Johnson and Corbyn: Two peas from the same pod?

by Brendan Donnelly
Director, The Federal Trust

9th October 2019

As the deadline of 31st October approaches, it becomes daily clearer that a plausible path exists for the prevention of a “no deal” Brexit and indeed for the prevention of any kind of Brexit. The dangerous incompetence of Boris Johnson’s government on the European issue has finally persuaded many, probably most MPs of the need for a cross-Party government. Opinion has not yet crystallised in Parliament on the precise mandate for this new coalition, be it to hold a General Election or a People’s Vote. At present, the balance of opinion in Parliament leans towards a new General Election, followed by a People’s Vote. Once installed, however, a cross-Party government might well wish to reverse this temporal sequence. A General Election now would be highly unlikely to contribute anything to the resolution of the Brexit impasse. By the vagaries of the current British electoral system, it could even result in the election with a workable majority of an English nationalist government headed by Boris Johnson. Opinion polls consistently suggest on the other hand that a People’s Vote would lead to the UK’s remaining within the European Union. Faced with choice, a coalition government would not need to hesitate long before calling a People’s Vote, an option for which it would anyway probably be easier to obtain an extension from the European Council.

But as the deadline of 31st October approaches, it also becomes daily clearer that the divisions and cross-currents existing within any potential anti-Conservative coalition make it uncertain whether MPs will find a way of following the plausible path sketched out above before 31st October. If they fail, and Boris Johnson is still Prime Minister on 31st October, he will seek and perhaps manage to take the UK out of the European Union on that date with “no deal.” Johnson knows that the fragile unity of his Party would never survive any request by him to the EU for an extension of the Article 50 negotiations. It is no secret that he and his advisers are actively reviewing ways to circumvent the Benn Act, designed to prevent a “no deal” Brexit on 31st October.  There is a real possibility that if no speciously legal method of circumvention presents itself, he will simply refuse to follow the Act and not ask for the Article 50 extension it prescribes. The outcome of the following legal and political crisis would be difficult to predict. It might well result in the “no deal” Brexit desired by only a small minority of MPs. This would represent an extraordinary failure of the British Parliamentary system.

Unresolved problems

After recent defections, the Conservative Party is far short of a majority in the House of Commons. Nothing ought in theory to be easier than to prevent the spectre of a “no deal” Brexit by replacing an incompetent government so recklessly set on this catastrophic course. Unfortunately, the heterogeneous opponents of the Johnson government have been unable until now to agree on the two central components of their strategy, the identity of the future Prime Minister and the European programme he or she should pursue in the coming months. Neither of these interrelated problems will be easily resolved. Their intractability is the main reason why Parliamentarians have until now limited themselves to procedural and legislative steps against “no deal” rather than the more radical action of installing a new government.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, has been widely criticised for her refusal to contemplate in any circumstances Jeremy Corbyn as a future Prime Minister. It may be that it was diplomatically unwise for her to put her relatively small party on such a course of conflict with the larger Labour Party, but it would be disingenuous to pretend that Jeremy Corbyn is currently an attractive or even plausible candidate as Prime Minister for a cross-party coalition. Even with support from the Liberal Democrats, it is highly unlikely that he would be able to assemble a Parliamentary majority for his Premiership. Former Labour MPs and dissident Conservative MPs in particular would find it difficult or in many cases impossible to support his candidature. Nor would most of them find congenial the European programme he would be advocating, namely a short extension of the Article 50 negotiations in order to hold a General Election, in which the Labour Party would not be advocating “Remain” but merely further negotiations by a future Labour government in order to achieve a “Labour Brexit.” Reasonable doubt exists as to whether Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party could win such an election, and if it did whether its proclaimed European policy would be achievable.

There seems little doubt that a range of much more plausible candidates can be found than Jeremy Corbyn to lead a national government, both from within and outside the Labour Party. Until now, Corbyn and his supporters have categorically refused to consider any alternatives. If they remain obdurate it is highly unlikely that any alternative government can be found to Boris Johnson’s before 31st October. Any cross-party government in the latter half of October would need at least the acquiescence of Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters in its formation.

Possible outcomes

It may be that after the special sitting of the Commons on 19th October Jeremy Corbyn finds himself under such personal and political pressure from the rest of his Party that he will accept another senior MP as the next Prime Minister. It might even be that he concludes it is in his interest for another Labour figure to seek the controversial extension of the Article 50 negotiating period. His own position in a later General Election would then remain uncompromised and he would be less vulnerable to accusations that he had put his personal interest above that of the country. It may be on the other hand that Corbyn continues to insist that he is the only acceptable replacement Prime Minister and he is then disavowed by the rest of the Parliamentary Labour Party. It would then be unclear whether Corbyn loyalists in the PLP were numerous and determined enough to block any alternative Prime Minister.  A final possibility is that Corbyn may attempt to make himself more attractive as a temporary Prime Minister, for instance by accepting that a People’s Vote should take place before a General Election. This last step would represent a substantial reversal of his position and be a bold demonstration of flexibility. It must however be said that there is little in Corbyn’s personal history of opposition to the EU that would encourage any such expectation.

The whole Brexit debate in this country was originally generated and later has been  confused and stunted by internal divisions within the two main parties, on the Conservative side by differing shades of Europhobia, and on the Labour side by the division between a Eurosceptic leadership and a Labour membership largely wishing to remain in the EU. It now seems likely that the latter half of October will mark the denouement of this tragicomedy. Internal pressure from within his Party will almost certainly make it impossible for Johnson to do otherwise than to embrace “no deal.” Corbyn’s personal and political inflexibility may make it impossible for him to do other than permit a “no deal” Brexit for which he will be happy to blame the Conservative Party. If Johnson and Corbyn pursue these parallel tracks towards “no deal” it will be the final proof that for them “no deal” is indeed better than a “bad deal.” Unfortunately, both of them will be operating on a definition of “bad deal” which refers exclusively to their and their Party’s supposed interests rather than to the interests of the country. It is already clear that there is an underlying dysfunction of the current party political landscape in the UK, a dysfunction exacerbated by the current electoral system. This dysfunction may well be illustrated in the last week of October by an unhappy congruence of perceived interest between an unprincipled Prime Minister and a dogmatic leader of the Opposition. In that case the current structure of British political parties will have been tested to destruction. The only outstanding question will be whether it is the existing two main parties that are destroyed or the United Kingdom.