Johnson concocted his game plan with Dominic Cummings – his Svengali-like adviser – in August: prorogue parliament for five weeks until 14 October, squeeze the time available for MPs to prevent a 31st October No deal EU exit, then a ‘Brexit done’ election before the economic and social impacts of a No deal exit were fully felt or exposed.
If his opponents in the Commons finally found the wherewithal and unity to legislate for an extension beyond the 31 October, the Plan B was to engineer an October election on a populist platform that parliament, by cutting the ground under the feet of his government’s negotiating position, had ‘surrendered’ to the European Union (EU) and ‘betrayed’ the ‘people’s’ 2016 referendum decision.
But before the first week of September was out, six Commons defeats in six days shredded that twin-track strategy.
The opposition parties, contrary to expectation, successfully and effectively combined with 21 resolute Conservative rebel MPs – who lost the party whip for their pains – to take control of the Order Paper to allow parliament to legislate an extension to Johnson’s ‘do or die’ Brexit 31st October exit date, and to reject his motion for an election to take place before the next and crucial 17 October EU Summit.
Unless the House of Commons approves (and the Lords takes note) by the 19 October of either (a) a Withdrawal Agreement (WA) deal with any changes to the accompanying political declaration or (b) a No deal exit, the European Union (Withdrawal) (No.2) Act 2019 (the Benn Act) requires the government to seek an extension to 31 January 2020 from the EU.
Johnson declared a preference to ‘die in a ditch’ than do that. He continued to proclaim with cabinet colleagues into October that the government would, come what may, exit on 31 October while ‘observing the law’ to ‘get Brexit done’, without explaining how his government could do both without a deal.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on the 23 September that the proroguing of parliament by Johnson was null and void ‘as it never had happened’ on the core constitutional ground that it prevented parliament exercising its central role in our democracy to hold the government executive to account – something likely to recorded as a constitutional landmark for decades, if not centuries, ahead.
By the time his party conference had convened in Manchester, Johnson had unmistakably put a Trumpian-populist stamp on the Conservative Party, sacrificing and subordinating policy, values, and convention to the single purpose of getting Brexit done, regardless of its consequence or consistency, undermining the same institutions that Brexit was to restore sovereignty to.
Yet polling indications strongly suggest that Johnson’s reckless and divisive actions could still be rewarded with electoral victory, as were Trump’s in the US; one early in September gave Labour a puny 21% share of the vote; almost incomprehensible for an opposition facing such an incompetent and divided government, flouting established constitutional norms and conventions in an unprecedented – even revolutionary – way.
Sure, such polls taken in isolation are to taken with a pinch of salt as a guide to future voting in an actual general election.
Labour is banking on a similar bounce that it achieved in 2017 in the face of unpromising prior polling.
That said, an aggregated Poll of Polls time series produced by Politico starkly shows an unmistakable post-April trend of a Labour party led in opposition by a leader unprecedented in his unpopularity with the wider electorate, losing vote share to the Conservatives and a resurgent Liberal Democrats (LD).
In short, Labour remains stuck between the rock of a majority Remain party membership and the hard place of not alienating Brexit-supporting voters in many marginal constituencies, concentrated in, but not confined to the north and midlands.
Labour campaigning for Remain, attached with a logical commitment to revoke Article 50, risks failing to engage with voters who prefer a negotiated deal in preference to No deal, or to another referendum, or to revocation: quite possibly the silent majority who simply want Brexit washed out of their hair.
That a new Labour government would alternatively negotiate with Brussels to secure the best available Brexit deal for the UK but then campaign for its rejection in a promised subsequent referendum, however, comes across as faintly ludicrous.
A significant segment of the population supporting Brexit is likely to treat any such referendum as rigged, risking future and lasting damaging political and social effect.
Seeking to straddle that divide, Jeremy Corbyn resisted not only demands from his deputy Tom Watson and some erstwhile shadow cabinet supporters for a referendum to take place before the next election, but strong and growing grassroots pressure to morph further into a commitment for the party to campaign to Remain in a soon-expected election.
The party conference began inauspiciously with the architect of the party’s successful 2017 manifesto, Andrew Fisher, announcing his resignation, his letter shedding doubt on Labour’ electoral prospects and the ‘professionalism’ and ‘human decency’ to boot of his leader’s inner team.
But in the end, Corbyn succeeded in securing a narrow (and disputed) Conference decision for Labour electoral neutrality, but only after some old-fashioned backroom machinations and after making it, in effect, a personal confidence vote that alienated some of his bedrock Momentum support-base.
Labour was fortunate that the Supreme Court landmark decision distracted attention from its own Brexit discord and perhaps from some of its more half-formed policy decisions, such as ‘abolishing’ private schools and ‘expropriating’ their assets, that appeared to appeal to the party’s own populist gallery than demonstrating a carefully thought transformative programme – whether ‘socialist’ or ‘social democratic’ in preferred label – in practice capable of commanding the sustainable wider majority support that effective and lasting execution requires.
Most seriously and ominously, in the short-term, the party in general continues to lack a convincing fit-for-purpose unified Brexit narrative that can withstand the heat in and scrutiny of a general election, during which opponents will inevitably highlight previous claims ‘to respect the 2016 referendum’ as hollow and dishonest.
Indeed, the victories won in Parliament won during the first week in September risk proving Pyrrhic in electoral terms for remainers generally and for Labour especially, as indicated by the polling indications outlined above.
Some greater stirrings are reported of cross-party support to put in place subsequent to an October no confidence vote in Johnson’s government, a Jeremy Corbyn-led caretaker government with the remit simply to ensure an extension, which, once achieved would be followed by a November election with uncertain result.
Although the SNP are reported to have warmed to the prospect, the LD are most unlikely to want to make Corbyn prime minister – even for barely a month – unless it was the only possible – albeit messy and amenable to accident – means to avoid No deal.
Given that the Benn Act – despite Johnson’s bluster – is considered watertight by most experts, and is now underscored by the SC judgement, it is not.
Corbyn would probably be right to continue his cautious and maligned wait and see strategy to leave Johnson to come back empty-handed from the EU or with a negotiated deal that will inevitably be at odds with the ‘clean Brexit’ that the parliamentary Conservative hard-Brexiteers – many of whom act as a party within a party within the European Reform Group (ERG) – and the party members that propelled him to the premiership back in the summer, demanded and expected him to deliver.
Johnson can now safely ignore the party members who voted him into the leadership and effectively the prime ministership, but withdrawing the whip from hardcore ERG members is likely to shatter his party into fragments, providing manna from heaven for a Brexit party waiting in the wings to take votes and even seats off the Conservatives on a single issue Brexit betrayed’ platform.
As The Brexit Swamp Deepens and previous posts, explained, the EU will not remove the WA backstop unless Johnson reverted to the original EU proposal to create a single island of Ireland economic zone protected by a regulatory and customs border in the Irish Sea between it and Great Britain, once the transitional (implementation) period contained within the WA ended in December 2020.
Johnson appears to have realised the need to persuade the Democratic Union Party (DUP) and the ERG likewise to pivot towards it.
But even if Johnson could bring back a WA sufficiently re-packaged to get some of the Conservative rebels to support him in the lobbies along with DUP and ERG support (an unlikely but possible combination), he is unlikely to secure a parliamentary majority, unless he attracted sufficient Labour MPs representing Leave areas to support, in effect, a deal less close to their party’s requirements than his predecessor’s.
An alternative way to seek a parliamentary majority would be for his government to pivot towards a continuing Customs Union (CU,) and a large measure of regulatory alignment, certainly across environmental and social standards, with the EU.
That would be more in line with the final iteration of the May Deal that she would have likely to have offered had she not been forced out of the leadership, but anathema to the ERG, and contrary to the commitments Johnson has made as prime minister, let alone as leadership candidate. A technical extension at least to Johnson’s ‘do or die’ 31 October deadline would also be required.
Finally, but not least, it would need whipped Labour support to pass the Commons, which would not be forthcoming without a delaying ‘confirmatory’ referendum, whatever that might mean.
Whatever the new twists and turns that October will inevitably bring, the current parliament cannot break the continuing Brexit deadlock, unless MPs agree either a negotiated deal or another referendum. The chances of both appear next to nil.
The Benn Act, especially since the Supreme Court judgment underscored the illegality of the executive attempting to run counter of the expressed intention of an Act, should prevent a No deal exit, although the opposition parties should prepare for every eventuality, including Johnson resigning late into October as a way to secure a No deal exit by ‘accident’.
It cannot and does not, however, lay out a roadmap to a negotiated deal or, indeed, any way out of the Brexit deadlock.
Parliament is not in accord with the government executive; unless both compromise, a new Commons has to be elected to produce a government with an effective working majority to implement its chosen Brexit path – but that is an outcome far from certain with a 2019/2020 election.
Another hung parliament appears a more likely scenario than either an outright Conservative or Labour victory, but who knows.
What is more certain, however, is that for Labour to maximise its electoral chances, it needs to unite around what was decided, if not agreed, at its conference, and focus attention that a Labour negotiated exit would best protect the Union, the continuing frictionless trade with its largest trading partner and thus the manufacturing supply chains that many northern and midland towns rely on, pointing out that the future economic and social prospects of the families of ‘the many’, as well as their patriotic instincts, are best served by continuing close links with Europe, not the chimera of trade deals requiring the UK to shed much more sovereignty for much less economic benefit.
It should also integrate that Brexit message to its domestic policy agenda, exposing the superficiality and dishonesty of the Conservative slogans on investing more in infrastructure, and core public services, by linking a coherent and inclusive vision to radical, but prioritised and thought-through supporting policy programmes, not ‘goody-bag’ giveaways that the electorate is likely to view in a similar cynical and opportunistic light to that of its opponents.