BREXIT UPDATE 49: Johnson's Machiavellian Strategy: Guest Post by Deborah Maccoby

October 25, 2019

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BREXIT UPDATE 49: Johnson’s Machiavellian Strategy

As was expected (see the end of Brexit Update 48), the Speaker rejected the Government’s plan of holding another “meaningful vote” motion on Johnson’s deal on Monday (October 21).  Instead the deal returned to the House of Commons on Tuesday (October 22) as a Withdrawal Agreement Bill undergoing its Second Reading (the First Reading occurred when the Bill was briefly tabled and thus formally introduced to the Commons on Monday).

But the more important vote on that day was a Programme Motion — to be voted on after the Bill’s Second Reading – that put forward an accelerated timetable that would have rushed the Bill through all its stages at breakneck – in fact impossible — speed, in three days, by Thursday October 24.

Johnson introduced the Bill with a rhapsodic statement extolling his vision of “a global, self-confident, outward-looking country that can do free trade deals around the world as one whole entire United Kingdom”.  (Northern Ireland – though it is operationally and practically inside the EU’s customs union — is legally inside the UK’s customs union, so can be included in UK free trade deals). He dismissed questions pointing out that his mystical Schrodinger’s Backstop has created a border down the Irish Sea and that he has lowered standards for workers’ rights and the environment.

In his response, Corbyn summed up the new Withdrawal Agreement as “a charter for a Brexit that would be good for the hedge-fund managers and speculators, but bad for the communities that we represent, our industries and people’s jobs and living standards”.

In the course of his introductory statement, Johnson responded to a question about Twitter rumours that, if the Programme Vote were to fail, he would axe the Bill and seek a General Election.  Johnson said:

“I will in no way allow months more of this….If Parliament refuses to allow Brexit to happen and instead gets its way and decides to delay everything until January, or possibly longer, in no circumstances can the Government continue with this…..with great regret I must say that the Bill will have to be pulled, and we will have to go forward, much as the Right Honourable Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition may not like it, to a General Election….At that election I will argue ‘Let’s get Brexit done’, and the Leader of the Opposition will make his case to spend 2020 having two referendums – one on Brexit and one on Scotland – and the people will decide.”[1]

The pro-Corbyn Skwawkbox blog pointed out that Johnson was careful in his use of words – he said “I will in no way allow months more of this” – ie he implied he would be prepared to tolerate an extension of a few weeks to allow the Bill to go through all its stages at a normal pace. [2]

The Bill passed its Second Reading comfortably by 30 votes.  The DUP voted against; but the right-wing Brexiteers voted in favour, as did many of the ex-Tory rebels.  And so did 19 Labour MPs from Leave-voting areas.  However, some MPs voted for the Bill only so that it could go forward into “Committee Stage”, in which attempts would be made to change and add to it with amendments.

But the crucial vote was considered to be the one on the Programme Motion. And here the government was narrowly defeated by 14 votes, with the DUP again voting against and many of those who had voted for the Bill’s Second Reading voting no to an accelerated timetable.

After the Programme Motion was defeated, Johnson announced that he would “pause” the Bill until he found out the EU’s intentions as to granting an extension.  So he had not actually pulled the Bill, as he had threatened; he had put it on hold.

It seemed that the way ahead depended on how long the EU extension turned out to be.  By “pausing” the Bill rather than pulling it completely, and using the word “months”, Johnson gave the impression that he would, at least initially, seek a technical extension of a few weeks, to enable the Bill to go ahead with its stages through Parliament — but if the EU were to insist on a three month extension, then he would call an immediate General Election.[3]

The pro-Corbyn Skwawbox blog suggested on October 22 that in fact Johnson did not want a short technical extension, nor did he want the Bill to pass.  He appears to have “paused” the Bill not because he feared it would fail to complete its stages and become law, but because he was afraid it would succeed. His real aim, it seems, was to be perceived to have made every effort to pass his deal, but to have been thwarted in this by Parliament, so that he was forced into going to the people in a General Election.

There has for some time been a school of thought that argued that the secret Johnson aim – inspired by his eminence grise, Dominic Cummings — was not to leave without a deal (according to this theory, this was a kind of poker game bluff), but to manoeuvre Parliament into forcing Johnson into an extension, so that Johnson would then appeal to the public in a general election.  I mentioned this theory in Brexit Update 40, but dismissed it at the time as too tortuous and far-fetched.   It now seems as though this could have been the Johnson/Cummings strategy all along.

So it now seemed that, if the EU were to grant a three-month extension or longer, Johnson would say he has made every effort possible to implement Brexit, had achieved an excellent deal with the EU and was on the brink of delivering Brexit, but was being thwarted by the evil Remainer Establishment – the rich, powerful elite of Parliament and the Courts; so he was going to the people to enable him to win an election, return with a healthy majority and “Get Brexit Done”.

The new slogan “Get Brexit Done” was thought up by Dominic Cummings, who came up, during the 2016 referendum campaign, with the rallying-cry: “Take Back Control” – he evidently believes that “Get Brexit Done” will have the same magical popular effect.  And he could well be right.  In most polls, the Tories are at least ten points above Labour[4]; and an early December election could return Johnson to power with a comfortable majority.

Skwawkbox  argued  in its October 22 post that, “counter-intuitive” though it might seem, the best plan at present for Labour would be to allow the Bill to pass through all its stages in the course of a short technical extension of four or five weeks ( if this was granted by the EU).  This would probably mean a General Election in February 2020, held after the Bill had become law and the UK had left the EU.  If Brexit has already been “done” at the time of the election, this would rob Cummings’s magical slogan “Get Brexit Done” of its potency; and Labour could then concentrate on the real issues: poverty, the National Health Service, the environment.  Labour has little chance of winning an immediate December election, in which Brexit would be the only issue; but has a good chance of winning a February election, when the reality of the situation has begun to sink into people’s consciousness.

And Skwawkbox pointed out that, if Labour does win a February election, Corbyn could adapt Johnson’s deal – which is itself based upon the Maybot’s deal – in a few weeks to incorporate a permanent customs union and Single Market alignment with the EU; this would obliterate the need for an Irish backstop.  Skwawkbox quoted a senior Labour insider:

“Johnson’s Brexit is a bad deal and we will bury it by Easter.  But passing it now gives us a chance of Jeremy being PM after a February election.  The EU will then welcome us into a customs union and a strong single market deal.  Johnson will seem to win this battle, but not the war.”[5]

So it seems that it would be better for Johnson to hold an early election in December, before Brexit is delivered, but better for Corbyn to fight an election after Brexit is delivered.  Of course, there is a possibility that Johnson would face accusations of betrayal from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party if the UK is still in the EU at the time of the election; but Johnson has won back many voters from the Brexit  Party – which is now quite low in the polls[6] –as a result of his seemingly inflexible determination to “Get Brexit Done”; and he clearly thinks  that his claim of having been thwarted by the evil Remainer Parliament can override any threat from the Brexit Party.

After the defeat of the Programme Motion, Corbyn made an offer to Johnson to discuss with him a revised timetable for the Bill to be debated, scrutinised and amended.   And the two leaders did hold a meeting, but did not manage to agree on anything.[7]

But last night (Thursday October 24) – without waiting to find out the EU’s decision on whether to grant an extension or how long it would be — Johnson made a dramatic move.  He wrote an extraordinary letter to Corbyn in which he said that he intends on Monday (October 28) to table another motion (his third), under the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, for a General Election (for which he needs a two-thirds majority in Parliament).   And he made Corbyn an offer.[8]  This letter will be the subject of the next Brexit Update.