by Frank Schnittger
Tue Sep 17th, 2019 at 09:57:16 PM EST
The dog that didn't bark
As the UK drifts ever closer to B-day, you would expect there would be a flurry of activity - tense overnight negotiations, crunch summits of key leaders, emotional parliamentary debates and cliff-hanging votes on difficult compromises. The reality is that nothing much is happening, and probably won't be happening for another month or so.
Parliament is prorogued, all the media focus will be on the annual party conference season, no serious detailed technical negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement are taking place and Boris, having seen Juncker for the first time in his two months of premiership, decided he could afford to alienate the Prime Minister of a small EU member state - Xavier Bettell.
In London the Supreme Court is hearing a challenge to the legality of the lengthy proroguing of Parliament. But what difference will it make, even if it finds in favour of the plaintiffs? Parliament may end up returning earlier, but the key date - October 19th. has now been etched in stone - it is either a deal agreed by Parliament by then, or it's another extension, or at least that is what the law says.
But Boris has already said he will defy that law, so what's another legal finding on the legitimacy of the prorogation? Of course it will add another crack to the foundations of the UK Constitution - either putting the supreme Scottish and English courts at odds with one another, or putting the courts at odds with the Executive. No doubt the Mail will declare said judges to be TRAITORS if they dare to challenge the legality of the prorogation. Just another small step on the road down to fascism...
Boris has been declaring he is "slightly more optimistic" about securing a deal following his discussions with Varadker and Juncker - an optimism not shared by the EU leaders - both of whom have been quick to note they have yet to receive written proposals from the UK on alternatives to the Backstop. UK government ministers have been wheeled out to the Sunday talk shows to declare their optimism that progress is being made, but when asked for specifics they quickly retreat into "you wouldn't want me to declare our negotiating position on air, now would you?"
So what is really going on?
Two realities have slowly been sinking into the UK political psyche. The first, is that while the EU does not want a no-deal Brexit, it is increasing reconciled to it happening, and they are certainly not going to resile on previous commitments to Ireland to try and avoid it coming about. Real money is now being spent on the preparations, and the opposition to providing Boris with any kind of victory is becoming more and more entrenched. Ask Xavier Bettell.
The second is that if the UK does want a modified deal, the only area in which some compromise might be possible is in the reduction of the all UK backstop into a Northern Ireland only backstop - call it what you will. Of course the DUP will be outraged, but as Oliver Callan has neatly summarised, there are literally dozens of ways in which N. Ireland laws already diverge from UK laws - often at the behest of the DUP - and none of these differences are said to undermine the Union with Britain.
So if Boris wants a deal, "the landing zone" has been clearly defined. He may just want to wait until the last minute to blind-side the DUP and claim that he has driven a hard bargain. He may calculate that they will then have no option but to acquiesce, given the disastrous consequence of no deal for the N. Ireland economy. If so, he may be disappointed. They have had a century of practice of saying NO, and really have never quite figured out a way of saying anything else.
But does Boris really want a deal?
Any deal Boris can negotiate will put him at loggerheads with the Brexit party - the real threat to him winning a general election - and with most of the ERG, some Tory rebels, and probably the DUP as well. He cannot afford to go into an election championing a deal that is very little different to May's deal with half the conservative party and all of the Brexit party against him.
The Leave vote would be split, and Corbyn could romp home on less than 30% of the vote. So the only way Boris could agree to a deal is if he has had some private assurances from Corbyn that he will provide a parliamentary majority for it, and that is not going to happen. Labour is becoming an increasingly Remain party, and the opposition to anything Boris might cook up is absolutely visceral.
Polls now show "no deal" to be the most popular form of Brexit amongst leavers in any case, and no amount of Yellowhammer papers predicting doom and gloom is going to make any difference. Brexit has become an emotional crusade, not a rational economic or political choice. The last four polls show the Conservatives with an average 9% lead over Labour and with the Remain vote badly split between Labour and the Lib Dems. So for Boris, a general election it has to be, and preferably after he has delivered Brexit on Nov. 1st., and thereby destroyed the very raison d'etre of the Brexit Party as a competing political force.
So what we are seeing now is mere window dressing to give the appearance of negotiating with the EU so that he can later blame "EU intransigence" for his failure to secure a deal which would have been "in everyone's interest". There may be some further grandstanding at the EU summit on 17/18th. Oct., but that will be it. There really isn't a whole lot going on. If the DUP are going to be sold down the river, it will be after a no-deal Brexit has happened and Boris has secured his overall Commons majority in a general election.
We don't even know if the current Withdrawal Agreement with a N. Ireland only Backstop will still be on offer after a no deal Brexit has happened, as attitudes will have hardened further, and unanimity will be required from the EU side. But here the EU's unanimous stance to date is actually extremely helpful to Boris. As long as Ireland is ok with the deal, it is likely the EU Council would still find a consensus to agree - despite the anger it will undoubtedly feel at the economic disruption and increased costs Brexit will have caused in the meantime.
So what is Boris' game plan?
So the main outstanding problem for Boris now is how he can force a general election given the constraints of the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Corbyn is most unlikely to give him the two thirds majority he needs, so the only way to force an election is to lose a vote of no confidence and ensure no one else can win a vote of confidence within 14 days.
Losing a vote of confidence shouldn't be a problem, especially if he defies the law and doesn't seek an A.50 extension by October 20th. as he has promised he will not do. And Brexit will have happened by the time the 14 days have elapsed and so he will get his cherished no deal Brexit on Nov. 1st. followed by a general election.
Of course any Prime Minister with a shred of honour and dignity would resign on Oct. 20th. having failed to secure a deal, having lost a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, having failed to ask for an A.50 extension, and possibly having been held in contempt of Court for breaking the law and ignoring a Court Order.
His difficulty will be that should he resign, the Queen might ask the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition to form a Government which would then ask for an A.50 extension. And the beauty of that situation from a Commons perspective is that Corbyn wouldn't even have to win a vote of confidence in the House of Commons first - sparing the rebel Tories and Lib Dems the horrific prospect of having to vote for Corbyn as Prime Minister!
So Boris would probably try to brazen it out: Ignore Parliament and the Courts on the grounds that - like any dictator - he is merely carrying out the "WILL OF THE PEOPLE, and wait for Nov. 1st to come along followed by a general election he will in all probably win with the Brexit Party neutralized. A general election win can also retro-actively wash away any crimes Boris may have been deemed to have committed, and any pretence that the UK is a law abiding democracy will have been abandoned.
So is a no deal Brexit now inevitable?
The only way the House of Commons can avoid this scenario would be to vote confidence in Corbyn as PM and ask the Queen to to demand Boris' resignation and appoint Corbyn PM. Many Lib Dems and rebel Tories will no doubt yammer on about finding a "compromise caretaker" PM to avoid having to vote for Corbyn, but the fact is that Corbyn will be delivering the vast majority of any votes for an alternative PM, and will be in a position to demand that he is the only logical alternative.
Lib Dem and rebel Tory MPs will be able to console themselves that they are only voting for Corbyn in a caretaker capacity to request an A.50 extension, and that he will not be allowed to implement his "socialist agenda". Most, I suspect, will bite the bullet if the alternative is an imminent No-deal Brexit.
So what would a Corbyn government do?
But once Corbyn is appointed PM the whole ball game changes. Firstly, the A.50 extension will give him a breathing space until at least the 31st. Jan. 2020. Secondly, a mid-winter election is against all UK electoral tradition. Thirdly he can claim he will need a few months to legislate for a second referendum where the options will be Remain and a "credible Brexit deal". Fourthly, he will claim he needs time to negotiate a better "credible" Brexit deal for Britain, and also a better deal for Britain should voters decide to remain within the EU.
Many former Remain voters now support Brexit because they believe the first referendum vote should be respected, and because they feel it would be humiliating for the UK to remain within the EU after all that has happened. Critical to allowing them to change their minds would be to demonstrate that the second public vote is actually quite distinct from the first and offers a choice between a very precisely defined Brexit deal and a better deal for Remaining. The is no shame in voters changing their minds when offered a different choice.
The Brexit deal would be negotiated by Corbyn's Brexit secretary and would consist of May's deal with a N. Ireland only Backstop and a greatly expanded political declaration. (It is noteworthy than Boris has never even mentioned renegotiating the political declaration).
The Remain deal will be negotiated by Corbyn or his Foreign Secretary with the incoming Ursula Van der Leyen Commission, and will consist of a reform of Commission policies from a social democratic perspective, as opposed to the neo-liberal reforms sought by previous UK Tory PMs. It probably won't contain much the Commission wasn't planning to do anyway, and can't be very radical as it will also require EU Council and Parliament support.
However it has previously been noted that there is nothing in the Labour Party manifesto which is incompatible with EU law, and which isn't already happening in other EU member states. Some issues, like state aid to troubled companies, might need some finessing, but there is no reason why the European Investment Bank cannot set up a separate division to supervise such aid and avoid charges of national governments aiding their companies to compete more effectively with rival companies from other member states.
The vast majority of Labour policy priorities - improved public services, increased corporate taxation, anti-trust legislation against monopolies, public ownership of key infrastructural services, workers rights, consumer rights, human rights, climate change etc. are not incompatible with EU priorities, and it is only because previous UK attempts at EU reform have been Tory led that more has not been achieved.
What would the political outcome be?
So the second public vote, to be held in the Spring, if necessary after another A.50 extension, will offer voters a choice between a precisely defined Brexit deal and a "reformed", "more caring" and "more accountable and transparent" EU. Farage will shout blue murder because his preferred option - a no deal Brexit - will not be on offer. He may even call for voter abstention, in the hope that a depressed turnout will ensure that any Remain vote, even if it wins the referendum, will not exceed the 17 Million who voted Leave in the first referendum, and thus help him to delegitimize the result and call for a third "best of three" referendum.
The Tories will be in a difficult position. They could follow Farage's absolutist no deal lead, but many pragmatists may argue that any Brexit is better than no Brexit, and that once the UK is out there is nothing to prevent them sundering further ties with the EU in due course as Ireland had done following the initial, very partial independence from Britain in 1922. They will of course also claim that the DUP has been betrayed and the Union threatened, but I doubt many will care. In essence, the Leave vote will be divided between no deal abstainers and more moderate pragmatists. In that circumstance I would expect Remain to win, possibly by a margin similar to the 2:1 margin the 1975 referendum on EU membership was carried.
Of course the shallow consensus that tolerated Corbyn in office for far longer than many expected will dissolve just as soon as the Referendum is over and a general election will then be called. The Lib Dems will try to position themselves as the real opposition to Corbyn who they will continue to claim is lukewarm on Remain even if he has actively campaigned for Remain in both referendums. They may even oppose the "socialist" deal for Remain Labour will have negotiated with the EU. The Tories will be in melt-down having failed to "deliver Brexit" and Farage will try to garner the vast bulk of an angry and disillusioned Leave vote.
I would expect Labour to win that general election, probably with an overall majority, and with the Lib Dems, or even the Brexit party, displacing the Tories as the main party of opposition. There will be a price to pay for having foisted Brexit upon the nation and the national humiliation which followed, and that price will cost the Tories their place in the duopoly of power at Westminster.