No playing by Queensberry Rules
The political establishment now faces a blunt choice of either crashing out of the EU or forming a national government, writes Eddie Ford.
With the Brexit clock ticking loudly, Jeremy Corbyn wrote last week to Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, complaining about what Boris Johnson seems to be proposing: refusing to resign if he loses a no-confidence motion and instead calling a general election after October 31 - probably in early November.
According to the Labour leader, this would be an “unprecedented, unconstitutional and anti-democratic abuse of power” and he went on to demand “urgent clarification” of the rules around so-called ‘purdah’, which are meant to prevent the government taking major policy decisions during an election campaign. Now Corbyn is proposing a no-confidence vote and relying on Tory, Lib Dem and SNP votes to form a “temporary government” to stop Boris Johnson’s a no-deal Brexit. He would be prime minister.
If you want an example of parliamentary cretinism, then Corbyn’s approach is hard to beat. Yes, what Johnson has in mind is undemocratic in the sense that it is explicitly going against the will of parliament. Then again, parliament did vote to trigger article 50 - Jeremy Corbyn himself was demanding back in June 2016 that it must be “invoked now” - and it did support extending the process to October 31. And, of course, Labour’s 2017 election manifesto did say the party “accepts the referendum result”. Furthermore, the government could argue with relative ease that leaving the European Union on October 31 would not be a “major policy” decision, as it has already been agreed by MPs and is set in law.
Therefore the idea that the prime minister is being “unconstitutional” is simply wrong: rather he is exploiting the voids and ambiguities in the Fixed-Term Parliament Act (FTPA). Do we expect Johnson to follow Queensberry Rules and step aside for the opposition like a gentleman? Maybe there will be a judicial review - more than 70 MPs and peers in Scotland have mounted a legal challenge against the proroguing of parliament - but the anti-Brexiteers appear to be running out of options: they lack the ideological cohesion, conviction and passion of the Brexiteer camp.
But, on the other side, Corbyn and his allies seem increasingly aware of what - as far as the establishment is concerned - is the only viable alternative to a crashout Brexit, which is opposed by an overwhelming majority in parliament and big business. That is, some sort of national government which begins by seeking yet another extension to article 50, which presumably will be agreed by the EU - if not, then things would get really hairy - and then, its various components stand, under a Stop A No Deal Brexit umbrella, in a general election. This centre bloc would hope to defeat Johnson’s Tories on the right and Corbyn’s Labour on the left. Whether the numbers are there for such a government is an entirely different matter, of course. But what is certain is that any cobbled-together alternative government within the 14-day ‘cooling off’ period laid down by the FTPA, which is the only way to get out of this Brexit hole, will not be led by Jeremy Corbyn - just forget it. If in doubt, ask those dissident Tories, Liberal Democrats or Labour rightwingers who might be prepared to bring down the Johnson government - they will never back such a move. In other words, all talk of a national government is not only about stopping Brexit: it is also about preventing a Corbyn-led Labour government.
In this context, the recent Channel 4 interview with Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary, was quite interesting. She said that “we wouldn’t countenance a national government of unity”, as that would “need to have a clear majority” in parliament. Otherwise Boris Johnson would get “some sort of ‘get out of jail free’ card”, because, “as soon as Brexit’s been sorted out, he can sail back in without any problems at all, without a sufficient parliamentary majority”.1 John McDonnell made similar - albeit a bit obfuscatory - remarks, when he said that any government formed if Boris Johnson is defeated in parliament “would be a Labour government” aimed at stopping a no-deal Brexit, because the party “wouldn’t enter into coalitions or pacts”.
Regarding Long-Bailey’s statement about a “clear majority”, a majority of one is actually all that is needed. Surely the real significance of Long-Bailey’s statement lies in the fact that Corbyn supporters in the Commons know that their own numbers do not add up to more than 20. They are a tiny minority within the PLP and, having done the wider arithmetic, they do not want anything to do with a SANDB national government ... precisely because it is also about stopping a Corbyn government.
Perhaps it is not entirely an accident that the Morning Star ran an editorial urging non-participation in a national government, as that would represent “the defeat of the socialist left” and “surrender of control of the Labour Party to the right” (August 6). Losing a “significant number of MPs, argues the paper, “would do less damage than meek participation in such a government”. We wholeheartedly agree with this statement - which is not something we often say about the Morning Star: there should be no support for, or participation in, a national government full stop.
Whether such a government would hold a second referendum is doubtful. Recent such polls have not done what they are supposed to do - ie, give overwhelming affirmation to the people asking the question. You only have to look at Scotland, which was a near-run thing, and then David Cameron’s disastrous decision to call a referendum in order to stave off his right wing, deal with a seemingly resurgent UK Independence Party and split the Labour Party - things did not go exactly to script, especially from the viewpoint of the establishment and big business. Considering the opinion polls and the economic downturn, plus the general political mood of the country, things do not look particularly auspicious for those who want to reverse Brexit - which, of course, is the only reason why the anti-Brexiteers want a second referendum or ‘final say’. They would not be so keen on the idea if they thought it would not go their way.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has cancelled holiday leave for all his ‘spads’ (special advisors) and has told civil servants that the main thing to concentrate on is the October 31 deadline - nothing else really matters. Anyone who thinks that some dramatic 11th-hour deal will be struck with the EU is clutching at straws. No meetings are lined up between Johnson and the EU and there is no movement on either side. It took years for May to negotiate her withdrawal agreement, so the idea that Johnson will get the backstop removed and strike a new deal before October 31 is unicorn thinking. In the real world, the EU will never agree to having an open border with a non-member country. It originally agreed the backstop as a concession to the British government, as that would mean two years or more where Britain essentially remains within the structures of the EU. But for Britain to leave the EU, become a foreign country, but still retain free movement with member-states, is a non-starter.
As we can see, Boris Johnson is not on the phone day and night to EU leaders, nor are his civil servants in Brussels engaged in intense negotiations. The writing is on the wall for a disorderly no deal on October 31 - unless the anti-Brexiteers get their act together and cohere around a common plan.
The establishment is now confronted by a blunt choice: either Britain crashes out of the EU on October 31 or the political establishment prevents it through the formation of a national government. This would include Tory remainers like Philip Hammond, the Liberal Democrats, Caroline Lucas of the Green Party and maybe the Scottish National Party - but also the PLP right. This might not add up to a thumping majority, but could be sufficient for the task in hand.
Who will lead this government? For whatever reason, the name ‘Keir Starmer’ keeps turning up in this context - along with Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn. But Hammond might be in the running too, particularly after he said on August 14 that no deal would be a “betrayal of the referendum” and any attempt to bypass parliament would provoke “a constitutional crisis”. But it has to be someone acceptable to all sides, making the most likely candidate less than obvious. The idea has even been floated of Caroline Lucas becoming acting prime minister - though she did herself no favours with her daft idea of forming an all-female emergency government (that was also all-white!).
With a general election coming soon, opinion polls are providing a mixed picture. Most have the Tories ahead, but not by much. Yes, there has been a ‘Boris bounce’ of sorts, as he has eaten into the support of the Brexit Party (which could be lumbered with an unfortunate name post-October 31). On the other hand, Labour is either narrowly ahead in a few other polls. It would be foolish to underestimate Jeremy Corbyn - his message of radical reform could resonate again, as it did in 2017.