John Gloster-Smith reviews the last few days and looks ahead to this week which could see a Parliamentary victory for Johnson on his negotiated deal. But this might merely be a battle won and not the war. 

Yet again the right wing Brexiteers have been frustrated in their attempts to take Britain out of the EU by the sheer fact of a lack of a majority and thus opposition in Parliament to their efforts. Boris Johnson’s goal has been to try to realise Brexit by 31 October in order to fulfil his promise in his earlier campaign to become leader of the Tories. This goal may also account for the very arbitrary and overly forceful way that he has proceeded and the resistance that that has engendered.

Prime Minister Johnson returned from Brussels brandishing a Brexit Deal Mark Two only to see it shot down on Saturday as MP’s realised that his attempt to “bounce” them into agreeing it masked a threat of a No Deal Brexit if, slightly further down the line, a Trade Agreement was not reached with the EU. A cross-party backbench alliance, which has been a hallmark of resistance to the Brexiteers, again came together in the “Letwin Amendment” against Johnson’s motion to approve the deal and to insist that approval not be given to the deal until the actual withdrawal legislation to enforce it be passed by Parliament.

They will now attempt to engineer a second debate next week, although there are procedural objections to trying again to push through the same motion twice. It is possible, as things stand, that Johnson could instead try to get through his Withdrawal Bill and treat that as approval for the deal.

Issues with the Johnson Deal

In his efforts to try to move fast Johnson has provoked rather than appeased resistance. As the contents of the deal have sunk in, in the short time available, it has become clear that his deal is, from a Remain perspective, worse than that of May’s version. Very briefly, it attempts to remove the “backstop” so detested by the Tory Right and the Protestant Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), but in its place has what one writer called a “full stop” of an effective customs barrier in the Irish Sea, thus in trade terms setting up internal barriers between Northern Ireland (NI) and the island of Britain. NI would for the time being remain in the EU customs and market system. This proved too much for the DUP who made the crucial difference by joining with the opposition to vote through the Letwin amendment.

The other key difference from May is that Johnson is aiming at a loser Free Trade Treaty with the EU rather than May’s much closer alignment with the customs union and Single Market. This again satisfies the Tory right’s dislike of what they saw as Britain’s continued “enslavement” to the EU. The government point blank refused to release an economic assessment to accompany the deal and thus one falls back on independent research, much disliked by populists. For example, the EU in a Changing Europe’s academic study revealed that the hit to GDP would be up to 7% in a decade, compared with 5.5% under May or 8.7% for a No Deal Brexit.

It is worth noting that Johnson had worked hard to assemble a coalition of support to get his deal approved and had lost due to the DUP’s change of sides. He had won over a number of previous moderate Tory rebels and Labour Leavers. It is still possible that, come next week, he might succeed in getting support for his Withdrawal Bill but only if the threat of a No Deal Brexit is removed, the key factor driving the Letwin Amendment. However, set against that is the concern about the more hard-line deal being proposed and dislike of the way Johnson is proceeding.

A Second Referendum

As Parliament was debating, outside there was another monster demonstration, of about 1 million people this time, by the People’s Vote campaign to bring about a referendum to approve the deal and remain in the EU.

Readers from outside the UK should be aware that at least half the voting population, according to research polling, do not support Brexit, although the margin of this lead is almost within the polling margin of error. This divide has been fairly consistent for a long time. It is a running sore in the whole Brexit debate that democracy in some form is at stake. This was both the contention of Leavers in demanding a referendum on EU membership and then insisting on “respecting” the result, and of Remainers who believe that “the people” should be consulted on the deal eventually agreed before it is implemented.

As Parliament has been deadlocked since Mrs May, arguably unwisely, followed up on the Brexit referendum vote of 2016 with a general election in 2017 which she lost, and left the governing Tories without a majority and kept in place by the DUP. The DUP have now voted against the government. Thus there is, and again arguably, no mandate to proceed to Brexit.

The Brexiteer dominated Tories have been resisting a second vote and so too have other MP’s, often for fear of the upheaval that it might entail. However a battle royal has raged within the Labour Party over supporting a second vote and the pro-Brexit leader, Corbyn, and his hard left clique have resisted. However, they are getting close to agreement to support a referendum.

Outside experts and experienced former politicians have also been advising that a referendum is advisable, on the grounds, in general, that Brexit is a single-issue matter. General elections are usually fought over a range of policy proposals and, while Brexit would almost certainly dominate, other factors can come into play, such as the perceived competence of leaders, the state of the economy, which party is more united (a tall order here!), performance in power, and key domestic issues like the NHS, education and law and order. A second referendum could help heal the rift caused by the first one, in effect a final decision, a “Final Say”.

Johnson has been working hard to win support in the country so as to engineer a general election if his deal is rejected, as a populist campaign of “the People versus the Politicians”. Hence his working up of domestic issues like those above and promises of money. Given the divided state of the Remain opposition, especially between the majority in Labour who are pro-remain, the LDP and the SNP, under the limitations of the British First Past the Post electoral system the Tories could still gain a comfortable governing stand-alone majority even on a vote of around 35%. This is of course subject to the now-customary health warnings around polling and the very volatile nature of today’s electorate. However it should be clear that a general election is far too risky, while a referendum has its attractions, if enough MPs can be won round. Interestingly, the move towards a consensus is increasing as this article is in preparation, with a Labour suggestion to make approval of Johnson’s deal subject to a “People’s Vote”.

The politics of the populist challenge to representative democracy

People listening to the debates on Saturday would have heard repeated references to “respecting” the 2016 referendum result, as well as those arguing for the right to have second thoughts, and the Tory Brexiteers made it very clear that the “verdict of the people” should come first. Thus the argument over democratic legitimacy continues. Populists advocate that “the will of the people” must triumph over the Westminster “elite”, even if their leaders are from this elite. The Brexiteers have claimed a right to proceed that can even at times look potentially illegal and undemocratic.

Thus Johnson’s tactics have arguably not served him well and have hardened resistance. Trust in his leadership is low. A particular bone of contention was his attempt to close down Parliament through a lengthy prorogation between 10 and 24 September, ruled unlawful in a major Supreme Court ruling in favour of Parliamentary Sovereignty as against the Royal Prerogative as exercised by Johnson, on 24 September.

Johnson has proceeded by the use of threats, with Parliament, the EU and Ireland, but arguably resistance has stiffened. However, it could also, perversely, be working since the deal he negotiated has changed the atmosphere and there is an increased willingness by some opposing MPs to agree his deal in order to bring this phase to a close.

However, it should also be clear that agreement to the Johnson deal by Parliament and the EU would not be the end of this incredibly divisive and damaging issue. Arguments would continue over the exact nature of the Free Trade Treaty and this could take many years. Also, the Brexit crisis looks to be pulling the UK apart and independence movements have been encouraged and seen a big increase in support. Thus 2020 could well see another Scottish referendum and possible independence. The Johnson deal could also increase interest in NI in union with the South. In both countries however there is a lot of potential resistance, nationalists may not find the process easy and Unionist resistance there may stiffen. There is also the question of that half of the UK who very strongly do not wish to leave the EU and where that powerful opposition will go if the vote is to leave.

Brexit continues to pose huge issues for the British state and for its role in Europe and whether it finally votes to properly leave or not, this will very likely not be the end of the matter.

John Gloster-Smith
John Gloster-Smith is a graduate of Oxford University, a former Director of History and Politics at Mill Hill School, London, and a facilitator and coach in professional and personal development, working often at the heart of UK government. He is now largely retired, lives in South-west France and writes on politics and personal development. John's personal blog is https://johngspoliticsblog.org/about/

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    1 Comment

    1. I was working to the actual dates during which Parliament was suspended, which were from 10 to 24 September, rather than what Johnson had ordained. The Supreme Court on 24 September declared it null and void, so that there was in legal terms no prorogation, the “blank piece of paper”, if one can get one’s head round that one! I’d prefer to stick to what actually happened. I can of course see that the Johnson intention was a 5 week prorogation, which of course was far worse from Parliament’s point of view had it happened. See https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_British_prorogation_controversy

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