We could be approaching the most important election of our lives. Is this the Brexit endgame?

Will Sadler
Aug 5, 2019 · 13 min read
Image credit: Philafrenzy, used under Creative Commons Licence

The mother of all parliaments is about to host the mother of all battles. Here’s how it could play out…

Strap yourself in, this autumn is going to be one hell of a rollercoaster ride. That’s because there is one overriding conclusion that can be drawn from the newly installed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s choices for cabinet: he is unequivocally aiming for a no-deal departure from the European Union on 31 October. The cabal of hard-line Brexiteer appointees and advisory teams is essentially a ‘Vote Leave’ reunion.

These people dare to call themselves patriots, but they are no patriots. They are disaster capitalists, complete with shady links to lobbying firms who are salivating at what treasures a deregulated low-tax British economy might offer. Amongst the many nightmares of a no-deal Brexit, they openly admit that their tactics could wipe out what is left of U.K. manufacturing, something that could cause thousands of job losses in my region: North East England.

As things stand, the default situation is that the U.K. leaves the E.U. on 31 October as simple application of law, unless Article 50 — the treaty provision that governs the withdrawal process — is extended or revoked. That means that technically, to leave without a deal, Johnson could just sit tight and do precisely nothing.

It’s not every day that a country falls out of the largest trading and political union on Earth. In fact, it’d be unprecedented; the fallout unpredictable, and I’m on the side of the argument that says severing ourselves from our largest market without a deal is likely to cause job losses, destroy livelihoods and open the door to a bonfire of regulations that will cause long-term damage to workers’ rights, the environment and consumers. That’s not to mention hikes in the price of food, or a wipe-out of British firms who cannot compete with a flood of cheap imports following a unilateral lowering of tariffs under WTO rules.

Johnson’s cabinet have nevertheless been on the PR offensive, claiming that a no deal Brexit was repeatedly discussed as a possibility during the referendum campaign. Research by both the BBC and Channel 4 television have unearthed no evidence of this — but plenty of inconvenient examples of assurances that a deal with the E.U. would be reached. This, combined with anti-no deal parties winning the plurality of the vote at the recent European Elections, proves an incontrovertible fact: a no deal Brexit would be directly against the will of the British people.

As he entered the second week of his premiership, Boris Johnson’s first gift from the electorate was to have his parliamentary majority cut to just one vote. Deep in rural Wales, a successful recall petition following his conviction for expenses fraud had forced Chris Davies, the Conservative MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, to recontest his seat.

The pro-European Liberal Democrats gained the seat — that in 2016 had voted by 51% to leave the European Union — with a majority of 1425 votes.

The first rule of by-elections is to not read too much into by-elections, but result aside, in time the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election could be considered an important turning point in the Brexit saga. That’s because it was the first time that pro-Remain parties: the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru formed an electoral pact.

The Greens and Plaid Cymru stood down their candidates to give the Liberal Democrats (who held the seat until 2015) the best chance of retaking it. Had they not done this, the UK’s first-past-the-post voting system would have almost certainly led to the pro-no deal Conservatives retaining the seat.

There are reports that these parties regard the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election as a testing ground for a potential ‘Remain Alliance’ in a possible snap autumn general election. Johnson’s wafer-thin majority, and his plans to try and force the U.K. out of the E.U. with ‘no deal’ at the end of October — something which parliament is united against — means that the mother of all parliaments is about to host the mother of all battles. A general election before the end of the year is looking increasingly likely.

The parliamentarians have three main tactics that they are ready to deploy to block no deal. The number willing to defy the executive has swelled since Johnson culled his cabinet of pro-Europeans. These MPs now sit on the backbenches, freed from ministerial responsibility and ready to defy the whip. It’s even included the remarkable spectacle of Phillip Hammond — chancellor until only a few weeks ago — going into talks with Labour’s Kier Starmer straight after his resignation to discuss cross-party strategies to block no-deal. We are heading into territory where the extent to which parliamentarians can subscribe to the mantra: ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ could determine this country’s future for decades.

The first line of defence will be amendments to legislation that travels through Parliament before 31 October, such as the Trade Bill, which has been sitting in legislative limbo after it’s fraught debut in the Commons many months ago. With ex-cabinet big hitters such as Phillip Hammond joining the ranks of the Tory rebels headed by former attorney general Dominic Grieve, it is almost certain that amendments blocking no-deal would pass.

But this strategy has its problems. A report by the Institute for Government suggests that none of the planned Brexit legislation necessarily needs to be passed before 31 October, even if we are hurtling towards no deal. Johnson could simply refuse to bring any of it forward. Parliament can’t amend legislation if there is no legislation to amend.

However, the Institute for Government also reported that there is one piece of legislation that the government may not be able to ignore until after 31st October: a bill to recentralise powers from Northern Ireland to Westminster. In the absence of a Northern Irish executive — on ice since power sharing collapsed two and a half years ago — this will be necessary to give direct instructions to civil servants in Northern Ireland as they try to get to grips with the fallout of no-deal.

Introducing emergency legislation to return Northern Ireland to full direct rule from Westminster would of course be politically toxic, but it would also provide an opportunity for parliamentarians to insert amendments to block a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

The second strategy being considered, is to take control of the parliamentary timetable in the same way that allowed the passing of the Letwin-Cooper Bill, blocking ‘no deal’ back in March. Whilst it is far from certain that parliament would be able to seize control of the agenda again, it will have an ally in Speaker John Bercow, who is clearly sympathetic to the idea.

The third and final course of action — the so-called ‘nuclear option’ — will be a no confidence vote in the government. I believe that parliament has the majority required to pass this — if necessary — not least because the political careers of the small handful of Tories that’d be needed to get it through are over anyway.

However, forcing an election wouldn’t only be the act of last resort for parliamentarians. It would provide a viable option for Boris Johnson’s too. If any of these strategies to block no deal are successful, it would almost certainly lead to an early election, not least because Johnson might call one himself.

A general election will be far more attractive to Johnson than another referendum, because in the current four-way race indicated by the polls, the Conservatives would only need to secure around 30% of the vote to form a majority government. Unlike a referendum, they could enact a no-deal Brexit, even if the majority voted against it.

Furthermore, if the election window straddles the 31 October deadline, the current attorney general has suggested that there is nothing compelling Johnson to seek an extension to Article 50, meaning that technically, he could force no deal simply by allowing the U.K. to fall off the cliff during the election campaign.

One could argue that this is stupid: surely the immediate chaos of no-deal, as ports of entry into the UK become gridlocked, would severely damage the Tories electoral chances? And yes, because of this, on balance I think it’s unlikely that Johnson would pursue this course of action.

There again, I think there are such dark forces at play here. How many of Johnson’s hedge fund supporters who backed his leadership campaign are set to make millions from a no-deal scenario? As revelations continue to emerge about private meetings between current cabinet ministers and libertarian U.S. trade lobby groups, it occurs to me that perhaps Johnson and his cabal could have incentives that override any loyalty to the electoral chances of the Conservative Party, never mind the country.

None of the consequences of the decisions they take have any effect on them or those closest to them. This complete detachment from the impact of their actions means they can quite literally treat the decisions they make as a game.

So, should Johnson attempt to pass a motion to dissolve parliament but refuse to include a commitment to extend Article 50 to accommodate the election, the parliamentarians will have one last card to play.

The first step would be to vote down Johnson’s motion and instead force and pass a vote of no confidence. This wouldn’t trigger a general election straight away.

Under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, there is a 14-day window to give an alternative government the chance to command a majority of the house before an election is triggered.

Within that 14-day window, a temporary government could be formed that lasted only a few days, or as long as it took to force emergency legislation through parliament that requested an extension to Article 50 to prevent an accidental no-deal departure during the election period. That government would dissolve itself and our third general election in four years would commence.

There are rumours that Johnson might call an election in the first week of September, therefore placing election day before the end of October. This would allow him to make the election a de-facto second E.U. referendum campaign, which would explain his polarising choices for cabinet and his advisory team. He’ll be hopeful that they can repeat the success of 2016.

In such an election, Johnsons’ message would be something like: “Parliament is defying the will of the British people. Deliver me a parliament that doesn’t get in my way, and let me take the UK out of the EU ‘do or die’ on 31st October”

An October general election — like the snap election of October 1974 — would mean a postponement of the party conference season, therefore preventing Labour from having a chance to rally their activists around a clearer Brexit position — an issue that still bitterly divides the party.

There again, by triggering an election that took place before Brexit was ‘delivered’, Johnson would be taking a risk. He’d need a pretty convincing argument that Parliament was doing everything it could to block Brexit from happening, and calling one so early in the Parliamentary season might not give him the chance to develop that case.

That’s why there is speculation that he might kick off the parliamentary year with a motion that asks parliamentarians to commit to delivering Brexit ‘come what may’, ‘deal or no deal’ on 31 October. If this motion fails, he’ll call a general election, and use this as ammo to ‘prove’ parliament is defying Brexit.

Alternatively, he might wait until it is clear from parliament’s own actions that it is intent on blocking a no-deal departure from the bloc. This is where we get into the territory of a November or even December general election.

If and when a snap general election does happen, where does this leave Labour, the main opposition party? They remain in the midst of what seems a never-ending quagmire over Brexit. Following the local elections in the Spring, and in what I believe was a massive error of judgment, Labour entered talks with the Conservative government to try and agree adjustments to Theresa May’s Brexit deal in order to win the backing of Labour MPs. This moment coincided perfectly with a haemorrhaging of support from Labour to the Liberal Democrats and Greens in the polls, a phenomenon that made its debut in the real world through the humiliating results of the European elections.

And yet — putting aside the fact that you need a degree in forensic science to learn this — it does seem that Labour has now switched its position to support a second referendum in all circumstances. There is nothing about this in Jeremy Corbyn’s recent email to members or on the Labour website. These only commit the party to a referendum on a ‘Tory’ Brexit deal or to prevent ‘no deal’, and makes no reference to Labour’s position if they reach government. But recently, on the Sophie Ridge on Sunday programme, Corbyn did clarify that a referendum would apply in all circumstances — including on a ‘Labour deal’ — albeit only after being asked the question three times.

The irony is that if they played it right, I think Labour could be uniquely placed to sell the idea of a second referendum to ‘leave’ supporters too. The argument could go something like this. If Theresa May’s government couldn’t decide what kind of Brexit it wanted, and if parliament can’t decide what kind of Brexit it wants, then who should decide? An unelected Prime Minister? A cabinet of former lobbyists with links to elite hedge fund billionaires? Or the British people?

It’s also interesting to note the evolving positions of Corbyn-loyalist commentators.

Having originally wanted to see Brexit implemented, the never ending mess that it has become has led Owen Jones to support Labour pivoting unequivocally to a ‘remain’ position. Perhaps realising that Brexit is and always has been nothing other than a vanity project of the hard right, Ash Sarkar now argues that Labour should switch unequivocally to a ‘rebellious remain and reform agenda’. Labour-left veteran Paul Mason, who has gradually become more critical of Corbyn over time, has called upon the party to form an electoral alliance to defeat Johnson’s ‘no deal’ plans.

Whilst I agree with Mason’s suggestion, I think there is near zero chance of Labour forming electoral alliances of any kind. What I think we can more realistically hope for in a looming general election is that Labour will focus resources into Labour-Conservative marginals rather than seats where their opponent is also against a no-deal Brexit. If we’re lucky, they might even turn a blind eye to pacts agreed at local level by constituency parties, rather than expel members for doing this, as they have done in the past.

I think many voters — particularly ‘remainers’ who despair at Labour’s obfuscation and moderate ‘leavers’ who look on in horror as Johnson talks up no-deal — have completely lost faith in the ability of our political parties to grab hold of the situation in which we find ourselves.

But if you have lost faith in our political leaders, don’t yet lose faith in the British voter.

As Stephen Bush points out in the New Statesman, which of the two main parties wins the most seats after an autumn election depends almost entirely to what extent the Tories loses seats to the Liberal Democrats, and Labour lose seats to the Tories.

If Corbyn is to be believed, expect a Labour manifesto to commit to a referendum in all circumstances, offering a choice between a specific form of Brexit that maintains close ties to the European Union and ‘remain’. This should help to pull back support from some of those voters who defected to the Lib Dems and Greens, thereby mitigating the split in the progressive vote and preventing Tory success by the back door. If it’s unable to convince Labour-leavers of the benefits of a second referendum then this strategy will cost Labour pro-Brexit votes. But in the same way as Johnson has chosen his poison, Labour must choose theirs, and the evidence seems clear to me. A survey commissioned by the People’s Vote campaign suggests that a majority in every Labour constituency now back a second referendum. Research by the highly respected John Curtis points out that for every voter Labour has lost to the Brexit Party, it has lost three to the Lib Dems and Greens. They have to prioritise getting those voters back.

Meanwhile, considering UKIP were never much of a threat in general elections, and until their demise and the rise of the Brexit Party this year, the Conservatives have not much experience of handling the challenge of a split right-wing vote. Any moves by Johnson to try and form a Conservative — Brexit party pact (something that appears to be dividing the right wing press) could backfire spectacularly if it prompts an exodus of social-liberal Conservative voters to the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats. If the Brexit Party doesn’t enter an electoral pact with the Conservatives but nevertheless stands candidates, then the split in the pro-no deal vote would gift an advantage to the pro-European vote, because the decades-long fragmentation of the progressive left in British politics means progressives are far more used to tactical voting than the right.

The direct impact of a pro-European electoral pact (which would almost certainly exclude Labour) would probably be minimal — only enough to make a difference in a small handful of seats. There again, in a tight and unpredictable race, this could be the difference between Johnson achieving an overall majority or not. More importantly, the indirect impact of such initiatives — bringing tactical voting into the national conversation — could be far more wide-reaching. Such talk is already inspiring a tactical voting campaign on a scale that may never have been seen before in British electoral history. People’s Vote are targeting 100 key marginal constituencies to try and rally support behind the pro-European candidate most likely to win. Independent MP Heidi Allen has initiated the Unite to Remain initiative that focuses on encouraging political parties to work together where they can.

So, if there is a general election in the autumn, prepare yourself for the battle of the tactical voters.

6.5-million of us are estimated to have done so in 2017, leading to the surprise result that saw Labour gain the biggest swing in a generation and the Conservatives to unexpectedly lose their majority.

So, whilst yes, we really shouldn’t read too much into by-elections, the Brecon and Radnorshire result proves that a combination of electoral alliances and tactical voting can work for the pro-European wing of British politics — even in leave-supporting constituencies.

With a bit of luck, this approach might work at the next general election too. And just like in 2017, we might be surprised by the results.

You can follow me on Twitter @mrwillsadler

Read more from Will Sadler

Will Sadler

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Have just rejoined the Labour Party after an 18-year gap; no expert, just a self-educated geek; write about Brexit, Labour & the politics of NE England

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