Boris Johnson brexit

The UK came closer to political and constitutional impasse last night, as the House of Commons voted to request a further delay from the EU in exiting the body, and then refusing PM Boris Johnson’s request for an election prior to the current October 31 crash-out date.

Neither result was particularly surprising. Labour had always said it would not support an election without an iron-clad guarantee that the date of such could not subsequently be moved beyond the Brexit crash-out, and the vote to delay “Article 50” withdrawal was passed on the same majority — 28 votes — as had been achieved on the vote to take over control of Commons business yesterday.

A two-thirds supermajority of the 650 seat house was required to call an early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. With Labour and the SNP abstaining, and the Lib-Dems and small parties and rebels voting against, the request went down 298 to 56.

Prime minister Boris Johnson is now caught within multiple dilemmas. He has promised Brexit on October 31 come what may, and yet he is now constrained to seek delay. Which will make him look like every mainstream Tory, selling out the Leave vote. The Brexit Party will fill that vacuum lickety-split, thus splitting the party off to the right — just as it has de facto expelled 21 Remainers, including several iconic figures, for voting to extend the withdrawal date.

That leaves Johnson with the tempting possibility of simply ignoring the withdrawal delay, and arguing that the parliament does not and never had jurisdiction over executive action with regard to a treaty. That would, in turn, prompt a no-confidence motion, or a very specific motion to prevent executive action, in the days before a crash-out, up to a direct petition to the Queen to sack Johnson immediately and install a PM whose executive actions would reflect the expressed will of a parliamentary majority.

Meanwhile, huge protests for both Remain and Leave — the former will be larger if the past is anything to go by — will take place, while attempts to injunct executive withdrawal wend their way through the courts.

The great question now bearing down on everyone is whether this confrontational strategy by Johnson was inevitable or a major misstep (only the most stalwart think it’s a triumph). The 21 rebel Tories whose support opened parliamentary business-setting, and used that to install a fresh delay, are said to have been firmed in their purpose by the rude and arrogant treatment they received at the hands of Johnson’s consigliere Dominic Cummings.

Cummings appears to be betting that Labour will agree to a pre-October 31 poll, and wants to go to it with the Remain rebels deselected, and the Conservatives a 100% Leave and No-deal friendly party. Never an actual member of the Conservatives, Cummings and others within Number 10 may be equivocal about losing some seats to the Brexit Party, especially if the Tories are forced to a coalition with them. Thus the Conservative party would emerge from the election — win or lose — remade as a suburban/shires party of the nationalist right, and the Lib-Dems would be revived as the home of liberal-conservative (and social liberals, liberals left of Labour, free-marketeers, de facto Greens, and the just plain mad).

But it’s not only Boris in the jaws. Labour is doing well at the moment because, as with the 2017 election — where its “respect the result” policy obscured a split in its base on immigration — stopping an executive-led no-deal has lent it a unity of purpose.

An election will make it clear that a large section of its northern base are happy with no-deal under all circumstances, while its London and southern cities base want the referendum result ignored. Labour may have lost the chance to put a middle position — second referendum — in the recent polarisation. The election it “wants” — it hoped, under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, to oust whatever Tory PM was in, and get minor party support for PM Corbyn — threatens to gut it.

The Lib-Dems would suit left-liberal London areas more keen on socio-cultural leftism, and quite keen on a knowledge-capitalist economy, than would Labour, and once they’re gone, they’re gone. Brexit may have obscured the fact that UK Labour is in the same dire state as the German SDP, currently on 10-15% (here, preferential voting keeps Labor standing, like the stump holds up the scarecrow).

The Conservatives, in that regard, are relying on the left-right asymmetry, that left/liberal voters are more willing to follow their conscience, while the right will knuckle down to the big power. But, as noted, with the Conservatives adopting left tactics — witness yesterday’s Leninist forced split, pursuing the “will of the people” — the polarities are reversed.

Roger Scruton once remarked that the essence of traditional conservatism was expressed in Gilbert Scott’s classic red phone box design. Good thing too, because if this high-stakes play fails, the Tories may soon be meeting in one.

What’s next for the UK parliament? Is this really a blow for the Tories, or will Boris Johnson emerge stronger than ever? Send your thoughts to [email protected]. Please include your full name for publication.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey