BREXIT UPDATE 43: BORIS IN BREXITLAND
In Brexit Update 42, I described the legislative route to prevent No Deal as “risky”. The day before the Commons vote on the Bill to stop No Deal, a rebel Tory source was quoted as saying that “it will be touch and go, but depending on what Labour does we can just about defeat the Prime Minister”. The reference to “what Labour does” was about the danger that Labour MPs from Leave-supporting areas might vote against the Bill — yet another of the risks inherent in the legislative route.
There were fears that Tory rebels might be intimidated by Johnson’s strong-arm tactics of a) warning that all Tory MPs voting in favour of the Bill would face the withdrawal of the whip (in effect, be expelled from the Party) and be unable to stand again as Conservative candidates at elections; and b) threatening to hold a snap general election if the bill passed.
But in the end the risk paid off. It seems that Johnson’s threats served not to intimidate but instead to strengthen the resolve of the Tory rebels. On Tuesday (September 3), MPs voted in favour of taking control of the parliamentary agenda the following day (the first stage in passing the bill) by a comfortable majority of 27: the Ayes: 328; the Noes 301. Only two of the most hard-line Labour Leavers (Kate Hoey and John Mann) defied the Labour whip to vote against (two more abstained). And 21 Tory MPs rebelled against the Conservative whip to vote in favour.
The main provisions of the Bill are as follows. It gives Johnson till October 19 to reach a deal. The European Council summit meeting on Brexit is on October 17-18, so Johnson is given every chance to emerge from that summit with a deal. On October 19, he will be required to do one of two things: 1) if he has reached a deal, bring a new Withdrawal Agreement Bill to the Commons to try to get it passed; 2) if he hasn’t got a deal, ask the House of Commons if it wants to leave without one. If he doesn’t have a deal and MPs vote no to leaving without one (as they certainly will do), Johnson is required to seek an extension of three months from the EU, till January 31, 2020. The Bill includes the letter that Johnson is required to send to the EU Council requesting the extension.
After the vote on Tuesday, Johnson made a blustering speech in which he said that the passing of the Bill would only lead to “more dither, more delay and more confusion”. He repeated the claim in his statement on Monday that he didn’t want an election – but added that, if the Bill passed all its Commons stages on Wednesday, he would ask the British people to decide who would go to Brussels on October 17; they would have to choose between him and Jeremy Corbyn in a snap election. If he went to Brussels on October 17, he said, he would get a deal; but even if he didn’t, he would take the UK out of the EU on October 31. If Jeremy Corbyn went to Brussels, he would ask the EU for yet another extension, thus doing what the EU wanted. Johnson finished by announcing that he was tabling that night a motion under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, in relation to the calling of a snap election on October 15 – a motion to be debated on Wednesday night if the Bill passed all its Commons stages by the end of that day.
Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011, a snap election can only be called if two-thirds of MPs vote for it. If Labour doesn’t vote for the election, it can’t happen. Corbyn is therefore in control of this situation; the election will take place at whatever date he decides. After Tuesday’s vote, Johnson made good his threats by expelling from the Party the 21 Tory rebels. They include many distinguished and highly respected parliamentarians, in particular Ken Clarke, the longest-serving male MP, known as the “Father of the House” and Sir Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill. With their expulsions and other defections, the government has not only lost its majority; even with the prop of the DUP, it has a minority of minus 43. Clearly, the government cannot function; and Johnson’s only hope is to win a snap election. But only Corbyn can give it to him. Ever since the June 2017 snap election, Labour has been seeking a general election, whereas the Tories have stood out against it; now we are in the bizarre situation that Johnson is desperate for a general election, but Labour are keeping him dangling. And it is clearly to Labour’s advantage to keep Johnson on tenterhooks.
But also there has been widespread suspicion (as I mentioned in Brexit Update 42) that Johnson was laying a trap. If the snap election motion passed on Wednesday evening, but the Bill then failed to pass in the Lords, Johnson would be able later on – once again exploiting the royal prerogative – to change the date of the election to early November, so that Parliament would not be sitting on October 31 (since there is a rule that Parliament must be dissolved for 25 days before an election); Johnson would then be able to take the UK out without a deal. So Corbyn made it clear that Labour would not vote for a snap election unless and until the Bill passed all its stages and became law. In his response to Johnson on Tuesday evening, Corbyn said: “He wants to table a motion for a general election, fine. Get the Bill through first in order to take no deal off the table.”
On Wednesday (September 4), the Bill passed its second Commons reading (the formal introduction of the Bill to the House the previous day was the “first reading”) by a majority of 29: the Ayes: 329; the Noes: 300. The Bill passed its third Commons reading in the late afternoon by a majority of 28: the Ayes: 327; the Noes: 299. The Bill included (apparently by accident, though some people think this may have been a deliberate ploy by the government ) an amendment stating that the Maybot’s last version of her hapless deal, the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) – which was never debated because she resigned first (see Brexit Updates 30 and 31) — should be put to the House of Commons. It seems there were no tellers for the “Noes”, so the amendment ended up passing with the Bill.
Immediately after the third reading came the debate on the snap election. Introducing the motion, Johnson said that the Bill was designed to overthrow the democratic vote for Brexit. He insisted that he refused to ask for an extension. The House, he said, had voted to scupper any serious negotiations, because the EU leaders now believed No Deal was off the table, so would not make the concessions for which he was asking. “The country” he said
“must now decide whether the Leader of the Opposition or I goes to Brussels on the 17th of October. If the Leader of the Opposition wins, he will beg for an extension and we will have years more of dither and delay…..If I am PM on October 16th, then the country will leave either with a deal or without on October 31.”
In response, Corbyn pointed out that not only has Johnson not disclosed to Parliament his negotiating proposals – he hasn’t disclosed them to the EU either. At Prime Minister’s Question Time earlier in the day, Johnson had been unable to answer when asked if he had made any progress. Corbyn added that the offer of a snap election on October 15 was like “the offer of an apple to Snow White by the Wicked Queen”. Corbyn reiterated Labour’s position that it would not vote for the election motion till the Bill passed in the Lords, received Royal Assent and became law. He also drew attention to the “filibustering” — i.e. the deliberate delaying tactic of tabling complicated amendments and making long, incomprehensible speeches in support of them – that was about to take place in the House of Lords; a small number of Brexiteer Conservative peers had tabled 92 amendments in an attempt to ensure that the bill ran out of time before prorogation started, possibly on Monday (the earliest date fixed for Parliament to be suspended). 
The motion to hold the snap election on October 15 predictably failed to win the two-thirds majority that it needed. The tally was: the Ayes: 298; the Noes: 56. The magic number needed for the two-thirds majority is 434; so the vote fell well short. The Labour Party indicated it had abstained; but two appeared to have voted in favour and 28 against.
The Bill then went straight to the House of Lords, where peers sat till the early hours of Thursday morning going through, one by one, what in the end had become over 100 amendments. In contrast to the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Speaker in the Lords has no control over the selection of amendments; they are all debated and voted on. Peers brought in sleeping bags so they could take naps during amendments; apparently the Brexiteer Tory peers were on a rota system so that some could take naps while others voted. But at 1.30am on the morning of Thursday (September 5), after peace talks between the Tory and Labour Chief Whips in the Lords, the government caved in. The government Chief Whip, Lord Ashton, announced that all stages of the Bill would be completed by 5pm on Friday, adding:
“We have also received a commitment from the chief whip in the House of Commons that Commons consideration of any Lords amendments will take place on Monday and it is the Government’s intention that the Bill be ready for Royal Assent”.
It seems it wasn’t only the prospect of peers “carrying on through 24 or 48 hours….in a sort of pathetic attempt to set a new Guinness world record” (in the words of Lord Newby, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords) that caused the government to give in; Johnson had evidently decided that, if Labour insisted that it wouldn’t vote for the October 15 snap election unless and until the Bill became law, then the Bill would have to become law.
On Friday afternoon (September 6), the Bill passed its third reading in the Lords; there were no amendments to the bill, so it didn’t need to go back to the Commons. It is expected to receive Royal Assent tomorrow (Monday September 9) and become British law. And Johnson has again tabled a motion under the Fixed Term Parliaments Acts for a snap election on October 15 – a motion that will be debated and voted on tomorrow (Monday September 9).
But the passing of the bill into British law still doesn’t make it impossible for the UK to leave without a deal on Halloween. Johnson could win a snap election on October 15, come back as Prime Minister with a healthy majority and repeal the new law before October 31. Or he could set a date for the return of Parliament that would be after October 31. So Labour has indicated it will not vote for a snap election until Johnson has implemented the new law by securing by October 19 either a deal that is passed by Parliament or a three-month extension.
Johnson is adamant that he will never ask the EU for this extension. In a speech in West Yorkshire on Thursday (September 5) he said he would rather be “dead in a ditch”. There are still a couple of routes by which he might be able to get his October 15 election without having to win a two-thirds majority – though of course Parliament is due this week, on Thursday at the latest, to be prorogued for five weeks, so he doesn’t have much time. He could table a simple motion which would only need a one vote majority (but he probably wouldn’t be able even to get this one vote). There is even media discussion of the possibility that he could end up moving a vote of no confidence in his own government. Labour would find it hard to vote against this, since to vote against would imply confidence in the government; if the vote passed, it would trigger a general election.
There is also media speculation that Johnson could break the law.[16 The Foreign Secretary, the hard-line Brexiteer Dominic Raab, said in a Sky News interview today (Sunday September 8): “We will adhere to the law but also this is such a bad piece of legislation….we will also want to test to the limit what it does actually lawfully require”.
Yesterday (Saturday September 7) the Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd – a Remainer who had been included in the Cabinet as “window-dressing” (see Brexit Update 39) — resigned from the Cabinet and the parliamentary Conservative Party. In a eviscerating letter, she attacked Johnson for his expulsion of the 21 Tory rebels, calling it an “act of political vandalism” that has “stripped the party of broad-minded and dedicated Conservative MPs”. Her resignation follows that of Johnson’s own brother, Jo Johnson, who is a Remainer, on Thursday. Rudd has confirmed what many have suspected, saying that no “formal negotiations” are being conducted with the EU, only “conversations”, and 80-90 per cent of Brexit work is on preparing for No Deal.
An excellent summary of the European view of the situation in the UK has been provided by the French newspaper Le Monde, which described Tuesday’s events as “another mad day in Brexitland”.
The bill itself (including the letter Johnson is required to send): https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/lbill/2017-2019/0202/18202.pdf
Early election debate starts about 4 hours 50 minutes in.