Monday, 2 September 2019
The increasingly toxic emissions from 10 Downing Street in the last day or so are not what one might reasonably expect from a government confident of its position. They betray an air of increasing desperation. The government is now hoist with its own petard. Having engineered a completely unnecessary and unjustified prorogation of parliament, they have galvanised those opposed to a No Deal Brexit into urgent and co-ordinated action, whereas opponents on their own backbenches may otherwise have been prepared to wait a few more weeks to see if the government might after all succeed in negotiating a revised withdrawal agreement. The mounting panic in the Führerbunker was manifested by the threat which emerged yesterday to withdraw the whip from Tory backbenchers who vote against the government this week, and to de-select them as Tory party candidates in the next election. But those threats have come too late to deter a substantial backbench revolt. A significant number of Tory backbenchers have now reached the conclusion that they must put the national interest before their party’s narrow political interests and, in view of the extremist takeover of their party, they are now prepared to sacrifice any future political career they might have had as Tories, and to fight on as independents (or as a members of a different party). In some cases, they might simply give up politics altogether.
Faced with a real prospect of defeat in parliament this week, the government appears now to be contemplating an immediate move to call a General Election, and this is what could emerge from this afternoon’s unscheduled cabinet meeting. I discussed this possibility in a recent post, and warned that it would be a Tory trap that the Labour Party should avoid. Tony Blair made the same point in a speech this morning, when he described it as an elephant trap. Labour must not fall into that trap by voting for a General Election before parliament has removed the threat of a No Deal Brexit. It is essential that parliament should first pass binding legislation that forces the government to secure a further extension of the Article 50 process for long enough to enable the Brexit issue to be properly resolved, preferably with a fresh referendum to enable the electorate to pass a final verdict on Brexit in light of all that is now known about it. It is equally important that, before voting for a General Election, parliament ensures that the government has faithfully complied with that legislation (by means of a mandatory order from the courts, if that becomes necessary).
I discussed the mechanism and timing of a General Election in another blog post recently. If Labour were to vote for a General Election now, its timing could be arranged by the PM so as to ensure that it is too late to prevent or delay a No Deal Brexit but before the catastrophic results of a No Deal Brexit make themselves felt. From Reckless Johnson’s point of view, Thursday 31 October would be perfect timing for Polling Day. Bringing forward a motion for a General Election as early as tomorrow would also make it difficult, if not impossible, for backbench legislation to be passed that might force the postponement of Brexit beyond 31 October. If the Labour front bench is stupid enough to fall for this one, then it’s game over, and a No Deal Brexit becomes inevitable.
As for the election itself - with the government on course to deliver a No Deal Brexit on 31 October as Johnson promised, the guns of the Brexit Party would effectively be spiked. In those circumstances, and based on this uniquely propitious timing, the Tories would stand a very good chance of securing an overall majority, and Labour would be condemned to impotent opposition for another five years. The Labour Party membership, however, might not easily forgive Jeremy Corbyn for bringing about this electoral disaster, and such an outcome could spell the effective end of his political career.
UPDATE (6.15 p.m. Monday) : Johnson has just appeared on the steps of No.10, but instead of announcing a bid for an early election made a rather desperate, some might even say hopeless or pathetic, last-minute appeal to MPs (and especially to his own backbenchers) not to vote to delay Brexit. Yet commentators do not believe government plans for an early election have been shelved; all the noises coming out of Downing Street suggest that this is exactly what is being planned, and that this is what will be proposed if the government loses the parliamentary battle this week. But an election actually depends on getting the Commons to vote for it, and if Labour is wise, they won't vote for it until Article 50 has been extended for three months, as this week's Bill will propose.
UPDATE (Tuesday morning) : Labour seems to have got the message that an early election could be a trap, and are now talking about correct sequencing, i.e. delay Brexit first. Slightly worryingly, however, they are also talking about seeking 'a crystal-clear guarantee' about the election date before voting for it. But there can be no such guarantee. The actual date of an election is fixed on the PM's recommendation to the Queen. No Commons motion about the election date would be binding. The PM, even if he has given a 'guarantee' about the election date, could then produce some spurious argument that circumstances had subsequently changed in some unspecified way which had made it necessary to fix an election date of his own choosing. So it is essential that the opposition parties should vote against any proposal by the government to hold a General Election until legislation to delay Brexit for at least three months is actually on the statute book and has been implemented by the government. Johnson is said to want an election on 14 October (i.e. before the EU summit later that same week, when any possible tweak of the draft withdrawal agreement would be signed off by the Council of Ministers). [Incidentally, is the government seriously proposing to hold an election on a Monday ?] In fact, a vote on the possibility of an election should be postponed until after that EU summit has been held, because it is at that summit that the extension of Article 50 (called for by the legislation to be passed this week) will be agreed by the other 27 EU member states. If and when this has been achieved, then the PM could be given his election, but not before.
UPDATE (Thursday morning) : So far, so good. The Tory attempt to filibuster the Brexit Bill in the Lords has now been abandoned, and so it should be on the statute book by Monday at the latest. Meanwhile the opposition parties successfully resisted the government's attempt yesterday to call a General Election until the Bill now before the Lords has been passed. However, that is not enough to prevent Johnson from pulling a fast one and engineering a volte face to bring about a No Deal Brexit after all. Opposition MPs don't trust Johnson an inch, and they are right not to do so. That is why it is essential to withhold consent to an election until an extension to Article 50 has been secured from the EU. This cannot be guaranteed until the EU summit approves it on 17-18 October.
Clearly, with the government now in a minority in the Commons an election is inevitable, but Labour should ignore Tory taunts that they are 'frit' or frightened of an election. They should continue to refuse an election until Monday 21 October (so that in practice, the election would then be held at the beginning of December). Unfortunately, there are siren calls from within the Labour Party (from Shame-us Milne, the Labour counterpart to No.10's 'Dom' Cunning-Plans, among others) to go for an election now. Labour MPs know better and must stiffen Corbyn's resolve to stick to his guns, and to resist a General Election until Brexit has been postponed.
© MARTIN H GOODALL