by Brendan Donnelly
Director, The Federal Trust
30th July 2019
It was a disappointment to many that the Labour Party and those Conservative MPs opposed to a “no deal” Brexit did so little last week to oppose the installation of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. The summer recess will, however, allow both Labour and moderate Conservative MPs a pause for reflection on their best way forward. If they can use this for profitable discussion, it will not be too late for them to mount an effective campaign of resistance when Parliament reassembles in early September. The foundations of this resistance must, however, be laid in the coming month. Every wasted day that passes makes more likely a catastrophic “no deal” Brexit on 31st October.
What Conservative MPs will be thinking
It should have come as little surprise to Conservative MPs from the Party’s pro-European wing that Boris Johnson’s Cabinet should reflect so faithfully the entrenched Europhobic stranglehold on their Party. There has been much wishful thinking and self-deception among this shrinking wing of the Conservative Party. But the first Johnson Cabinet leaves no room for doubt: today’s Conservative Party is defined above all else by its commitment to a speedy, brutal and non-consensual Brexit. Attempts to oppose from within this well-publicised policy are futile at best, and at worst self-serving complicity in national disaster. The oath of loyalty to a “no deal” Brexit required of Cabinet ministers by Mr. Johnson was an obvious harbinger of further ideological purification to come. In the General Election which cannot be long delayed, there will certainly be a cull of Conservative MPs showing insufficient zealotry for Brexit. It would be an extraordinary state of affairs if such MPs awaited passively their fate and did not use the coming months to mount an effective opposition to Brexit. Their self-respect as well as the national interest should leave them no other choice.
A psychological check on the political effectiveness of many moderate Conservative MPs has been their unwillingness to present an image of themselves as unabashed “Remainers.” They prefer to stress their commitment to proper Parliamentary procedures and to what they regard as an acceptable implementation of the referendum result in 2016. Ironically, their Conservative opponents are scornful of such niceties. The reluctance of Dominic Grieve for instance to commit himself to opposition to Brexit in all circumstances convinces few apart from himself. More importantly, it must now be clear to Grieve and his like-minded colleagues that the only plausible political choice with which they will be confronted in the coming months is an entirely binary one: between a “no deal” Brexit and no Brexit at all. In reality, such was always the choice facing Parliament and the country. Events of recent days have made this choice urgent and inescapable.
If the United Kingdom still has a Conservative government on 31st October headed by Boris Johnson, the overwhelming likelihood must be that it will leave the European Union without any Withdrawal Agreement (WA). This would be an entirely predictable and in a certain sense logical culmination of the Brexit process within the Conservative Party, since any conceivable WA will inevitably lay bare the lies and delusions on which Brexit is founded. There is for the UK no benevolent WA to be attained which unites in agreeable harmony the central aspects of EU membership with the detached status of a third country. It is the realisation of this impossibility that has driven the radicalisation of the Conservative Party since 2016. It is much easier for Brexit’s Conservative advocates to ignore the risks inherent in “no deal” than to accept the unavoidable political and economic disadvantages laid upon the UK by any Withdrawal Agreement acceptable to the rest of the EU. All the resources of the British state will now be deployed by the present government to bring about Brexit on 31st October, whatever the cost (‘do or die’). Those Conservatives who wish effectively to oppose “no deal” have no rational choice but to seek the termination of this government which they have previously supported. Only a limited number of Conservative MPs have so far signified their willingness to make this rational choice.
The Labour perspective
On the face of it an easier set of calculations confronts the Labour Party over the summer. The Johnson government has only a precarious and narrow majority at best and even this majority may be whittled down further by by-elections and defections. It would seem to be in Labour’s obvious interest to challenge the Johnson government to repeated Votes of No Confidence until one is successful. Jeremy Corbyn has strongly hinted that such will be his strategy in September, with a view to provoking the General Election for which he has long been publicly calling. Not all Labour MPs share this preference. They are far from convinced that Labour will improve its electoral position in a new General Election; and they are particularly concerned that the European policy advocated at the election by Mr. Corbyn will drive potential Labour voters into the arms of the Liberal Democrats.
Although Mr. Corbyn and his advisers happily recall the unexpectedly good result he achieved in 2017, many Labour MPs are deeply sceptical that (low) expectations can be confounded again in 2019. The opinion polls they now read are considerably worse for Labour than they were in 2017 and the electorate has had ample opportunity since 2017 to consolidate its unfavourable view of Mr. Corbyn personally. A major factor in his growing unpopularity has undoubtedly been his equivocal position on Europe. His present, painfully emerging policy is to oppose vigorously any “no deal” Brexit and to promise a referendum with an option to “remain” on any Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by the British government. His most recent remarks however imply that a Labour government elected before 31st October would seek simply to renegotiate the WA and could well recommend this renegotiated agreement to the electorate in the following referendum. None of this is a platform on which the bulk of Labour MPs or Labour members would be content to stand in a forthcoming election, a concern likely to be well represented at the Party Conference in September.
If a General Election is to be held before 31st October, the Vote of No Confidence that might trigger it needs to be held in early September. Some commentators have speculated that the new Prime Minister may himself wish to provoke an election at that time, but he has denied any such intention, and it would be an extraordinarily risky enterprise so early in his controversial premiership. If there is to be an Election before 31st October, it seems more likely to occur because the Johnson government has been forced into it, rather than because it has engineered any such outcome. Any General Election held before Brexit has occurred will create unwelcome opportunities for the Brexit Party to cut into the Conservative vote. There is a lingering and wholly understandable distrust of Boris Johnson among an important stratum of Eurosceptic opinion, interestingly symbolised by the refusal of Steve Baker to serve in the Johnson government.
What will happen in September?
It may be that MPs will return to Westminster with a settled determination to provoke a Vote of No Confidence in the Johnson government. If they are successful, that would not necessarily lead to a new General Election, which might anyway simply replicate the present fragmented and volatile composition of the House of Commons. The possibility of a National Government should not be discounted, a government led probably by a Labour MP other than Jeremy Corbyn, or conceivably by a Conservative figurehead such as Dominic Grieve. In either case, an early and successful Vote of No Confidence will have the merit of moving the Brexit debate and process away from its present trajectory of an inevitable “no deal” Brexit on 31st October.
There is, however, a less reassuring course that events might take in September. It is that MPs will return to Parliament as confused, divided and timorous as they left it in July. Already debate is surfacing about how and whether Parliament might be able to prevent the Johnson government from allowing a “no deal” Brexit to occur without a change of government; and whether Parliament could force this government to seek an extension of the 31st October deadline for a General Election or even a referendum. These are interesting Parliamentary and constitutional questions, but their discussion is, as such discussions have always been in the past, merely a diversion from the real choices thrown up by the Brexit process. There is every reason to believe that the present government and its supporters are prepared to stop at nothing in their desire to ensure that Brexit occurs on 31st October. They have understood, if ever they doubted it, that no Withdrawal Agreement is available to them which will mask the senseless economic and political damage that Brexit will impose on the United Kingdom. With great political clarity, they have therefore concluded that their goal of Brexit can only be implemented with “no deal.” Those who oppose “no deal” Brexit now need to demonstrate a similar clarity in their approach to thwarting it.
Those who hope that it will be possible to prevent a “no deal” Brexit by simple Parliamentary manoeuvring in late September or October to enchain the determined Johnson government are wantonly running an enormous risk. The British political system confers wide-ranging powers upon a dominant central executive to manipulate and dictate Parliamentary business. It would be foolish in the extreme to stake everything upon a postponed Parliamentary conflict in October when a more certain and decisive path is available in early September. The reluctance of many, particularly among Conservative MPs, to take this path with the necessary urgency is all too often grounded in the fond hope that it will be possible to prevent a “no deal” Brexit in a way that does minimal violence to the present party structures of British politics. This is a damaging delusion. The traditional Party structures of Westminster have shown themselves hesitant and incompetent in their resistance to the impending national catastrophe of Brexit. The 48% who voted to “Remain” in 2016 have felt themselves entirely underrepresented in Parliament over the past three years, a criticism as validly directed towards the Labour Party as towards the Conservative Party. No future course of Brexit is conceivable that will allow the two major parties to reconstitute the economic and social coalitions on which they were based in the twentieth century. The Conservative Party is no longer the Party of British business and the Labour Party’s reluctance to resist Brexit effectively has alienated great swathes of centrist voters on whom its electability always depended. Major beneficiaries of this reconfiguration are the Liberal Democrats, whose small Parliamentary representation limits their role in the current Brexit crisis, but whose robust opinion-poll ratings are a precursor of major changes likely to be generated by Brexit. Further fragmentation of traditional party loyalties will also help the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru.
Since June 2016, it has become remorselessly clearer that there are only two possible outcomes to the Brexit tragicomedy, a “no deal” Brexit and no Brexit at all. Many commentators and politicians have sought to ascertain a “third way,” such as a soft Brexit, a bespoke arrangement or a Customs Union. With the passage of time, these options have fallen away, as their political or economic disadvantages have revealed themselves. A service has indeed been done to clarifying the Brexit debate by Boris Johnson’s uncompromising choice of Cabinet members. The opponents of “no deal” Brexit must now realise that only an equally uncompromising response from themselves can prevent catastrophe. It would be the worst possible beginning to their campaigning in September if they hesitated in their attempts to unseat the Johnson government, hoping that less painful opportunities might present themselves at a later stage. When Parliament resumes on 3rd September, there will be less than sixty days left to prevent the cataclysm of a “no deal” Brexit. It would be a national tragedy if MPs returned to Parliament at that time simply hoping that something will turn up to prevent a “no deal” Brexit in the course of October. Radical change is coming to British politics. Those most likely to survive are those who seek to anticipate and shape this change rather than run the risk of allowing themselves and the country to be overwhelmed by it.