPs have repeatedly voted for this outcome – or against options to prevent it.
Johnson’s hope remains the greater his enthusiasm for no deal, the greater the EU’s willingness to give ground over the backstop. A strategy that won him surprisingly warm plaudits from his counterparts at the G7 Summit last week for being decisive and clear. The question remains over what “alternative arrangements” can be found to alleviate EU fears over the border.
Meanwhile in the UK, it is hard to see an outcome which does not end in an electoral event – whether General Election or Referendum – in November following the Brexit conclusion, or even before the Halloween deadline. This could be chosen by Johnson to unlock the impasse, or forced upon him in the wake of a no confidence vote.
With two senior Conservative resignations so far – from Scottish Party leader, Ruth Davidson and Government Whip, Lord Young – the collateral damage and shifting sands within the governing party are becoming clear. Davidson’s departure will have serious consequences for the Conservatives’ electoral fortunes north of the border, as well as any pro-Union side in a Scottish referendum.
What has happened?
- The chances of no deal have increased to around 60% following Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament from w/c 9th September until 14th October, the day of the Queen’s Speech. While the move has been welcomed by Brexiteers it is not widely popular, with a snap YouGov poll finding the public oppose it by 47% to 27%.
- The new timetable significantly narrows the window of opportunity for MPs to prevent no deal – just four to seven siting days from next Tuesday in which to make a decisive move. This could prove insufficient given the many steps involved in passing legislation, particularly against a Government willing to fight dirty in the parliamentary arena. If they are unsuccessful, they will be left with only six sitting days – between the final votes on the planned Queen’s Speech on 22nd October and 31st October – to try and stop no deal.
- Chances of a formal confidence vote being brought by Labour have in turn increased, leaving Conservative no deal opponents facing an invidious choice of voting against their own Government – most likely ending their political careers – or demonstrating that when it really comes down to it, unlike many Brexiteers, they are not willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their ends.
- A significant legal challenge has been lodged by businesswoman and barrister Gina Miller (who successfully challenged the Art50 process to force a parliamentary say). Constitutional experts question whether this can succeed, given both the time pressure and lack of precedent, but will give the opportunity for judges to opine - and any ruling would have to be followed.
Why it matters?
- Choices are being forced on all sides, and the road down which to kick the can has almost come to an end, so MPs’ minds are focussed in a way they have not been before.
- An electoral event – whether general election or referendum – is looking increasingly likely, whether forced by a confidence vote, or chosen by Johnson to unlock the impasse. No 10 has been on election footing ever since Johnson took over and next week’s Spending Review provides a clear opportunity to shower funding on popular issues.
- The wider implications for the long term Union are also starting to become clear - Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has stepped down in protest, although “personal reasons” were also a factor. As a rare popular Conservative in Scotland, this poses serious questions for a pro-UK side in any second Scottish Referendum (which would certainly come under any kind of Labour-led government). A Government Whip, Lord Young, has also resigned in protest at this move.
What happens next?
- Were he to lose a confidence vote, he has pledged to stay on in Number 10 in the 14-day interim period mandated by the Fixed Terms Parliament Act and set a general election date for shortly after the 31st October at which point the UK will already have left the EU. Even in such a scenario finding an alternative figurehead to lead a caretaker government will be very difficult. Jeremy Corbyn has insisted that only he could lead such an administration, and it remains highly doubtful that he could command the support of the House, including rebel Tory MPs, even for a very limited period.
- Following last week’s diplomatic outreach to the EU, it remains the case that Johnson’s preference is to get a revised deal through parliament by 31st October, a prospect he floated in his letter to MPs yesterday. Under this plan, if he is able to extract concessions from the EU on the Irish backstop, he would table the amended WA to a vote after the European Council summit on 17th October and dare Labour MPs opposed both to no deal and a second referendum to vote it down again.
- Other previous anti-no dealers in Cabinet are yet to make any position public, although it is likely they will keep their powder dry until closer to the deadline, having signed up to this negotiating position when Johnson took over.
- However, despite the more positive mood music from EU sources over the past week, it remains that both sides are far apart in terms of what they consider to be acceptable and workable solutions to the Irish border. While the EU may be open to tweaks, it is highly unlikely they - and Dublin in particular - could agree to taking out the backstop entirely, given they see it as a necessary insurance policy.
- In this instance, if Johnson’s Plan A were to fail, yesterday’s move also facilitates his backup plan of leaving without a deal on 31st October come what may by frustrating parliamentary efforts to prevent or delay it. However, in the event that any such parliamentary efforts were to succeed, Johnson would also have the option of calling a snap general election and fighting it on a platform of “people vs Parliament” versus a divided opposition - the recently trailed spending commitments for police, schools and the NHS indicate a Government that’s on an election footing. Success at the polls would in turn strengthen his negotiating position with the EU, while a more stable majority would ease the path to no-deal if a new agreement with Brussels were not to materialise.