The political environment becomes ever more unedifying and inauspicious. Last week Boris Johnson confirmed his intention for the UK to leave the EU on 31 October: “do or die”.
So did Jeremy Hunt: that is, unless a deal was in sight at the start of October, in which case he would allow ‘a few days grace’ beyond the 31st, before pulling the plug on UK membership. Earlier, he had, when pitching to Conservative MPs rather than to the membership, advocated the pursuit of a negotiated deal, unbound by such a fixed unrealistic deadline.
Both these contenders not only for the leadership of the Conservative party but for the Prime Minister-ship of the United Kingdom, also confirmed that they were willing for people working in the trading sector of the economy to lose their jobs and livelihoods as a result of such a No deal exit.
Why? Ostensibly to discharge the democratic mandate of the 2016 vote, but in practice to win the most votes from a rump electorate of around 160,000 mainly elderly and well-off Conservative party members, in the process normalising and sanitising No deal outcome within not only the Conservative Party, but much of the mainstream media.
The capacity and willingness of this Parliament to prevent No deal appears to have receded in step.
According to John McDonnell, the remaining “mechanisms in terms of formal procedure” to do so have become ‘difficult to spot’, while Nick Boles, who last spring resigned the Conservative whip over Brexit, at an Institute of Government seminar early this month advised that the means and the numbers ‘might not be there’, going on to warn that the country might have to ‘eat the pudding’ of a No deal Brexit to understand its consequences, before pivoting towards EEA membership.
Although Conservative MPs, such as Sam Gyimah, suggest that around 30 MP’s like them will vote to prevent No deal, and current Cabinet heavyweights, Philip Hammond and David Gauke, argue that ‘ a way will be found’ to do so, by what parliamentary mechanism remains unclear, however. Gauke, himself, conceded on this week’s Andrew Marr Show that it will rely upon the Speaker innovating such an historic opportunity to block legislation coming into force at the last moment, against the wishes of the executive.
Although both Johnson and Hunt have said that they would prefer a negotiated deal in preference to No deal, the EU will not agree to remove the NI backstop from the November 2018 Withdrawal Agreement (May Deal), or to time-limit it, or to render it redundant through the agreement of ‘alternative arrangements’, at least in a legally certain way by the beginning of October.
Slightly more conceivable is a fudged last moment deal made with an EU anxious to avoid the economic consequences of No deal impacting on their side of the Channel. It would be one largely dependent on semantics to cloak the Brexit Trilemma: May deal re-wrapped with, perhaps, some baubles added.
But even if the new Conservative leader – almost certain Johnson – flipped-flopped on their avowed campaign rejection of any iteration of May deal, losing their credibility in the processand right at the beginning of their premiership, a May Mark 2 or Johnson deal could not win the combination of ERG hardcore support and Labour whipped support for it to pass this Parliament.
A pared-down May deal would not attract whipped Labour support. It would need to include an equivalent Customs Union(CU); continuing regulatory alignment for goods; workers’ and environmental standards; and came attached with a commitment to a ‘confirmatory vote’ – anathema to most Conservative and some Labour MPs.
What about the official Opposition? Its current position that it ‘respects the 2016 referendum decision’ with any deal subject to another ‘confirmatory vote’, will remain meaningless: unless this Parliament votes for both a deal and a ‘confirmatory vote’ on it, which, as noted above, is unlikely in the extreme.
Even hard-headed Labour Remainer MPs, such as Hilary Benn, who indicated in a Newsnight I July interview that not only would Parliament not allow a No deal exit, but could require a public vote between a revised May deal and Remain, at the end of October, seem now to rely on wishful, not considered, thinking.
The Labour leadership will almost certainly bend to irresistible pressure at its forthcoming September conference to adopt a ‘Referendum and Remain’ position, if not before.
But that would allow the new Conservative PM to paint Labour as the party that all along wanted to reverse the ‘will of the people’, as expressed in the 2016 referendum, and risk alienating its Brexit-supporting voters as well as a segment of its own MPs representing Brexit-voting constituencies; given the lack of a majority for a second referendum in this Parliament, it could make a UK no deal exit more likely than less, making its prevention reliant on a general election (GE) interruption.
The electorate would probably recoil from the prospect of a referendum coming hot on the heels of a GE. It also would make little or no sense for the party to campaign on a Remain and Referendum (with the latter the means to secure the former) platform, and subsequently securing a working majority, then attempt to negotiate a revised deal with Brussels, simply to present that as the alternative choice to Remain.
Any change in its Brexit position really needs hitching to a political narrative that emphasises Labour’s efforts to secure a parliamentary compromise, the absolute priority now to avoid No deal in the here and now, and not a belated conversion to the Remain cause in pure principle.
Revocation of Article 50 offers a more consistent Brexit policy platform, but comes attached with even more political and electoral risk.
How likely is an autumn general election? The current parliamentary session is due to end on 25th July, assuming that the newly elected Conservative leader, following his election by his party’s membership, is invited to form a government by the Queen on the recommendation of Mrs May, and that Labour immediately does not table and win a no confidence motion in the new government.
Such a vote, before the new PM is given a chance to put their campaign words into action by negotiating and bringing back a revised deal to Parliament in October, is less likely to succeed than one tabled when No deal is imminent without parliamentary intervention.
On the other hand, leaving it to the wire well into October, will prolong uncertainty and wasteful expenditures on No deal preparations with its attendant high cost to economy and society, and, as above, would risk the UK falling over the No deal cliff at the end of that month.
Only a handful of Conservatives need to vote with Corbyn to precipitate a government defeat; three have already joined Change UK, and Nick Boles has resigned the whip and become independent: others, including former Cabinet Ministers, Kenneth Clark and Dominic Grieve, when confirming their commitment to oppose No deal, have not ruled that possibility out.
Yet it would be a huge step, however, for them to sign-off their long careers by torpedoing their own party out of government. In truth, estimating the numbers is simply staring into a contingent crystal ball.
A more likely scenario is that a group of current Cabinet Ministers, including David Gauke, Philip Hammond, and David Lidlington – all of whom have been consistently steadfast in their opposition to No deal – pitched out of power by the new PM, and, perhaps, supported by ex.PM Theresa May, will add their not inconsiderable heft to Conservative MP pressure on the new PM to pivot towards a negotiated deal.
Of these, David Gauke has already confirmed that he would not vote against his own government (in a confidence vote), and there is little or no reason to suppose that either Lidlington or Hammond would do either. Some former junior ministers, such as Sam Gyimah and Dr Phillip Lee, might take up the threat on their behalf, even if for only tactical reasons, noting that a Labour no confidence motion, even if passed, under the Fixed Term Act would not immediately result in a GE, but only after a 14 day grace period if no alternative government was approved by the Commons.
This could give some possible scope for the new PM to backtrack from his commitment to No deal, on the basis that it had been adopted to primarily to ’stare down’ Brussels and to get the ‘best deal for Britain’ in response to democratic pressure within the country.
Both Gyimah and Lee, however, resigned, like Jo Johnson, Boris’s brother, from Mrs May’s government to support a second referendum and against May’s deal. It is that, in a likely diluted form and with a political declaration this time tilted towards a Canada-style free trade agreement , would be on offer, which would not secure whipped Labour support; because it would retain the NI backstop and involve an extended transition period it is also unlikely to carry the Tory ERG faction either. Back round the circle, then.
Even if Parliament was accorded the means to vote against No deal and simply did that alone, that vote would not determine what happened next. A negotiated deal would take us into 2020, if the EU, under its new management, was willing to grant a further extension, without a GE or a referendum called, allowing another circuit of the UK Brexit circle with no necessary end in sight. This, is far from certain, to say the least.
A parliamentary vote in favour of a second referendum on a binary choice between Remain and No deal, or as an amendment to a motion proscribing No deal, if allowed, would offer the most logical – albeit dangerous way, to escape the deadlock, but the means and numbers for that are not currently there, as Conservative and Labour opponents of No deal are deeply divided on how to avoid it.
That will need to change by October. Committed Conservative opponents of No deal will have to agree a common line with themselves and with Labour to succeed; and vice versa.
Otherwise both will be reliant on Boris Johnson seeking and obtaining parliamentary approval of a GE to secure a mandate for No deal, which would not only split the Conservative parliamentary party, but be uncertain in outcome.
The Labour leadership, wishing to rid itself of the Brexit albatross sitting on its socialist transformational agenda, could – at least on a Trotskyist reading – be content for No deal under the watch of Johnson to happen, whatever the official policy might proclaim, and wait – in Nick Boles words – for the pudding to be eaten to its subsequent electoral advantage, but the economic and political consequences on the UK economy and Union can only be expected to prove calamitous.