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by Rebecca McQuillan
25 October 2019
Analysis: Boris Johnson won’t pass his Brexit deal by Halloween, so what might happen next?

Boris Johnson No 10 PA

Analysis: Boris Johnson won’t pass his Brexit deal by Halloween, so what might happen next?

There are two words that will dominate the closing months of 2019, the same ones that have dominated every other month for what seems like forever: ‘Brexit’ and ‘election’.

With Brexit now delayed past Halloween, Boris Johnson is pushing for an election. And any election will be all about Brexit. 

There really is no escape.

The gargoyles adorning the Palace of Westminster might be enjoying the ghoulish spectacle of the Brexit war of attrition, but there can be few others who are. Brexit haunts the House of Commons like a delinquent spirit, sowing division and mayhem. Brexit fatigue has seeped deep into the bones of ministers, MPs, journalists and voters alike, but there can be no rest without agreement, and that is still as elusive as ever.

What we can expect ad nauseam is the accusation that this parliament must be removed in order to – yep, you guessed it – get Brexit done.

Boris Johnson surprised MPs by concluding a deal with the EU on 17 October, albeit by going back on his promise to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) not to put what amounts to a customs border in the Irish Sea. He secured parliament’s backing for the deal last Tuesday.

But in spite of this unexpected fillip for the Prime Minister, just hours later, the bill was on ice and all the talk was of a general election.

How did Boris Johnson snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? It came down to his attempt to catapult his bill through parliament rather than accept even a short extension, a timetable MPs rejected.

He was quick to blame this on parliament and Remainer MPs opposed in principle to a deal, but the opposition were having none of it, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn describing Johnson as “the author of his own misfortune”.

Positions are, of course, deeply entrenched, but a deep-seated lack of trust in the Prime Minister contributed to his defeat.

The UK Government attempted to truncate the scrutiny period for the 115-page bill to three days, when international treaties are normally before parliament for at least 21 sitting days, which led immediately to the accusation that it was trying to bounce MPs into backing the legislation. The Chancellor’s insistence that no economic impact assessment of the deal was required only increased MPs’ antipathy. They are convinced that the UK Government really wants to conceal the damage the deal would do to the UK’s short and medium-term economic prospects.

Could Labour delay indefinitely? Not without exposing itself to ridicule

Condemnation was swift. The UK Government was trying to force the bill through without detailed scrutiny, either by Westminster, Holyrood or the Welsh Senedd, declared the first ministers of Scotland and Wales, Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, at a joint press conference the following day. Both leaders said their respective parliaments would be unlikely to ratify the bill. Sturgeon insisted that the bill required the devolved nations’ consent, but Boris Johnson bluntly rejected the claim.

Concerns abound over the bill’s lack of safeguards on workers’ rights, with Labour and other parties believing that the UK Government wishes to deregulate the UK labour market if it gets the chance, and there is anxiety about what appears to be an attempt to cut parliament out of preventing no-deal at the end of the transition period.

The DUP, meanwhile, is angry with the Prime Minister for allowing the customs border in the Irish Sea and does not accept the recommended consent mechanism.

Had the bill proceeded to a second reading, there would certainly have been attempts to amend it, including to facilitate a second referendum or to incorporate a customs union. So Johnson announced that if the EU agreed to a three-month delay, he would push for a general election. He rebuffed Jeremy Corbyn’s attempts to renegotiate a longer scrutiny period for the bill and left the legislation in limbo, dozing in the proverbial ditch.

This perhaps betrays his fear that if MPs can amend it, a majority of MPs could abandon their attachment to best-case scenarios and vote for a customs union, turning Johnson’s hard Brexit into a much softer version, providing for ongoing close links with the EU. That result would please business and satisfy many voters – arguably, it was the position all along that offered the greatest hope of consensus – but would also breathe life back into the cooling embers of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and badly dent the Conservatives’ chances of winning any election.

However, on Thursday, Johnson announced that he intends to seek MPs’ backing for a general election on 12 December in return for giving them more time to scrutinise the deal.

No matter how much Boris Johnson tells voters that they just want Brexit done, they don’t seem to be getting the message

Yet even a general election is not in the beleaguered Prime Minister’s control. The UK Government cannot simply call an election due to the provisions of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, which requires a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons to approve a poll. It needs parliament’s backing.

Labour has called repeatedly for a general election, but has abstained on two votes that would have facilitated one, insisting that an election must be timed so as to avoid a no-deal Brexit and it looks unlikely that Johnson will garner opposition support for a general election without a guarantee that the UK cannot crash out of the EU without a deal.

Could Labour delay indefinitely? Not without exposing itself to ridicule. Rightly or wrongly, nothing tells voters ‘we’re gonna lose’ like continually refusing an election, but it may delay a little longer yet.

Johnson could attempt to force an election in other ways, such as by introducing a one-line general election bill, requiring only a simple majority to pass, or calling a vote of no confidence in himself, thereby daring Labour to reject his resignation offer and beg him to stay. 

What we can expect ad nauseam is the accusation that this parliament must be removed in order to – yep, you guessed it – get Brexit done.

The voters he has in his sights are, first and foremost, Tories who have defected to the Brexit Party. He will also hope to capitalise on Brexit fatigue by winning over others, both leave and remain voters, who just want Brexit put to bed.

But analysis by Professor John Curtice shows that those who support his deal “don’t even come close” to half the electorate. More voters believe the deal would be bad for Britain than think it would be good.

No matter how much Boris Johnson tells voters that they just want Brexit done, they don’t seem to be getting the message.

And a winter election is a tough prospect. Bad weather could deter disproportionate numbers of older voters, who are more likely to vote for pro-Brexit parties like the Tories.

Even so, Johnson is well ahead of Labour in the polls and stands to emerge as the leader of the largest party. An outright majority is possible, though campaigns are unpredictable and he will know better than to underestimate Corbyn after the Labour leader increased his vote from 25 per cent at the beginning of the 2017 campaign to 40 per cent on polling day.

But if Boris Johnson does make it back into Downing Street, what then? Even with a more amenable parliament at his disposal, the self-congratulation could be short-lived. Not only would he have to solve Brexit, perhaps without a majority, forcing him to compromise in ways his Eurosceptic backers would abhor, but a Boris boost at the polls in England would likely boost support for the SNP in Scotland, where there has been a slight increase in support for independence and for a second independence referendum since he came into office.

He already stands accused of weakening the union with Northern Ireland.

It is far too early to predict that Boris Johnson will preside over the end of the union. A poll conducted at the beginning of October by Progress Scotland, the research group headed by the SNP’s former depute leader Angus Robertson, found that 40 per cent of Scots favoured independence while 51 per cent opposed it, though the level of opposition is down since March.

The conditions of a campaign would open up new fronts which would be harder for the Yes campaign than the ‘Scotland versus Boris’ narrative that has worked so well for the SNP so far. But Scotland could still turn out to be a whole lot scarier for the PM even than Brexit.

Perhaps mindful of that gathering storm, he tried at Prime Minister’s Questions to paint Jeremy Corbyn as the real threat to the UK union (the Labour leader having contemplated giving assent to a second independence referendum).

But the SNP will not see it that way. A progressive Labour government at Westminster will be a tougher opponent come a referendum than Johnson.

Everyone wants to see Brexit resolved, albeit in dramatically different ways. But even if the Prime Minister succeeds in exorcising that spectre, another even greater menace to his reputation could rise in its place.

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Read the most recent article written by Rebecca McQuillan - The Holyrood baby turns eight: There’s no end to the cost-of-living crisis for Kirsty.

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