After just 40 days in office, Boris Johnson has suffered his first Commons defeat, when 21 Conservative MPs – including two former Chancellors - rebelled to push for votes tomorrow to prevent no deal on 31st October.
Johnson quickly retaliated that he will try to call an election, asking MPs to vote on this tomorrow. Corbyn tonight said Labour would not fall into the trap of an election until and unless the bill to prevent no deal on 31st October is locked down. That means not only passing Parliamentary votes, but coming into law. This may see Johnson denied his wish of an election, a further humiliation, being forced to follow a strategy he hates but is powerless to change.
Many are suggesting Boris could accept the bill if it passes in return for getting a majority to trigger an early election, as each side gets what it wants. Although trust on all sides is pretty thin.
The last blow came this afternoon when Tory MP Philip Lee defected to the Lib Dems in the middle of the House of Commons with no prior warning. This left Johnson with no Parliamentary majority.
Aside from Brexit, tonight’s consequences for the Conservative Party are also huge. The 21 rebels included many former Cabinet ministers - until recently Chancellor Philip Hammond and Business Secretary Greg Clark, as well as the longest serving MPs, Ken Clarke and Churchill’s grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames – will all be ejected from the Conservative Party and banned from standing for it again. This leaves the Conservatives with a majority of -43, or in other words, no majority at all.
The ultimate irony that the Prime Minister who models himself on the great wartime leader should be ousting his family from the party they shared and preventing his future candidacy. While many Brexit Party backers that Johnson courts may see this as a sign of strength, the grassroots Tory party will be raising some eyebrows tonight.
Here’s what happened; what it means and all-importantly, what comes next.
What has happened?
- MPs have voted by 328 to 301 to take control of the order paper tomorrow following an emergency debate permitted by Speaker John Bercow.
- The move allows the cross-party grouping of MPs opposed to no deal to table a bill which if passed, would not only compel Prime Minister Boris Johnson to seek a further three month Brexit extension to 31 January 2020, but also set strict provisions on exactly when and how he should do so.
- Speaking immediately after the vote, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that if MPs pass the extension bill tomorrow, there will have to be an early election to see who will represent them in Brussels at the EU summit on 17-18 October, and that he will be tabling a motion under the Fixed-Terms Parliament Act tomorrow, with Tuesday 15 October most likely to be his proposed date.
- However, in response, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn insisted he would not agree to an election until “no deal is taken off the table”, a position backed by other opposition leaders.
- 21 Conservative MPs including several former Cabinet Ministers such as Philip Hammond, Ken Clarke and Greg Clark rebelled against the Government, resulting in Johnson making good on his threat and withdrawing the whip and banning them from standing again as Conservative candidates.
- In an earlier statement, Johnson also claimed that progress was being made in negotiations with the EU over a revised deal and significantly, he indicated the Government’s preferred replacement to the backstop would be a hybrid arrangement whereby some issues, such as agrifood, would be managed on a whole island of Ireland basis, provided there was support from Northern Irish parties and institutions.
- However, contrary to Johnson’s claims of progress, the European Commission has today informed member states that the UK has not yet tabled any tangible alternatives to the backstop and instead is reneging on its previous commitments, strongly indicating that the prospects of the UK and EU agreeing a revised Brexit deal remain remote at this stage.
What does it mean?
- Given the higher than anticipated margin of defeat for the Government, it appears though the extension bill has a good chance of also passing tomorrow, although the Government will hope to defeat it in the Lords by denying it sufficient time ahead of the prorogation kicking in next week.
- Johnson’s response will be to push for a general election, but it appears that he will fail to get the 2/3 majority required to trigger an early election with Labour and the other opposition parties insisting tomorrow’s legislation will first need to be passed and ‘no deal taken off the table’. Failing that, the Government could try bringing in a simple bill overriding or circumventing the FTPA provisions or simply allow the extension bill to pass, in turn allowing opposition MPs to back an early election.
- Since taking office, Johnson’s Government has projected decisiveness and determination, but it has today realised that is subject to many of the same limitations that hobbled Theresa May’s administration. This result represents a considerable blow to his authority given the number of Tories who defied him in spite of his deselection threat.
- If the extension bill is passed and Johnson’s efforts to trigger a snap election denied, this would put him in the invidious position of having to either break the law or go back on his solemn pledge to leave on 31 October “come what may, do or die”, a move which would undermine his efforts to win back disillusioned Leave voters from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
- There has been much speculation as to whether Johnson would agree to implement the terms of such legislation, saying on Monday that “there are no circumstances under which I will ask Brussels to delay Brexit again”. However, speaking to MPs earlier today, when asked about this directly, he said he would “uphold the constitution and obey the law”.
- All in all today’s developments will exacerbate the UK’s political crisis and fail to provide certainty as to the question of whether the UK will be leaving the EU on 31 October and if so under what terms – we may only secure greater clarity if and when the extension bill passes both houses of parliament and receives Royal Ascent before prorogation, and the Government will have to clarify its next steps.
What happens next?
- MPs will now debate and vote on the bill published yesterday by Brexit Select Committee chair Hilary Benn. The bill gives the Government time either to reach a new agreement with the EU ahead of the European Council summit on 17-18 October, or to seek Parliament’s specific consent to leave the EU without a deal.
- If neither of these two conditions have been met by 19th October, then the Prime Minister must send a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk requesting a three-month extension until 31st January 2020. If the EU offers a longer extension, the PM is bound to accept, although Parliament could reject it.
- If passed by the Commons in a single session tomorrow, the Bill will head to the House of Lords where it will also need to be passed. The Government hopes to be able to frustrate its passage there, with some 90 or so amendments already having been tabled in an attempt to deny it time. However, the bill’s supporters believe there are mechanisms that can be activated to block such attempts at filibustering and are prepared to sit over the weekend if necessary.
- The Government will also deliver its one-year spending review tomorrow. If it does not prove possible for Chancellor Sajid Javid to make the statement in person owing to the rebels’ control of the parliamentary agenda, he will do so via a written statement.
- Parliament is set to be prorogued (suspended) at some next week between Monday 9 September and Thursday 12 September ahead of returning on 14 October for the Queen’s Speech.