One step forward, one step back. That, one guesses, must have been Boris Johnson’s weary reflection after his victory and then his defeat on Tuesday evening. For the first time since the whole Brexit saga began, the House of Commons voted in favour of a deal to get Britain out of the European Union. But then it threw out his plan to get the legislation necessary to put that deal into law through Parliament in super-quick time. His chances of Brexit happening by his deadline of 31 October all but evaporated. This leaves him with a choice. Should he buckle down and do what the House of Commons wants and give it the time to scrutinise (and maybe amend) his Withdrawal Agreement Bill properly? Or should he try every means he can to call an election first and let a new Parliament, perhaps one less paralysed by a government without a majority, sort Brexit out?
Few would dispute the extent of the Prime Minister’s victory on Tuesday. Only a week before many had thought his chances of securing a deal with the twenty-seven other members of the EU on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal were slim. Yet a deal was done. Whether or not the deal was better than the one negotiated by Theresa May and thrice rejected by the Commons, let alone whether either was better than Britain changing its mind and staying in the EU after all, is, of course, a matter of dispute. And there were plenty of voices saying that the deal he had struck was the worst option yet. Not least among those voices was the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland who regarded the Prime Minister as having sold them down the river. But it was a deal and the sighs of relief were deafening.
Initially, though, at the unusual Commons sitting last Saturday, Mr Johnson failed to get backing for his deal in the ‘meaningful vote’ held to endorse it. That’s because MPs wary that the Prime Minister might find a way, if they backed it there and then, to abandon the deal and pull Britain out of the EU without a deal, amended the motion so that he couldn’t. So he came back to the Commons on Tuesday with his Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB), a hundred-page bill implementing the deal, and asked MPs to back it in a ‘second reading’ vote in principle. This they did by a majority of thirty, far larger than anyone had forecast. The majority was assembled through a fragile coalition of Tory loyalists, previously rebellious ultra-Brexiteers on the Conservative benches, pro-EU ex-Tory MPs who had earlier been expelled from the parliamentary party, and nineteen Labour MPs from Leave-voting seats who wanted, like the Prime Minister, to ‘get Brexit done’.
But Mr Johnson wanted to ram the Bill through its various stages in Parliament in three days, a speed that a majority of MPs thought outrageously fast for so far-reaching a bill. They threw out the plan by a majority of fourteen, demanding much more time to scrutinise it properly. To this the Prime Minister responded by ‘pausing’ the bill. The issue is what should happen now.
The first thing that needs to be established is whether the EU will grant Britain more time to sort its problems out. Mr Johnson had been forced by Parliament to apply to the EU for an extension beyond the current legal date of Britain’s departure, 31 October until 31 January 2020. He did so grudgingly, refusing to sign the letter and at the same time sending another one (signed) saying why he thought it a bad idea. At the time of writing we’re still waiting for the EU’s reply but few doubt that the request will be granted. That means the Prime Minister’s pledge to take Britain out by the end of this month will almost certainly be broken. It also means he has to decide how to use the extra time that will become available.
One option is to ‘unpause’ the WAB and let Parliament have the time it demands to give it the scrutiny it needs. How long that might be was the subject of inconclusive talks between the Prime Minister and the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, on Wednesday morning. But a bill of such length and of such significance would need many days of detailed debate if precedence is anything to go by. Should Mr Johnson go this route?
The argument in favour (from his point of view) is that allowing this parliamentary procedure to continue would allow the momentum of his victory on second reading to be sustained. It would also be consistent with the Prime Minister’s overriding wish to ‘get Brexit done’, albeit not by 31 October as he had promised. But the argument against is that the coalition that gave him his thirty-vote majority on second reading would soon break up as different groups started to amend the bill. What concerns him most is that MPs might change his plans to take the UK out of the customs union during the transition phase up to December 2020. Or that MPs might succeed in subjecting the deal to another referendum. Or any number of other possible amendments that could see the bill changed so much that the government itself would no longer back it and we’d then be back to square one.
If such a prospect seems too awful for the government to face, a quite different option might seem more attractive. It would be to say to MPs: ‘OK, you’ve backed the WAB in principle but you’ve refused to let us pass it into law in three days, so we’re going to pull it altogether and call an election so that the people can decide how we should proceed’.
The advantage to the Prime Minister in this option is obvious. Polls show the Conservative Party up to ten points ahead of Labour which, at only 25%, is attracting the lowest support it has enjoyed in over thirty-five years. Mr Johnson evidently believes he could go to the country as the man who had secured a deal with the EU, who was honouring the British people’s wishes as expressed in the 2016 referendum but who was being thwarted by ‘Parliament’: in short, he could mount a ‘People versus Parliament’ campaign. He might also think that in an election now he could see off the threat from the Brexit Party (which advocates leaving without a deal) because polls suggest many of its potential voters quite favour Mr Johnson’s deal.
But there are drawbacks too in the election option. In the first place, of course, the Prime Minister can’t simply call an election off his own bat. Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act he has to get Parliament to agree. But that might be easier said than done. One way of trying to do it would be to persuade two-thirds of MPs to vote for an election (as the law allows). But many MPs are still worried about the dangers of a no-deal Brexit re-emerging, not now but at the end of the transition period if a long-term trade deal hadn’t been agreed by then, and would want to lock that down before agreeing to an election. Another route to an election would be via a single-line bill calling for one (notwithstanding the Fixed Term Parliaments Act). But if he were to introduce such a bill it, like any other bill, could be amended, for example by extending the vote to sixteen and seventeen-year-olds, a development he might fear.
A further concern might be a very simple one: that having an election in the middle of winter would please no one. Bad weather and dark nights might deter the elderly from going out to vote, and the elderly vote is significant for the Conservative Party.
These are the considerations Mr Johnson will have to weigh up in considering how to proceed. But they are considerations with Tory Party interests at their centre. What is in the national interest? That’s where you come in. What do you think is now best for the country at the impasse we have now reached over Brexit? Assuming the EU grants the Brexit extension Britain has requested, should the extra time be used to allow Parliament the time it needs to scrutinise the Withdrawal Agreement Bill the Prime Minister has introduced to implement his withdrawal deal? Or should we use the time to have an election and see whether we can elect a government with a majority that can ensure it can get its business done, business that might be implementing Mr Johnson’s deal or might be something entirely different including, of course, reversing the Brexit decision altogether?
Let us know what you think.