BREXIT UPDATE 51: The Run-Up to the General Election: Guest Post by Deborah Maccoby

October 30, 2019

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Yesterday (Tuesday October 29), the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to hold a General Election on December 12.  But on Saturday (October 26), when I posted the last Brexit Update, it seemed that Johnson’s plan for a December 12 election was about to fail; it appeared very unlikely that he would muster the required two-thirds majority for his motion, to be debated on Monday (October 28), for a December 12 General Election, to be held under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.  So what has happened in the past four days?

On Monday morning, before the vote, the EU issued its decision about the length of the extension.  I wrote in Brexit Update 50 that the EU was likely (as it had done last April) to decide upon a “flextension” – ie a flexible extension that could end at any time if a deal was reached.   And this is indeed what the EU declared it had resolved upon.  The “flextension” is to January 31, 2020, as was required by the letter that Johnson had been forced to send.  But this three-month extension is not fixed; it is only a fall-back (as it were, a backstop) to prevent the UK leaving without a deal if a deal is not approved by Parliament.[1]  Johnson was in no way prevented from continuing with the stages of his Withdrawal Agreement Bill for four or five weeks and then taking the UK out of the EU with a deal.

Nonetheless, he pretended that he had been forced by Parliament into yet another long extension and went ahead with the motion, held under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, for a General Election on December 12.  But, as was expected, Labour abstained, so that the motion did not achieve the two-thirds majority that Johnson needed.

In the meantime, however, two smaller parties – the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Paty (SNP) – had hatched a plan of their own (the world of Brexit generates multiple plots and stratagems).  Over the weekend, they had written to the EU requesting a three-month extension and had decided to put forward a Bill for an election on December 9.  The difference between a Bill and a motion under the Fixed Term Parliament Act is that the Bill doesn’t require a two-thirds majority; it only needs a simple majority.

The Lib Dems and SNP chose December 9 because of fears that Johnson might go ahead after all with trying to get his Brexit deal passed  before Parliament was dissolved – both the Liberal Democrats and the SNP are passionate Remain supporters who do not want any Brexit deal to be finalised (if election day had been December 9, Parliament would have been dissolved three days earlier, on November 3).  And they also argued that by December 12 students would have gone home from their universities for the Christmas holidays, whereas on the 9th they would still be in their university towns (where most of them are registered as voters).[2]  Another reason seems to have been simply that the Lib Dems and SNP wanted to “own” the election by choosing a different date from that decided upon by Johnson.

Taking his cue from the Lib Dems and SNP, Johnson decided to put forward a Bill himself , though he insisted on his original December 12 date – partly, it seems, so that he could “own” the election and partly for the reason that Parliament needed to finalise a budget for Northern Ireland, since its Assembly has been suspended for over two years (as a result of a bitter row between Sinn Fein and the DUP).[3]

It was announced, however, that Parliament was not bringing back the Withdrawal Agreement Bill; there would be no attempt to push it through Parliament before the dissolution date of November 6. [4] This appears to bolster the theory (which I previously dismissed  — see Brexit Updates 40 and 49 – but which is the only theory that makes any kind of sense of otherwise inexplicable recent happenings) that Johnson’s real aim has been neither to pass his deal nor to leave with No Deal.  It appears that what he really wanted all along was a General Election in which he could campaign on the slogan “Get Brexit Done”, after being perceived to have made every effort to “get Brexit done” but to have been thwarted by the allegedly Remainer Parliament.

Johnson assured the EU that he would easily and quickly pass the deal through Parliament; and indeed it looked as though he could have done so in four or five weeks.  But, by deliberately tabling an impossibly rushed timetable of three days that was inevitably rejected by Parliament, he created an excuse that enabled him to pull the Bill and push for a General Election in which he can pose as having been prevented from passing the Bill by the House of Commons.   Introducing the motion on Monday, Johnson said:

“There was a tantalising moment when I thought that Parliament was going to do the sensible thing, and then this House threw out the programme motion, at the urgings of the Opposition, at the final hurdle, as they intended all along……Last week, I wrote to the Leader of the Opposition offering him more time for debate….He turned us down on Thursday and Friday…..They are not interested in scrutinising Brexit.  They are not interested in debating Brexit.  They just want to delay and cancel Brexit.”

In using the deal in this way for his own political ends, he has betrayed the assurances he gave the EU that Parliament would soon pass the deal – just as the deal itself has betrayed the promises he gave the DUP.  One of the notable features  of Monday’s debate on the motion was an impassioned speech by Sammy Wilson of the DUP, who said:

“The agreement goes totally against the promises made by both the former Prime Minister and the current Prime Minister – that there would be no impediments to trade between our part of the United Kingdom and GB [Great Britain, ie England, Scotland and Wales] and that there would be no danger of the Union being imperilled.”[5]

On Tuesday (October 29), Johnson brought a General Election Bill before Parliament for its Second Reading (it had had a brief First Reading on Monday, when Johnson formally introduced it to the House).   This time, Labour announced that it would support a General Election and vote for the Bill.  So why did it support the Bill, after it had rejected the motion the day before?

Labour indicated that the reasons were that a) the extension offer from the EU had been accepted and formalised, so there was now no danger of No Deal on October 31; and b) if the motion under the Fixed-Term Parliament Act had passed, Johnson would have had the power to change the date and also to decide when Parliament should come back after the election.  There had been fears that he could change the election date to a date in January close to the new January 31 deadline and could select a date for the return of Parliament that would mean he could take the UK out of the EU with No Deal at a time when Parliament was not sitting.  But, if a General Election was secured in the form of a Bill that became an Act, the Prime Minister would not have these powers; he would not be able to change an Act of Parliament.  Corbyn had said he would not vote for a General Election till the threat of No Deal was entirely removed; this is apparently what he meant.[6]

But, as I wrote in Brexit Update 49, Labour had been reluctant in any case to agree to a December election before a Brexit deal had been passed.  As I wrote then, citing Skwawkbox, Labour would have preferred a later election, probably to take place in February, after Brexit had been “done”, so that Brexit – and Cummings’s slogan “Get Brexit Done” — would not be the dominant issue.  But the intervention by the smaller parties made it very difficult for Labour – now that the threat of No Deal had been removed by the EU’s extension offer having been formalised and the general election having been put forward in the form of a Bill – to refuse.  Both the Liberal Democrats and the SNP, as Remain parties, benefit from making Brexit the only issue – indeed the position of the Lib Dems as the leader of Remain has been the main reason for their recent resurgence after years languishing in the polls.  But Labour is neither a Leave nor Remain party – it straddles the divide.  Labour’s strategy now will be to turn the debate during the election away from Brexit and on to the real issues:  poverty, food banks, public services, environment.

The Bill went through all its Commons stages in one day.  It passed its Second Reading without a vote, “on the nod”.  It then went into “Committee Stage”, where it could be amended (the whole House became one Committee for this process, in order to expedite matters).   Skwawkbox had argued that Johnson was reluctant at first to put forward a Bill (which, unlike a motion under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, is amendable), because of a proposed amendment to reduce the voting age to 16 (see Brexit Update 50).   And indeed, if this amendment had been selected and had passed (thus benefiting Corbyn, for whom many 16 and 17 year olds would want to vote), Johnson would have pulled the General Election Bill – as he would also have done if another proposed amendment to allow EU citizens with settled status to vote had been selected and passed.  But neither of these two amendments was selected by the Speaker. Instead a cross-party amendment on changing the date of the election to December 9 was selected and debated, with yet more bickering over the date — but this amendment lost by 20 votes.  The Bill then underwent its Third Reading, at which it was passed overwhelmingly.  The vote was:  the Ayes: 438; the Noes: 20.[7]   The Bill cleared the House of Lords tonight (Wednesday October 30)[8] and will become law by the end of this week.  So the fight is now on.

The Tories are at present ten points ahead of Labour in the opinion polls.  But the elections expert John Curtice has predicted that neither of the two main parties will gain an overall majority.  He thinks there could be in the new Parliament over 100 MPs from the smaller parties.  He adds that this would be a blow to Johnson rather than Corbyn, who would be in a position to build a coalition government:

“It’s an election that Boris Johnson has to win. If he does not get a majority or something very close to it, he will not be able to stay in government because the Conservatives do not have any friends elsewhere.  The Labour Party, by contrast, at least has the possibility of doing a deal with the SNP, a deal with the Liberal Democrats, getting support of the Greens and maybe even the DUP not standing in their way.”[9]

For the Liberal Democrats, a Labour-led government would be their only chance for Remain, since Labour has promised that, if elected, it will hold a public vote in which the choice would be between a Corbyn deal and Remain.  And Labour would probably allow the SNP a second referendum on independence for Scotland.  Johnson, meanwhile, is attacking Labour on precisely these points, saying that Corbyn intends to spend 2020 holding two referendums, one on Brexit and one on Scotland (see his letter to Corbyn in Brexit Update 50.)  But Johnson is taking a high-risk gamble; and there is a ray of hope for Labour.

The next Brexit Update will report on the opening stages of the election campaign.