Is Britain heading for a people versus politicians conflict? John Gloster-Smith writes that a potentially upcoming general general election could be fought on the basis of dividing the country instead of uniting it and the impact could be long lasting and severely damaging whatever the outcome.
It was disturbing to read reports over the weekend that under the advice of the master of the dark arts SPAD* Dominic Cummings at No. 10, the Johnson regime is planning to allow a No Deal Brexit to occur under the default principle inherent in the Article 50 process and to hold a “People versus the Politicians” general election soon after to secure a majority and elective legitimacy for his regime. In so doing, Johnson is playing fast and loose with the principles of the British constitution and revealing an arbitrariness that is dangerous. Thus is the mandate allegedly secured for Brexit in the referendum of 2016 allowed to override Parliamentary democracy as populists suggest and despite failing to win the 2017 general election to carry Brexit through to completion. Britain is facing a grim crisis that could tear it apart, with a dictat imposed by these means that one half of the country will not accept. This is no basis for sound and stable democratic government.
How can No Deal Brexit be forced through?
As reported in the press, Cummings, the No. 10 chief special advisor to PM Johnson, believes that there is now not enough time for Parliament to prevent Johnson taking Britain out of the EU on 31 October on a No Deal basis, with the massive disruption and economic hit anticipated.
Parliament has on several occasions rejected a No Deal Brexit but has so far failed to pass legislation to prevent it. It insists on the right to consent to such a measure, consistent with the principle agreed to by PM May that Parliament would be able to have a “meaningful” vote on a Brexit deal. Government advisors and outside obervers have said that, without such a deal, Britain can leave by default at the expiry of the withdrawal process, now 31 October 2019, as stated in Article 50.
To prevent this happening and to be able to vote on No Deal Brexit, there is now very little time left. Parliament reassembles after the summer break in early September and it would need to either seize control of business and legislate or pass a Vote of No Confidence (VNC) to attempt to bring down the government.
Johnson now has a wafer-thin majority of one, and that is with the support of the Northern Irish DUP. Several moderate Tory MPs, including recently departed ministers, have indicated that they are likely to oppose No Deal, and there may be enough Tory rebels to outnumber Labour and independent rebels and carry a VNC. It is however a big ask for a Tory to bring down his or her own government, given their deep sense of party loyalty.
Johnson could then if defeated on a VNC, Cummings and others argue, under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) have the right to name a date for a general election, and that date could be after the 31 October deadline.
A No. 10 official reported, “Someone put Grieve’s idea to Cummings on Friday that if we lose a vote of no confidence the PM will have to resign — he spat his drink out laughing,” he said. “The idea we will hand over to a new government rather than leave with an election after October 31 is laughable.” It was said that Parliamentary opponents have underestimated Johnson’s determination to leave on 31 October “by all means necessary“.
The official went on to say, the FT reported, that “I think the Vote Leave people in here will do literally anything to win. Cummings is already planning the Facebook campaign for a ‘people versus the politicians’ election,” the person said. “He’s told this building: if [Jeremy] Corbyn sides with [Dominic] Grieve then he can force an election but the election will destroy the Corbyn project and the Labour party without even stopping Brexit. That’s the choice the Corbyn team have to face shortly.”
The chilling prospect of an effective coup against Parliamentary Sovereignty
Just to read the above account is a chilling prospect of an allegedly democratic movement using anti-democratic means – “all means necessary” is Cummings’ brief – to achieve their goal of a No Deal Brexit, an agenda not discussed in 2016 and which has been voted down several times in Parliament but is likely to be imposed upon Britain.
This would cut across the very principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty which is taken to be the cornerstone of the British unwritten constitution. It is unwritten precisely because it relies upon a whole set of conventions, laws and manuals to operate and has so far worked since the Stuart era of constitutional conflict due to the willingness of participants to abide by the “rules of the game”. This is now breaking down.
Grieve and his allies in Parliament disagree with the above version of Cummings and others and assert that Parliament has devices available to prevent this arbitrary behaviour. Observers believe that one possible route is via a VNC and the formation of a National Unity coalition government, without a general election under the FTPA, which could operate before the 31 October deadline and prevent No Deal Brexit. However they will need to act fast in early September.
Also waiting in the wings is a possible use of prorogation of Parliament, also to prevent a VNC and a halt to Brexit. This is even more controversial and is already the subject of litigation.
Contemplating consequential breakdown
The objective of Brexit “by all means necessary” has become such an article of faith for hard right Tories that it overrides detailed, practical planning for how the policy will work out in practice. It is like a religion, with blind faith. Thus how it would be managed after Brexit is not clear at all, except that planning for managing large-scale disruption is taking place but is anticipated to be by no means complete in time. Government official papers are warning of an economic crash and the possibility of food and medicine shortages, the breakdown of order and civil disobedience.
It is not only chilling but probably a practical lunacy. One just needs to contemplate what could occur upon a No Deal Brexit. Many consider that it would be seen as a coup against Parliamentary Sovereignty by a regime that has not secured endorsement of this policy via a general election in advance. Instead they claim the rival and disputed legitimacy of the 2016 referendum. One might imagine that there would indeed be civil resistance if the regime took this course of action, as well as the break up of the UK.
Another “Glorious Revolution”?
The very fact that this discussion is taking place in high places shows how serious the situation has become and how much in peril is our democracy. Brexiters are attempting a revolution, one with a radical right wing hidden agenda, but they might provoke a counter-revolution in the name of democracy, perhaps with foreign assistance as occurs in civil war situations.
We’ve been here before. In 1688, the Stuart James II attempted arbitrary rule and was ejected with Dutch assistance in the Glorious Revolution that affirmed the rule of law and constitutional practice, limiting the power of the monarchy. Perhaps another Glorious Revolution is needed today, in the interests of the whole of the British Isles this time.
*A SPAD is a ministerial special advisor, a political appointment, not an elected official and not a member of the Civil Service.