Boris Johnson has racked up a new record by losing yet another major vote in parliament on Monday evening, over his second bid to dissolve parliament and hold an early general election on October 15. This marked the sixth vote the Prime Minister has lost in his time in office and a big win for Opposition MPs and Rebel Tories who have organized a serious of spectacular victories in votes against the government. With parliament now suspended until mid-October, there are no more immediate opportunities for MPs to collapse the government or force Johnson’s hand further on Brexit and an October election has completely been ruled out, making the earliest date the election could be called on November 21, way ahead of the current Brexit deadline.
Also on Monday evening, the Queen gave royal assent to a bill by MPs which requires the government to do one of two things; either reach a new deal with the EU or get Parliament’s approval for a no-deal by October 19. If Johnson fails to get either of those things, the Benn bill requires the Prime Minister to request an extension from the EU, with the bill suggesting that the new deadline becomes January 2020. To get around that, Johnson proposed a general election in the hopes that he can win a majority and legally get around the Benn bill, however, as aforementioned, MPs rejected his calls twice.
This puts the PM in a sticky situation as he is unlikely to reach a withdrawal agreement that can pass with the 27 EU leaders who have warned that talks are paralyzed, or persuade Parliament to accept a no-deal by October 19, and he has explicitly ruled out asking an extension, saying he would rather be “dead in a ditch.”
There are therefore few routes left for the PM and the fate of Brexit truly hangs in the balance.
Since becoming PM, Boris has been eager to keep no-deal Brexit firmly on the negotiating table. His strategy with the EU has been to remove or tweak the backstop - an insurance policy to ensure there is no hard border with Ireland – while showing the bloc that he is serious about leaving on October 31 potentially without a deal. There are now growing indications that the PM’s efforts are focused on a Northern-Ireland only backstop – a combined agri-foods regime with Ireland appears to be where talks are going. Such an outcome would put some sort of border in the Irish Sea. But Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster has branded such a deal as “unacceptable.”
Despite Johnson assuring this week that “there is a way” a new Brexit deal, the reality is, negotiations are not going anywhere fast. At the G7 meeting of world leaders last month, the British PM had promised EU Council President Donald Tusk he would deliver a new set of proposals soon. But at the first of a series of twice-weekly sessions with UK negotiators last week, EU diplomats and officials said that the UK did not put forward any of the "concrete" ideas they had been promised. And with Johnson losing his working parliamentary majority last week when a Conservative MP dramatically defected at the start of his speech after the summer recess, and Johnson then further undermining his position by firing 21 rebel Conservatives who voted in support of the bill to prevent no-deal, there is a sense among EU member states that negotiating with Johnson has become increasingly futile.
Assuming no new Brexit deal emerges out of the next EU council on October 17, the options left for Johnson are few and unappealing.
Test the law to the limits -
Johnson’s point-blank refusal to ask Brussels for an extension means that he will not give up his Brexit deadline without a fight, and his opponents in parliament are worried after top ministers have said in recent days that the government plans to “test the law to its limits,” implying that they may seek to skirt its requirements.
The law specifies the exact wording of the letter that Johnson has to send to the EU, but it does not exclude the possibility of sending a second letter setting out a different position.
The Daily Telegraph reported that this was one option under consideration in Downing Street. Any such move would also likely be challenged in the courts. Jonathan Sumption, a former senior judge, told BBC radio that such a letter would not be legal.
Some hard-line Brexiters have suggested he become “a martyr” to the cause, and allow himself to be jailed for contempt. But as well as the risk of imprisonment, a Prime Minister refusing to abide by the rule of law would have drastic and far-reaching constitutional consequences and with no real precedent for such a situation, the outcome and how long it might take to reach one are highly uncertain. And even for a risk-taker like Jonhson, going against the fundamental principles of British democracy would be a step too far.
Lawmakers in parliament's upper chamber have raised concerns that Britain could veto itself, by asking for the delay and then refusing to agree to it. There has been a debate about whether this is possible, but the government has yet to respond directly to those concerns.
Resign as Prime Minister
Last week, one senior minister told the Times that if opposition parties refuse to give an October election and if Johnson decides he cannot break his promise to deliver Brexit, he would opt instead to resign as prime minister. His official representative on Friday repeatedly refused to rule this out when asked by journalists at a regular briefing in Parliament. Even the Conservative commentator Paul Goodman points out in the Conservative Home on Monday: "If there is an escape from this trap other than resignation, we would love to know what it is."
Under this scenario, Johnson would step down and make way for opposition parties to form a government instead. Because of the defection of Conservative MP Phillip Lee and Johnson's decision to oust 21 Conservative members of Parliament last week, the prime minister no longer has a working majority in the House of Commons.
If Johnson did resign, the queen would have to look to opposition parties and invite the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of lawmakers to serve as prime minister and form a government.
Corbyn's Labor Party has only 247 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons but could command a majority with the support of other opposition parties and independent lawmakers. Corbyn has previously floated the idea of leading a temporary "government of national unity" with the sole purpose of securing a delay to Brexit, before calling a national election. Johnson would then hope to win that election to return to power with a majority in parliament large enough to approve a no-deal exit if necessary. This would allow him to avoid breaking his promise while blaming Labor for the Brexit delay. He would also then be in a good position to win the next election.
Alternatively, Johnson could be forced to resign by Labor calling and winning, a vote of no confidence when parliament returns in mid-October. If no other party leader can command a majority within the following 14 days, an election would be triggered.
OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS FOR CORBYN?
You don’t need a magnifying glass to see that Brexit has not been kind for the Conservative Party. Thus far, the party has produced two successive incompetent leaders to take control of the government and May’s miscalculated decision to call a snap election in 2017 only caused the party to lose its majority in parliament, and that is a consequence that is currently causing a pain in the neck for Boris Johnson. Furthermore, the surge in popularity in Farage’s newly formed Brexit Party also shows how the government’s policies have repelled away ardent Brexiters, and while Johnson’s “do or die” stance is trying to remedy that, the way parliament has seemingly “muzzled” him has made him appear as a feeble snoozer rather than a no-nonsense British bulldog. That isn’t to say that Brexiters aren’t relishing Johnson’s confrontation with parliament, but if the latter has its way and prevents him from going out without a deal, then the disillusioned Leave voters will grow more frustrated with the Tories. Not only is the parliament divided over Brexit but so is the Conservative party, while Tory members around the country are dumbfounded by their party’s disarray, Labor is vying to exploit the ruling party’s anguish and finally end it’s nearly decade long governance over Britain.
However, as with anything in this extraordinary time in Britain’s history, the task of ousting the Tory government will not be easy for Labor. Any miscalculation on Corbyn’s part might lead to his political upheaval rather than his political ascendance. As such, Corbyn needs to play his cards right, pick the right allies and find a way to appeal to voters on most of the spectrum (the hardest task).
AUGUST 14 LETTER: A PRELIMINARY MANIFESTO?
On August 14, Corbyn made headlines as he sent letters to the leaders of the Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), Plaid Cymru as well as major rebel Tory figures. The letters asked these parties and figures to support him when he tables a motion of no confidence to oust the Tory government. This would give him 14 days to form a temporary government, the letter stated that said government would not be a Labor one but rather a centrist one composed of Labor, SNP, Lib Dem and Plaid Cymru MPs with Corbyn as a leader. As the leader of this temporary government, he would call a general election and seek to extend article 50, thus extending the Brexit deadline. In the election he would run on a manifesto calling for another EU referendum, in which remain would be an option.
Would this plan work?
A major problem with this plan is that Labor seems to be more focused on securing a power grab from the Tories, rather than preventing a no-deal scenario, and this can be seen in the fact that Corbyn has called for a general election before a referendum. As such, it would appear that if the smaller parties get involved with Labor, then they would be pawns to its grander scheme rather than equal partners. The Liberal Democrats certainly seem to think that, as Jo Swinson, the leader of the Lib Dems rejected the idea outright. One mustn’t forget that the Lib Dems are still suffering from the sting they felt when they were part of David Cameron’s coalition government, and now that they are running as the de-facto remain party they feel that they have the opportunity to make big gains from remainers in the event of a general election.
On the other hand, the SNP and Plaid Cymru and other small party MPs have shown to be more inclined to join forces with Labor, however there are still some reservations, for example, Plaid Cymru rejects Corbyn’s plans to hold a general election before a second referendum and the party thinks that the order of events should be reversed. Caroline Luca, who is currently the only Green MP in parliament, also shared Plaid’s sentiments.
It still remains unclear whether or not Labor has successfully persuaded opposition parties to join its orchestrated plan; however, the recent votes seem to reflect the shared interests that Labor has with its potential allies. For example, 15 out of 17 Lib Dem MPs, all 35 SNP MPs, all four Plaid MPs, and the one Green MP voted with Labor to pass the Benn Bill. As it stands, it seems that Labor has more friends in parliament than the Tories, who only have the DUP supporting it.
IS LABOR BECOMING A REMAIN PARTY?
Ever since the 2016 referendum, Jeremy Corbyn’s stances on Brexit have been an enigma. Throughout the last three years, this ambiguity has alienated many of his young voter base who are much more in favor of remaining in the bloc. This alienation was reflected in the previous European Parliamentary elections, which saw the Brexit Party gain the most seats, meanwhile, the Lib Dems, which ran on a remainer platform, gained the second most seats. If Leave voters are disillusioned by the Conservatives, then Remainers might be equally as disappointed with Labor.
Digging through Corbyn’s history reveals that he has some negative perceptions of the European Union, perceptions that are aligned with those of labor unions back in the 1970s. While it might be hard to imagine now, back during the 1975 European Economic Community (the precursor to the EU) membership referendum Labor was the Eurosceptic party that wanted the UK to leave the bloc while the Tories was more in favor of remaining. This was because Labor’s policies back then reflected those that favored labor unions, which at the time considered the EEC a free-market project that would seek to weaken them. Corbyn has historically had similar views on the EU, additionally, some experts, such as Graham Room a professor of Policy and Social Sciences from the University of Bath, think that Corbyn would prefer to be free from the EU’s regulations when he attempts to rebuild the UK’s public institutions should he become Prime Minister. However, as the topic of the EU has proven to be divisive among voters and his party members, he attempted to steer clear of the topic to avoid severing himself from potential supporters.
While it may now seem that Labor is trying to brand itself as the “remain party”, the fact that it is now in favor of a referendum in which voters can vote between a “credible leave option” and remaining shows that it is trying to gain mass appeal by fence-sitting. As it stands, Labor has not been explicit with what kind of leave option it favors, but it has previously stated that it prefers to remain in the customs union and maintain close trade relations with the EU. Similar to the Tories, Labor seems to have its own internal divisions regarding Brexit, as Tom Watson, the party’s deputy leader, has shown to be more pro-EU than Corbyn and has gone on record to say that he wants the UK to stay in the bloc.
CALLING A GENERAL ELECTION: A CAREFUL GAME OF CHESS
While calling a general election is part of Labor’s plans, it has not been hasty in doing so, lest they risk losing again to the Tories. Moreover, the fact that Johnson now wants a general election to regain his lost majority has disincentivized Labor from playing into the Prime Minister’s whims. Labor has at least accomplished the first major step of its plan, making it unlawful for Johnson to crash out without a deal without prior parliamentary approval. However, as parliament has now been suspended until October 14, Labor might find itself with few options but to vote in favor of a general election before the current October 31 deadline. For now, the political stalemate continues and both parties eagerly await their foe's next move, however, if any side makes any precarious moves, they might find themselves relegated from a stalemate to a checkmate.