UK politics enters uncharted territory while opponents of no deal find new hope

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 6 September 2019 in Inside Politics

What's going on in the Commons and what does it mean for the future of the UK?

Image credit: Holyrood

“Not a good start, Boris!”

The shout pierced through the buzz of the Commons from somewhere on the opposition benches, just as the tellers had provided the result of the motion.

This was Boris Johnson’s first Commons vote as Prime Minister, and it was a defeat. Sitting far behind him, it was tempting to wonder how much sympathy Theresa May felt for the plight of her successor, with a photo of the former PM laughing to herself as she was driven away from the Commons later that night seeming to provide a clue.

The results represented a clear blow to Johnson’s strategy, with MPs backing a motion to debate a bill preventing a no-deal Brexit by 328 votes to 301. The bill gave the PM until 19 October to either pass a deal in parliament or get MPs to approve no-deal, after which he would have to request an extension to the UK’s departure date to 31 January 2020.

And after the motion passed, the bill, too, succeeded in the Commons. Facing the prospect of a prime minister seemingly intent on forcing the UK out of the EU without a deal, MPs had wrested control of the Commons from the government.

It represented the end of a very bad day for the Prime Minister. A debate that ended in defeat had started with defection, as Tory MP Phillip Lee crossed the floor to join the Lib Dems, destroying Johnson’s majority in the process.

Other would-be Conservative rebels had been warned: back the government or lose the whip. It was a high stakes gamble and it failed, with 21 Tory MPs turning on Johnson and backing the call for a debate on the proposed bill. The government enacted the threat soon afterwards, with the PM apparently willing to throw figures, including Philip Hammond, Ed Vaizey, Sir Nicholas Soames and even Ken Clarke, out the party. Rory Stewart said he had been informed of the decision by text message.

Yet Johnson was defiant, rising to his feet moments after the result to follow threats with more threats.

“Let there be no doubt about the consequences of this vote tonight,” he said. “It means that parliament is on the brink of wrecking any deal we might be able to strike in Brussels.

“Because tomorrow’s bill would hand control of the negotiations to the EU. And that would mean more dither, more delay, more confusion.

“And it would mean that the EU themselves would be able to decide how long to keep this country in the EU.

“And since I refuse to go along with that plan, we are going to have to make a choice. I don’t want an election. The public don’t want an election. But if the House votes for this bill tomorrow, the public will have to choose who goes to Brussels on October 17 to sort this out and take this country forward.”

And so eyes turned to the opposition, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn ending an authoritative performance with an appeal to the oldest parliamentary traditions.

Addressing MPs straight after Johnson, he said: “We live in a parliamentary democracy. We do not have a presidency; we have a Prime Minister. Prime Ministers govern with the consent of the House of Commons representing the people in whom sovereignty rests. There is no consent in this House to leave the EU without a deal. There is no majority for no deal in the country.

“As I have said before, if the Prime Minister has confidence in his Brexit policy – when he has one he can put forward – he should put it before the people in a public vote. So 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.”

And so Johnson was left hanging on, with Labour confirming it would not vote for an election until the legislation blocking no deal had passed.

It was chaos and no one bothered to pretend otherwise. A week in which politicians, journalists and voters alike woke up each morning wondering where they’d find politics by the end of the day, in which parliamentary norms went out the window, and even the Lords were forced into overdrive.

Meanwhile, as parliamentarians worked frantically in their search for mechanisms to leverage power in the Commons, the Court of Session heard a case, brought by a group of opposition MPs, challenging Johnson’s power to prorogue parliament. The judge, Lord Doherty, rejected the case, finding that suspending parliament was a political rather than a legal matter, but with MPs vowing to appeal the decision, and parallel cases taking place in England and Northern Ireland, MPs headed back to the chamber to vote on the bill, uncertain whether or not parliament would definitely be prorogued.

A sense of confusion reigned everywhere, with questions outnumbering answers. What was Labour’s overall strategy here? Why was Johnson destroying his own majority? Why was he saying he didn’t want a general election, when it looked so much like he did? And what about Ruth Davidson? In what other time would her decision to quit as leader of the Scottish Conservatives be consigned to a footnote within days? If it seemed unbelievable, it was just one of many signs of rapid, tectonic change in UK politics.

Explaining the move in Edinburgh, Davidson said the decision was driven by a mix of the professional and the personal, with the birth of her son, Finn, making her reassess her priorities. Yet, given her previously acrimonious relationship with Johnson, it was inevitable some would look for other reasons.

She said: “You all know – and I have never sought to hide – the conflict I have felt over Brexit. Despite that conflict, I have attempted to chart a course for our party which recognises and respects the referendum result, while seeking to maximise opportunities and mitigate risks for key Scottish businesses and sectors.”

Davidson added: “As I look to the future, I see the Scottish election due in 2021 and a credible threat from our opponents to force a general election before then. Having led our party through seven national elections and two referenda, I know the efforts, hours and travel required to fight such campaigns successfully. I have to be honest that where the idea of getting on the road to fight two elections in 20 months would once have fired me up, the threat of spending hundreds of hours away from my home and family now fills me with dread. That is no way to lead.”

Davidson stressed that the decision to quit had come before the news Johnson would attempt to prorogue parliament – the hotel suite used for her conference had apparently been booked three days previously – but with events moving at breakneck speed, even her statement had become old news almost overnight.

Davidson had talked of a general election as a “credible threat”, but within a week, with Johnson making his first appearance as PM in the chamber, the prospect had begun to look not just credible, but inevitable.

Polling from YouGov, released the day after the vote and a week after Davidson quit, spelled bad news for the Scottish Conservatives, finding the party could lose 10 of their 13 seats in Scotland if there was a snap UK election.

The poll, commissioned by The Times, projected the SNP could secure 51 seats if a general election is called, with the Liberal Democrats taking four seats, the Conservatives three and Labour dropping down to just one seat.

Whether expected losses for the big UK parties in Scotland would be replicated south of the border seemed doubtful, but with the prospect of a no-deal Brexit moving closer, Labour stuck to its guns regardless. It would only back the call for a snap election once legislation forcing Johnson to seek an extension to Article 50 had passed the Commons. Until then, the party was content to leave Johnson to stew, in power but unable to act.

And so, less than 24 hours after being defeated in his first Commons vote as PM, Johnson’s attempts to push for a general election also failed. His brother, Jo, announced he would quit as an MP and leave the cabinet shortly after. Stuck with no majority and no election, Johnson was scathing, labelling the proposed opposition legislation a “surrender bill” and claiming it was the first time in UK parliamentary history an opposition had refused to go to the polls.

Yet if the sight of opposition parties refusing a chance to kick the PM out of office was extraordinary, it felt entirely in-keeping with a week in which the UK ploughed further and further into uncharted constitutional territory. Voters everywhere must be wishing for some clarity soon, while for his part, Johnson must just be hoping he fares better in future parliamentary votes than he did in the first three.

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