Trying to keep up is almost impossible but John Gloster-Smith breaks down the last week of twists and turns in the latest instalment of the Brexit crisis.
This week has been powerfully dramatic, with cliff-hanger votes in Parliament, the government taken to court by activists, demonstrations about democracy in danger, threats to act unconstitutionally by the Prime Minister, MPs being thrown out of the Tory party, an opposition Parliamentary alliance in the face of an arbitrary, undemocratic executive, and the government’s loss of its majority. The Brexit crisis is now seriously impacting the very heart of the British system of government. Where will this lead?
A bill passes Parliament to prevent a No Deal Brexit on 31 October
The House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament, in an emergency debate on 3 September passed a motion to take control of business the next day to introduce a backbench bill, known as the Benn bill after its sponsor Hilary Benn, to prevent a No Deal Brexit on 31 October and until the end of January 2020. It followed the same format as used by Letwin and Cooper earlier in the year for similar reasons. What was very unusual was the use of an emergency debate for this. Such debates are usually just that but such was the urgency of the crisis, and the level of distrust of the Government, that the Speaker allowed the debate to pass a business motion. The bill then passed both the Commons and Lords by the 6th and goes for the royal assent on Monday next.
Such innovation by the House is strongly suggestive of the need for Parliament to take on powers to protect itself from the abuse of power by Prime Minister (PM) Johnson. However they are not out of the woods yet since the PM has suggested that he might refuse to do as the bill orders, to seek an extension for Brexit to the end of January 2020. Lawyers are being briefed to potentially take the government to court for a failure to respect the rule of law.
The constitutional crisis continues
As has been made clear in this blog already, the Brexit crisis is now a constitutional crisis. The PM’s prorogation of Parliament is being challenged in the courts, who have so far found in favour of the government, that the PM’s action is a matter of “high politics” but is not strictly illegal. The appeals may or may not produce a different result. It should be said that the courts are traditionally reluctant to rule on constitutional matters and prefer to leave the issue for Parliament and the electorate to resolve. Britain has no written constitution or constitutional court. However what is clear is that the PM has been breaking conventions, which are taken as part of Britain’s unwritten constitution. What we have in this case is a questioning of the use of the royal prerogative by the PM.
There is a sense that this government in its headlong pursuit of Brexit “by any means necessary”, as his chief of staff Cummings says, is stretching constitutional propriety to breaking point and that Parliament is now responding by assuming powers itself.
Pressure to call an election
Johnson’s tactics are clearly to provoke Parliament into agreeing to an early general election. Under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, he would need a two thirds majority to obtain an election. In a vote on 4 September, he failed to get enough support and while he will try again on the 9th, it so far seems clear that he won’t get the numbers. The opposition have seen through his tactics and realised the trap of an early election, that Johnson could name a date for after a No Deal Brexit and are insisting both that the Benn bill gets the royal assent and that he obtains an EU extension. Only then might they agree to an election.
However, an election is obviously on the cards. Johnson now has firmly and completely lost his majority and a new government configuration is desirable, Brexit or not.
Tory party split
The loss of his majority came before the business motion on Tuesday when Philip Lee “crossed the House” and joined the LDP, right in the middle of Johnson’s speech. When 21 fellow Tories voted in favour of the Benn bill, they summarily “had the whip removed”, ie were expelled from the party. These included several high profile former ministers, including two ex-Chancellors of the Exchequer. While some then announced that would not stand in the next election, several have hinted at running for Parliament. Other MPs have subsequently announced their intended departure, including Johnson’s own brother, Jo Johnson, who resigned as a minister.
This is a serious split between the moderate “One Nation” Cameron-ite wing of the party and the now-dominant Vote Leave faction who now control the government. The assumption of power by Johnson has all the hallmarks of a palace revolution by the hard right. No wonder it is being perceived as a coup.
This split is dangerous for the Tories and a huge gamble. Divided parties often lose elections. What seems to be happening is that the Tories are in the process of losing their liberal wing and thus becoming less of a governing “broad church” or, in intra-party terms, a “coalition” of different views that is capable of winning a cross-section of votes in the country. Johnson is toxic in Scotland and when Ruth Davidson resigned as the Scottish Tory leader, a very popular moderate and anti-Brexit champion, it has looked likely that all 13 Scottish Tory seats will fall to the SNP. Moreover, there is now a risk that southern English Remain-supporting Tory seats might fall to the LDP or Labour. Thus several MPs who indicated they were stepping down are in such seats, such as Justine Greening in Putney. It is thought likely that the example of Canterbury which was lost in the 2017 election could be followed in a number of southern seats.
The Tories are obviously hoping to pick up some Labour Leave-voting northern seats but this might not work if traditional northern tribalism holds.
A general election is very unpredictable
Prediction in this crisis is fraught with danger. Lots of such predictions have been proved disastrously wrong, starting with the widespread assumption that Remain would win in 2016 or that May would win in 2017. There is an old expression, “a week is a long time in politics” which is attributed to PM Harold Wilson. Things can change fast and the pendulum can suddenly shift the other way
Thus although the Tories have a poll lead of between 5 and 12% in what is now a very volatile electorate, it is by no means certain that they could pull off a win in a general election. The poll analysis website electoralcalculus.co.uk considers that the Tories should win comfortably, and yet other analyses points to a hung Parliament but with a different complexion. One predicts a more united and right wing Tory party, another analysis points to an LDP surge at Tory expense and also the Brexit Party eating into Tory votes.
This is where the delay being pushed by the opposition could be crucial. If they succeed, as at present it seems likely, in delaying past the Johnson promised Brexit date of 31 October, Johnson would have failed on a crucial promise and thus galvanise Farage’s troops to take Tory votes.
The caveat must be that this election, if and when it happens, is very, very unpredictable. Nobody can for sure tell what the reaction will be amongst a general population that is very tired of Brexit and, unlike the fevered relations amongst the politically mobilised minority, dangerously unconcerned about the issues around Brexit and very impatient with politicians in general. Johnson might succeed in galvanising the Leave vote and take advantage of the split Remain and win comfortably on a one-third minority of the vote under the FPTP system. However, there might also be a backlash against the government for perceived incompetence, especially as many pressing domestic issues have not been addressed, pushed aside by Brexit.
To present the election, if it happens, as a “People versus the Politicians” contest to sweep up populist support might run the risk of being diverted over a campaign into other, weaker areas for the Tories. This happened famously for Ted Heath in 1974 when he went to the country on a “Who Governs?” ticket, the unions or the Tories, and lost.
Johnson’s star might be fading
There was a sense this week that the Johnson bubble might have burst, that he was boxed in by the constraints of the situation. He can’t get his early election and thus, so far, exploit his “Boris bounce” in the polls and steer Britain into a No Deal Brexit during the campaign, and he has to, legally, apply for an extension to Brexit and thus can’t fulfil his promise.
Some feel that he might have to resign and hand the poisoned chalice on to Corbyn. The latter has offered to lead a temporary government to hold a general lection and then a second referendum on Brexit.
This crisis may continue to run and run, and then it might be resolved sooner than many expect. After all, a week is truly a long time in politics.