Boris Johnson has looked into a muddy ditch and decided that’s not where he wants to die writes Alan Thornett.
Since the day he became Tory leader he has insisted that he would take Britain out of the European Union (EU), with or without an agreement October 31st – do or die. He attempted to close down Parliament illegally for five weeks so that it could not prevent him doing so and had to be overruled by the Supreme Court. But in fact, Britain will not be leaving on that date and Johnson has been forced to ask the EU for a three-month extension of membership. They have agreed to an extension but will decide on its length next week.
This comes just days after Parliament first voted to accept his new deal, with the help of 19 Labour MPs, at second reading – that is to continue to discuss it through to the third (final) reading stage – and then rejected his insulting proposal to allocate just two and a half days to discuss 500 pages of legal text that MPs had only been given sight of the evening before.
Rather than accepting a proposal from Jeremy Corbyn to negotiate an acceptable timetable to debate the deal – which the opposition parties rightly agree is far worse than that proposed by Theresa May and rejected many times by Parliament – he descended again into parody and offered the opposition parties more time to discuss the deal providing they accepted a December general election.
The opposition parties appear to have rejected it as a farce, and they are right to do so. The deal Johnson has negotiated changes the softer proposal accepted by Theresa May to a hard-Brexit deal based on a low pay deregulated economy involving a race to the bottom aimed towards a free trade agreement with the Trump’s USA. This was clearly exposed by Labour in the course of the debate.
Guarantees on workers’ rights and environmental protection, for example, were moved from the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement and inserted into the non-legally binding Political Declaration.
The most contentious changes made to the Withdrawal Agreement is the removal of the Irish Backstop. It will be replaced by two borders where there was none (including a border down the Irish Sea), changing the relationship of the north of Ireland to the UK and aligns it closer to Dublin in terms of trading regulations – a change that has predictably sent the unionists apoplectic with rage. A large meeting of representatives of the loyalist murder gangs, who comprise an important part of the DUP’s electoral machine, made it obvious that they will resort to violence if their demands are not met.
For the first time Tory MPs – including the European Research Group – voted unanimously for Johnson’s deal. This was partly because this was a second reading and therefore not decisive but also because it is now a hard-line Brexit proposal and the only road they can now see the no deal exit they want will be at the end of the implementation period where, if no agreement is reached, a crash-out will automatically follow.
The deal went through by a majority of 30 on with the help of 19 Labour MPs, led by Caroline Flint. How some of these MPs, who threw Johnson this lifeline, would vote on the third reading is unclear. Some of them argue that they voted this way in order to subject the deal to further scrutiny. Others are simply bitterly opposed to the Corbyn leadership. For them opposing Corbyn is an end in itself. They should all face deselection.
Johnson leapt to his feet after the second reading vote claiming that his deal had now been endorsed by Parliament. His jubilation was short lived, however, when the next vote, on an outrageously short timetable of the debate was lost by a majority of 14. Having just threatened a crash out on October 31st if his timetable was rejected, changed his mind and announced that the bill would now be ‘paused’.
Remarkably Johnson’s main pitch has been his negotiating prowess! That he had succeeded in reopening the Withdrawal Agreement and removing the backstop when his critics said that it could not be done! There is truth in this – at least on the face of it. What his critics did not know, of course, was that when he got to Brussels he would collapse in front of his own deadline, and the reality of leading a no deal crash out (just as May had done) and accept a formula to replace the backstop that May has previously rejected. In other words what his critics (including this one) underestimated was not his prowess but his capacity to collapse and his willingness to stab the DUP in the back.
His other mantra has been to weaponise the Brexit fatigue for which he is primarily responsible: let’s get it done! We have to move on! The only way to move on is to have a deal – any old deal! This could also be short lived when people start to realise how fraudulent it is. Even if this stage is completed, it is only stage one. We would then move into the implementation period (of 20 months) where the real arguments start over future relationships with the EU, including a free trade agreement.
Currently the Cabinet appears to be split on how to respond if the EU agrees to an extension. Johnson and Cummings appear to be arguing to put their efforts into trying to force a general election, whilst others argue for using the extension to get the deal through Parliament between now and the end of January.
The problem Johnson has if he pursues his deal to a third reading, is not just that the critique of it will become more refined and coherent, but that it will be subjected to a plethora of amendments, including proposals for a customs union and a people’s vote, some of which may well be adopted. It is true that there is probably still not a majority in Parliament for a second referendum, but there is mass support outside of Parliament and it is in any case the direction of travel.
Getting a general election before Christmas through Parliament under the Fixed Parliament would be impossible if Labour opposes it. Getting it through via new ‘one line’ bill would be open to amendments such as lowering the voting age to 16, or giving EU citizens living in Britain the right to vote – so Johnson will likely avoid it.
In a general election we face either a Labour government, possibly as the biggest party with the support of other left parties, most notably the Scottish National Party, with a radical left agenda; or a reactionary Tory Government driven by racism, populism, and English nationalism.
The danger of an election before a referendum is that it could be so dominated by Brexit that there would be no guarantee that Labour’s radical manifesto would cut through as it did last time because Brexit would have an even higher profile. Anything could happen. It would be better to deal with Brexit first and then have an election on the wider issues.
Labour has lost ground since the spring of this year because of its indecision over Brexit. It paid a heavy price for this in the EU elections and it lost ground to the Lib Dems as a home for remain voters. This was turned around at this year’s LP conference where it adopted an unequivocal ‘the people should decide’ policy.
Labour, however, has radically (and crucially) strengthened its anti-Brexit stance in two ways. First, by taking the leadership of the opposition parties to stop a no deal Brexit. The fact that the opposition parties were able to take control of the Parliamentary agenda and pass legislation making a no-deal Brexit illegal was down first and foremost to Labour. The decision of the opposition parties to refuse to fall into the trap of a general election before a no-deal Brexit is ruled out was also due first and foremost to Labour.
Labour is now unambiguously committed to a second referendum to validate whatever deal is put forward and by whoever, including itself. This has transformed the situation. By the time of the LP conference, the Labour leadership had fully endorsed a second referendum with an option to remain and said this would be in Labour’s manifesto whenever the general election takes place.
Johnson’s problem would be that he would be going into an election having failed to exit on October 31st. He will try to bluster his way out of it but his problem could be Farage and the Brexit party denouncing him as a sell out who can’t be trusted at the end of next year if another opportunity to leave without a deal arises.