BREXIT UPDATE 50: Johnson’s Letter to Corbyn

In his letter  to Corbyn[1] sent on Thursday night (October 24), Johnson seeks to strike a bargain.  He offers to work with Corbyn to create a timetable allowing the Bill to pass through all its stages by November 6, if Corbyn will instruct the Labour Party to vote on Monday for a General Election to be held on December 12.

The full letter is at the end of this Update, in an Appendix.  Johnson begins by claiming that, by rejecting his accelerated (and deliberately impossible) timetable of three days, the House of Commons had “again voted for delay and, even worse, handed over control of what happens next to the other EU member states”.  In fact, if he hadn’t “paused” the Bill, it had stood a good chance of being passed after a few weeks. Skwawkbox, which accurately predicted the Bill would pass its Second Reading by 30 votes, has forecast that the amendments on a second referendum and a customs union (neither of which Johnson could have accepted) would fail.[2]   Johnson has lost the support of the DUP, but the Bill could have passed with the aid of the right-wing Tory Brexiteers, the ex-Tory rebels and many rebel Labour MPs from Leave-voting constituencies (19 of them voted for it on the Second Reading). Parliament had inevitably rejected his  deliberately absurd and impossible timetable of three days — but  MPs had not “voted for delay”; they had simply asked for a longer period of time than three days.

Johnson goes to say that, from public and private comments made by Donald Tusk, the President of the European Parliament, “it is likely that the EU will offer a delay until 31 January, though it is possible that a shorter delay will be offered”.   He later asserts (tacitly abandoning his “do or die” commitment to taking the UK out of the EU on October 31, deal or no deal), that he would prefer a short extension till November 15 or 30.  He claims he was “legally prevented” from asking for this by Parliament, which had forced him to send the letter asking for a three-month extension till January 31. 

But the whole dichotomy put forward by Johnson between a three-month extension  (forced on him by Parliament) and an extension of a few weeks (which he claims he wants) is false (as he knows): it is likely that the EU will grant a longer extension (three months, six months or a year) that would be a “flextension” – ie it would end at any time if the UK Parliament agrees a deal.  The “flextension” idea avoids the danger of No Deal if a deal isn’t agreed by the end of a short extension.  The extension to Halloween that was granted by the EU in April was a “flextension” (see Brexit Updates 23, 25 and 26).   So there was no need to “pause” the Withdrawal Bill, because the three months (or longer) extension would only be a fall-back; when the Bill was made law (as it was likely to be in a few weeks), the extension would end.

Johnson goes on to make his offer.  He points out that, if Parliament votes for a December 12 General Election, Parliament would by law need to be dissolved 25 days earlier – ie November 6.  Then comes the offer:

“If you commit to voting for an election next week (in the event of the EU offering a delay until 31 January and the government accepting, as it is legally forced to do by Parliament), then we will make available all possible time between now and 6 November for the WAB [the Withdrawal Agreement Bill] to be discussed and voted through, including Fridays, weekends, the earliest starts and the latest finishes.”

The sub-text here appears to be a reassurance to Corbyn that Johnson’s plan is not to go into a General Election on the slogan “Get Brexit Done”, claiming that he has been prevented from achieving Brexit by the evil Remainer Parliament (see Brexit Update 49);  Johnson wants to “get Brexit done” before the December 12 election.

But in fact, a November 6 deadline for completing the passage of the Bill would only allow two weeks, which – though of course preferable to three days – would still not be long enough for the completion of the stages of such a significant Bill.  And Johnson goes on to state that he fears that the Commons will not have allowed the Bill’s completion by November 6:

“But if Parliament refuses to take this chance and fails to ratify by the end of 6 November, as I fear it will, then the issue will have to be resolved by a new Parliament.  An election on 12 December will allow a new Parliament and government to be in place by Christmas.  If I win a majority in this election, we will then ratify the great new deal that I have negotiated, get Brexit done in January and the country will move on.”

In other words: by choosing a December 12 date for a General Election, Johnson is refusing to allow sufficient time for the passage of the Bill.  It will only have two weeks to go through all its stages (since Parliament will be dissolved after November 6).   If – as is very likely – the stages of the Bill are  not completed by then (and Johnson could well practise some deliberate obstruction),  he will blame Parliament for “failing to ratify by the end of 6 November” and go on into the General Election on the promise to “Get Brexit Done”, after being prevented from doing so by the evil Remainer Parliament (and the letter is full of blame for Parliament).   So the offer is entirely hollow.

Corbyn publicly responded in a BBC interview on Thursday by saying that he would support an election only “after No Deal has been taken off the table” and was also waiting to find out whether the EU will offer an extension and how long it will be.[3]

It does now seem that the impression given by the Johnson government that it sought to take the UK out of the EU without a deal could have been an elaborate bluff and that all along Johnson/Cummings could have been seeking to be forced into an extension. (See Brexit Update 49).  But all the same, the threat of No Deal cannot be ruled out.

It appears unlikely that the General Election motion on Monday, to be held under the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, will succeed in winning the necessary two-thirds majority; sensing a trap, one way or another, Labour  is likely to vote against or abstain.  Initially, on Thursday night, a Downing Street source threatened that, if the motion does not pass, the government will not only pull the Bill but effectively go on strike, keeping parliamentary business to “a bare minimum” and bringing back the General Election motion again and again (though it is unlikely that the Speaker would have allowed this).  But, after an outcry, the government has rowed back on this threat and now says that, if the motion fails, the government will only suspend Brexit legislation, not its “dynamic and ambitious” domestic agenda, which it will continue to pursue with “full vigour”.[4]

If Johnson cannot get his General Election under the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, which demands a two-thirds majority, he could put forward a one-line Bill, which only requires a simple majority. But Skwawkbox points out that he is extremely reluctant to do this because of the danger that the Bill could pass together with a proposed amendment lowering the voting age from 18 to 16.  As Skwawbox puts it: “Support for the Tories among under 40s has collapsed and lowering the voting age would guarantee defeat for Johnson”.[5]   There has even been a revival of the idea that, in desperation, Johnson could end up bringing a vote of no confidence in his own government.[6]

The EU has indicated it will grant an extension, but is now expected to delay a final decision about the length of the extension to  Tuesday at the earliest, after the Commons vote on a General Election.[7]  So we are in a position where Corbyn is waiting to find out the EU decision on the extension before Labour supports a General Election; while the EU is waiting to find out what happens on Monday – which depends on Labour’s decision — before it makes its own decision on the length of the extension.  This is only par for the course in the weird, daemonic world of Brexit – to which the Halloween deadline has always been highly appropriate even if not achievable.

The next Brexit Update will discuss the situation after the General Election vote on Monday (October 28).

APPENDIX:  Johnson’s letter to Corbyn

Dear Jeremy,

Last week, I agreed a new Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union. This is a great new deal which Parliament could have ratified and allowed us to honour our promises and leave by 31 October. Sadly you succeeded in persuading Parliament to ask the EU to delay Brexit until 31 January 2020.

On Tuesday, the Commons voted for our new deal but again voted for delay and, even worse, handed over control of what happens next to the other EU member states.

I have repeatedly made clear to EU leaders since I became prime minister that I believe any delay to be extremely damaging for the country and my view has never changed that we should leave on 31 October.

However, it is clear from public and private comments of President Tusk that it is likely that the EU will offer a delay until 31 January, though it is possible that a shorter delay will be offered.

In our meeting yesterday [Wednesday] you suggested that we propose a new timetable for getting the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) through Parliament.

This Parliament has, with your encouragement, voted repeatedly for delay. The vote on Tuesday was Parliament’s last chance to get Brexit done before 31 October and it voted, again, for delay.

I am extremely sceptical this habit will change and many will doubt that this Parliament will do anything other than waste more time and then, in January, ask for yet another delay.

These repeated delays have been bad for the economy, bad for businesses, and bad for millions of people trying to plan their futures. If businesses assume that this Parliament will stay, paralysed, refusing to take responsibility for month after month into 2020, it will cause misery for millions.

It is our duty to end this nightmare and provide the country with a solution as soon as we reasonably can.

The EU may offer only a short extension, say to 15 or 30 November. This would, obviously, be my preference but I was legally prevented by Parliament and the courts from suggesting this. In this circumstance, I assume you will reverse your vote of Tuesday and you will co-operate with me to get our new Brexit deal ratified so we leave with a new deal rather than no deal.

If the EU offers the delay that Parliament has requested – that is, we must stay in until 31 January – then it is clear that there must be an election. We cannot risk further paralysis.

In these circumstances, the Commons will vote next week on whether to hold an election to be held on 12 December. This would mean that Parliament would dissolve just after midnight on 6 November.

If you commit to voting for an election next week (in the event of the EU offering a delay until 31 January and the government accepting, as it is legally forced to do by Parliament), then we will make available all possible time between now and 6 November for the WAB to be discussed and voted through, including Fridays, weekends, the earliest starts and the latest finishes.

This means that we could get Brexit done before the election on 12 December, if MPs choose to do so.

But if Parliament refuses to take this chance and fails to ratify by the end of 6 November, as I fear it will, then the issue will have to be resolved by a new Parliament.

An election on 12 December will allow a new Parliament and government to be in place by Christmas.

If I win a majority in this election, we will then ratify the great new deal that I have negotiated, get Brexit done in January and the country will move on.

If you win a majority, then you will, I assume, implement your policy: that is, you will ask for another delay after 31 January 2020 to give you the time both to renegotiate a new deal then have a referendum, in which you may or may not campaign for your own deal.

It is time for MPs finally to take responsibility. More people voted Leave in 2016 than have ever voted for anything. Parliament promised to respect the referendum result. But Parliament has repeatedly avoided doing this.

Given this situation, we must give the voters the chance to resolve this situation as soon as reasonably possible before the next deadline of 31 January. We cannot risk wasting the next three months then this farce being replayed with yet another delay in January 2020 and still no way for the country to move on.

This Parliament has refused to take decisions. It cannot refuse to let the voters replace it with a new Parliament that can make decisions.

Prolonging this paralysis into 2020 would have dangerous consequences for businesses, jobs and for basic confidence in democratic institutions, already badly damaged by the behaviour of Parliament since the referendum. Parliament cannot continue to hold the country hostage.

You have repeatedly said that once the EU accepts Parliament’s request for a delay until 31 January, then you would immediately support an election. I assume this remains your position and therefore you will support an election next week so the voters can replace this broken Parliament.

I am copying this letter to the other Westminster political party leaders.

Yours ever,

Boris Johnson

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-50175907

[2] https://skwawkbox.org/2019/10/22/johnsons-deal-has-numbers-to-pass-tonight-heres-why-he-may-well-come-to-regret-it/

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-politics-50175963/corbyn-we-will-support-election-if-no-deal-is-off-the-table

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-50175914

[5] https://skwawkbox.org/2019/10/24/breaking-johnson-to-attempt-early-general-election-under-ftpa/

[6] https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/1195899/Brexit-news-Boris-Johnson-no-confidence-general-election-Jeremy-Corbyn-BBC-Newsnight

[7] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-50175914