BREXIT UPDATE 41: Corbyn Cuts Through the Confusion
In Brexit Update 40, I wrote that — in response to media speculation that Johnson, urged on by his eminence grise, Dominic Cummings, is planning to take the UK out of the EU without a deal during a pre-election period after Parliament has been dissolved – Corbyn had written to Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service. In this letter, Corbyn pointed out a rule of “purdah” (ie restrictions on the government during the pre-election period) that would prevent Johnson taking the UK out of the EU at this time, and asked Sir Mark to confirm that, if the government is on the brink of violating this “purdah” rule, an extension will be sought from the EU.
There has now been a dramatic development. Having received an unsatisfactory “non-committal” response from Sir Mark, Corbyn has written to prominent Tory backbenchers and leaders of other political parties with a proposal that they should a) back him in a vote of no confidence in the government that he will table “at the earliest opportunity when we can be confident of success”; and b) support him to lead “a strictly time-limited temporary government with the aim of calling a General Election, and securing the necessary extension of article 50 to do so”.
Corbyn ends his letter:
“In the General Election, Labour will be committed to a public vote on the terms of leaving the European Union, including an option to Remain”.
It is significant that Corbyn does not state here that Labour would campaign to Remain; indeed the implication of this sentence is that Labour supports leaving, only with a deal, not without one.
As I wrote in Brexit Update 40, a legal challenge to a No Deal Brexit is being mounted in the Court of Sessions in Scotland; and some MPs are also planning to initiate a parliamentary bill to prevent No Deal. But there are only two months left; and there is no guarantee that either the legal or legislative route will work.
There is only one sure way to prevent Johnson and Cummings taking the UK out of the EU without a deal on October 31: to force Johnson to resign before that date because there is a clear alternative government. The plan to appoint a “centrist” MP (ie not Corbyn) as the head of a cross-party “national unity government” (see Brexit Update 40) cannot work, because the Labour Party – the second largest party after the Tories — has made it clear it will not join such a government. To do so would be so damaging politically that Labour cannot be expected to make such a sacrifice. As Lewis Goodall, Political Correspondent for Sky News, writes:
“There is no universe where the leader of the opposition, of any hue, is going to stand aside, to allow someone with considerably less democratic legitimacy than themselves, and about whom the public might never have heard, to become prime minister in their stead, much less provide the votes to make it happen.”
So that leaves only one sure way for MPs to prevent No Deal on October 31: to support the natural alternative leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, as a temporary, caretaker Prime Minister who will gain an extension from the EU to hold a General Election.
With this one brilliant chess move, Corbyn issues a direct challenge to all the MPs who have said they are adamantly opposed to No Deal because of the harm it will do to the UK. Any MP who genuinely wants to prevent No Deal has to take Corbyn’s offer seriously.
The leaders of the Scottish National Party and the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru have said they are willing to enter talks on the issue – though the Plaid leader said she was “deeply disappointed” that the letter did not mention a second referendum first, followed by a General Election. The single Green MP, Caroline Lucas (a former leader of the Green Party) has also indicated she is ready to discuss the proposal, though she too argues that a second referendum should come first. Lucas had previously suggested a “Women’s Cabinet”, an idea widely criticised as sexist.
On the Conservative side, Dominic Grieve, Oliver Letwin, Dame Caroline Spelman and the former Tory MP Nick Boles sent a joint letter in response saying they want to meet Corbyn for discussions. However, Grieve, Letwin and Spelman have now said they merely want to discuss ways of preventing No Deal and are opposed to putting Corbyn into Downing Street even temporarily. Grieve told the Guardian that Corbyn is a “deeply divisive figure”.
In an impressive and moving speech during a June 12 debate on a Labour-led motion designed to take control of parliamentary business in order to initiate a parliamentary bill to block No Deal — a motion that was defeated, indicating how risky the legislative route to blocking No Deal is likely to be (see Brexit Update 34) — Grieve said:
“If we get to a point where a prime minister is intent on doing this [taking the UK out of the EU without a deal], the only way of stopping that prime minister would be to bring down that prime minister’s government. And I simply have to say here and now I will not hesitate to do that……And I’m not going to spend my time talking to children or grandchildren later on saying ‘when it came to it, I just decided to give up.’”
If Johnson does manage to take the UK out of the EU without a deal on October 31, will Dominic Grieve tell his children or grandchildren that he refused to support the one sure means of stopping Johnson? Grieve himself said that the only way to stop Johnson would be to bring down the government; and that can only be achieved if there is a credible alternative government – which can only be led by Corbyn.
Only one Tory MP has so far publicly expressed support for Corbyn’s proposal. Guto Bebb has pointed out that there are other options but has nonetheless said in a televised interview:
“Those who have said they will do anything necessary to stop the long term damage of a no-deal exit must take seriously this type of offer…..I certainly take the view that a short-term Jeremy Corbyn government is less damaging than the generational damage that would be caused by a no-deal Brexit.”
The most dismissive response to Corbyn’s letter has come from the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson. She initially rejected the Corbyn letter entirely as “a nonsense”; then backtracked a little to say she was willing to talk to him but would support other candidates to lead an emergency government, in particular the longest-serving male MP, the Tory MP Kenneth Clarke, and the longest-serving female MP, the Labour MP Harriet Harman. Caroline Lucas has tweeted an appeal to her to reconsider. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who has previously strongly criticised Corbyn for the so-called antisemitism “crisis”, has written a letter to Swinson that has been seen by the Guardian. He writes:
“Constitutional experts are warning that there may be only one chance left to stop Boris Johnson delivering a no-deal. That involves defeating his government in a vote of no confidence as soon as parliament returns in September, and then forming a short-term government of national unity in order to get an extension of article 50 and trigger a general election….There is no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn is the only viable choice to lead a temporary government of national unity in order to stop no-deal”.
So the upshot is that Corbyn’s plan for an emergency national unity government led by himself – though it has won some unexpected support –seems at present unlikely to succeed, because of disunity among opposition party leaders and rebel Conservative MPs who are putting their own political opinions and perceived party advantages above their concern for the country. But Corbyn’s offer is nonetheless a political masterstroke, in that it cuts through the confusion that I described in Brexit Update 40, reveals the only clear and sure path ahead and wrong-foots all those who have declared their uncompromising opposition to a No Deal Brexit and yet are refusing to take the one route that stands a sure chance of preventing this disaster.
For his part, Johnson claims that those who are trying to prevent No Deal are in fact increasing the chances of No Deal. Johnson’s argument is that the EU leaders will only cave in with the concessions he wants if they are convinced that the UK really means business in saying it will leave on October 31. Johnson took part on Wednesday (August 14) in a “people’s Prime Minister’s Question Time” on Facebook, during which he said:
“There’s a terrible collaboration, as it were, going on between people who think they can block Brexit in parliament and our European friends….the awful thing is, the longer it goes on, the more likely it is of course that we will be forced to leave with a no-deal Brexit. That’s not what I want, it’s not what we’re hoping for, but we need our European friends to compromise.”
The loaded word “collaboration” – for which Johnson has been widely criticised in the media – is typical of his populist agenda. He appears to be implying that the European leaders are akin in some way to the Nazis. And it is clear that he is preparing to blame a No Deal Brexit on the EU and also on Parliament, in a shameless populist appeal to the people. Of course it is Johnson who is refusing to compromise, with his refusal to enter into talks unless the EU leaders first agree to abolish the backstop.
Today (Sunday August 18), the Sunday Times has revealed the contents of a leaked government dossier that lists among the possible consequences of a No Deal Brexit: fresh food being less available and prices rising; a hard Irish border, sparking protests; a rise in public disorder and community tensions resulting from a shortage of food and drugs.  If – as seems increasingly likely – there is a No Deal Brexit on October 31, those who have claimed they will do whatever it takes to stop No Deal but have dismissed Corbyn’s masterplan will indeed be complicit, not with the EU but with the Johnson government.
Another problem with an emergency government headed by a “centrist” such as Ken Clarke or Harriet Harman is that it can easily be billed by Johnson and the tabloid press as an Establishment stitch-up by elite, liberal “Remoaners” determined to block the democratic vote for Brexit and keep the UK in the EU. It is true that Ken Clarke, despite being a Remainer, has – in the interest of uniting the country – advocated a “soft” Brexit that involves an economic but not a political union. (See Brexit Update 19). But the public perception of him is of an Establishment Remainer; and the same goes for Harriet Harman. It will be much more difficult for Johnson and the tabloids to portray as an Establishment stitch-up an emergency government headed by the anti-Establishment, personally Eurosceptic Corbyn.
For Khan’s previous criticism of Corbyn over the so-called antisemitism “crisis”, see: