by Frank Schnittger
Thu Sep 5th, 2019 at 10:31:05 AM EST
And so the dice are cast... Having lost every Commons vote of his premiership, Boris finally won one, but not by the required two thirds majority. Labour abstained on his call for a general election on Oct. 15th., denying him the opportunity to take his case to the people at a time of maximum advantage to his cause.
Of course Boris loyalists made great play of the meme that having asked for a general election on a regular basis, "Labour are now running away from the people." Labour's pretext is that they cannot trust Boris to stick to the Oct. 15th. date once he is given the right to call a general election. They claim he could then delay the election until after Brexit day thus making his preferred version of Brexit a fait accomplis.
Presumably that issue could have been addressed by including the date of the election in the enabling legislation. But Corbyn is playing a longer game. The first step is to tie Johnson's hands by passing a law this week-end that he must ask for an A. 50 extension if he has not negotiated a deal to the satisfaction of the House by Oct. 19th. As that is most unlikely to happen, Johnson will then be faced with the prospect of doing what he swore he would never do - seek another A. 50 extension.
If he does so, he will enhance his already rampant reputation for being untrustworthy, of often going back on his word. It would no doubt also introduce clear blue water between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party, who are advocating for a no deal Brexit no later than October. Splitting those parties apart is an absolute pre-requisite for Labour winning a general election, and perhaps a referendum as well.
Johnson's other choices will be:
- To reach a deal with the EU by making the backstop Northern Ireland specific - and thus add the DUP to his already long list of enemies. It matters little that many opposition MPs would probably privately take that deal by that stage. They are now implacably opposed to anything Boris can do. Dissident (One Nation) Tories will complain he is abandoning the Union, Liberals are opposed to any form of Brexit anyway, and Labour's job is to oppose and will no doubt complain the deal will leave the UK in limbo without any guaranteed future trading relationship with the EU. All true. The deal will be voted down and we are back to square one: Boris having to seek an A.50 extension.
- He can defy the law and simply refuse to ask for an A.50 extension thus creating a new and even bigger constitutional crisis. Exit another tranche of establishment Tories who believe that, at the very least, the Prime Minster must obey the law. A vote of no confidence must surely follow, combined with an urgent requirement to nominate a different "caretaker" Prime Minister who will obey the law and ask for an A.50 extension before Brexit day.
- He can do the honourable thing and simply resign. That is what Prime Ministers do if they cannot implement their policies. Boris may try to stay on, but, faced with the inevitability of a vote of no confidence and further loss of establishment support may be persuaded he has no option but to make way.
This is when things get seriously interesting. There is no time for the Tories to elect a new leader and putative Prime Minister. The post of Deputy Leader of the Conservative party does not currently exist. The Queen will have little option but to turn to the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition and appoint Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. The arcane conventions of the UK "Constitution" mean that Corbyn does not have to win a vote of confidence in the House of Commons first.
Dissident Tories will, of course, probably never vote for Corbyn as Prime Minister, but the point is they won't have to. And provided he fulfils their agreed policy of asking for an A.50 extension they have no reason, in the immediate aftermath of his appointment, to vote against him in a vote of no confidence. They would probably abstain if a vote were called - by the new Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition - and that should be sufficient to sustain Corbyn in Office for a limited time period - probably at least until the proposed new A.50 extension is due to expire - currently proposed for 31st. January 2020.
Possession is nine tenths of the law. Although venomously opposed by many, Corbyn can remain in Office until the House of Commons votes for an alternative Prime Minister or for a General election - neither of which it is likely to do in the short term.
Corbyn will, of course, have to appoint a cabinet and a government. He may try to consolidate his hold on power by appointing a "government of National Unity" including a number of prominent non Labour party members in key positions. It seems doubtful many, if any, Tory dissidents will agree to join a government led by him, if only to avoid the taunts of unprincipled careerism that would be hurled at them by their former colleagues in the Tory party.
But would Ian Blackford, Leader of the SNP in Westminster accept the post of Secretary of State for Scotland? Would Liz Saville Roberts, Leader of Plaid Cymru accept the post of Secretary of State for Wales? Would Lady Sylvia Hermon, Independent Unionist, accept the post of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? That would really annoy the DUP.
What would annoy the DUP even more would be if Corbyn were to offer the post to a Sinn Fein MP in return for Sinn Fein taking their 7 seats in Parliament. (That would probably be a bridge too far, even for Corbyn, at this stage, losing him more support in the Commons than the 7 seats he would gain. Nevertheless the "normalisation" of Sinn Fein as the Irish Nationalist Party - equivalent to the SNP or Plaid Cymru - is long overdue).
If Corbyn can persuade the Lib Dems or Green MP Caroline Lucas to take seats in the Cabinet, so much the better. Labour will have a majority in cabinet in any case, and an electoral alliance of anti-no deal Brexit parties may well be required to defeat Boris & Farage at the next election. Seeing these parties working together constructively in cabinet will increase their credibility as parties of government and make it easier for their respective supporters to vote for whoever the agreed "Government of National Unity" candidate in their constituency is at the next election.
Corbyn's government would not have a mandate or the required majority to implement Labour's manifesto in any case. Their duties wouldn't stretch much beyond sending the A.50 extension request letter - already drafted - and tending to their day-to-day duties as departmental ministers.
Two ministerial jobs would be vital however. Corbyn might mandate his Brexit secretary to negotiate a new and approved Brexit deal with the EU. As the EU wouldn't agree to further changes to the legally binding withdrawal agreement - beyond restricting the Irish backstop to Northern Ireland - these negotiations would focus on the UK's future economic relationship with the EU as contained in the accompanying political declaration. Something along the lines of "close to" but not actually formally part of the Customs Union and Single Market to safeguard jobs seems to the best approximation of Labour policy at the moment.
The second vital job would be Foreign Secretary. Corbyn might charge Emily Thornberry (or John McDonnell or whoever gets the job) to negotiate a better deal for the UK if it chose to remain in the EU. This negotiation would focus on Labour priorities - state aid, state ownership of key infrastructural utilities, jobs, environment, consumer protection, corporate taxation etc. - rather than previous Tory attempts to further "reform" the EU on neo-liberal lines. Given that a new Commission will just be taking office, the timing could be propitious. There is likely to be a lot of common ground between what Labour would want and what the new Commission might want to include in its programme in any case.
Come January, and nearing the end of the A.50 extension, the "Government of National Unity" could then present two proposals to the House of Commons:
- An "Improved" Brexit deal, probably including a Northern Ireland specific backstop and much more detail on the UK's future relationship with the EU, as contained in the Political declaration.
- A new relationship with a "reformed" EU, containing a much more social democrat rather than neo-liberal policy focus and set of priorities.
It would then be up to the House of Commons to decide which of three proposals should be put to the people in a second referendum, to be held in the Spring: The possible options being:
a) Remain in a reformed "more caring and accountable" EU and
b) Leave with the "improved" Brexit deal, and/or
c) Leave without a deal - the option probably being supported by both the Tory opposition and Brexit parties at that stage.
A further A.50 Extension to April or June will be required to enable the referendum to be held, but at least and at last people would be able to see some finality to the entire Brexit process. Giving people the option of voting for a "reformed" EU will make it easier for some former leave voters to feel that the entire Brexit process hasn't been entirely wasted and that they are not simply being asked to vote for or against the same status quo a second time. Both the context and the content of the second referendum will be quite different to the first.
Almost regardless of the outcome, Corbyn will become a national hero for sorting it all out, and the UK political scene will never be quite the same again.