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Don’t believe naysayers: Remainers are very much in business

by Hugo Dixon | 30.07.2019

We’re not going to crash out of the EU on October 31 – unless, that is, Boris Johnson calls an early election and wins it. Otherwise, MPs will force the new prime minister to delay Brexit yet again. And then we’ll be into either a referendum or an election. This will be fought on the issue of whether to leave the EU without a deal – or not leave at all.

So, contrary to those who have written off our chances such as the FT’s Camilla Cavendish, pro-European Brits are very much in business. Johnson’s hardline Cabinet appointments and his rhetoric about wanting to tear up his predecessor’s deal mean the probability of staying in the EU has risen.

The middle ground has vanished. The EU won’t give the new prime minister what he wants and he won’t be able to revive Theresa May’s dead deal. Meanwhile, there’s a posse of angry but sensible Tory MPs determined to do whatever it takes to stop us crashing out without a deal.

The rebels, including the former Chancellor Philip Hammond, are already in talks with Labour about what to do, according to the Observer. They have two main options.

The referendum route 

The first is to pass legislation forcing Johnson to ask the EU for extra time so we can hold a referendum. It’s not clear what parliamentary mechanism will be used. But where there’s a will, there is almost certainly a way. And if the UK wants to delay Brexit to hold a referendum (or indeed an election), the EU will grant it.

The rebels already foiled Johnson’s threat to suspend Parliament earlier this month by amending government legislation on Northern Ireland. So they have form. And earlier this year a slightly different band of MPs passed legislation to force Theresa May to delay Brexit. The fact that she had already decided to do so doesn’t detract from the fact that MPs grabbed control of the parliamentary calendar, contrary to the predictions of many pundits.

True, the rebels may fail to repeat the trick. Or Johnson may somehow sabotage an instruction to ask for extra time. But Parliament may be able to guard against this risk by giving the prime minister very specific instructions. Alternatively, it has even been suggested that MPs may ask the Queen, as head of state, to request a delay to Brexit instead of leaving it to the head of her government. 

Vote of no confidence 

If all these procedures fail, MPs can remove the prime minister by a vote of no confidence. True, Tory MPs would need guts to vote against their own prime minister. But Johnson has a wafer-thin majority. It would only take a handful of rebels to bring him down – and there are now probably enough who won’t cower at the sound of gunpowder. Even Hammond has hinted he might be one of them.

But what if the no confidence vote happened too late to hold an election before October 31? Wouldn’t we just crash out anyway? Game over for pro-Europeans, right?

Not so fast. If an election was called to determine whether we should crash out of the EU, it would be outrageous to leave before the voters had had their say. The prime minister would be under huge moral pressure to ask for an extension. The people might well punish him for such a blatant abuse of power. 

Johnson might even have a constitutional duty to ask for a delay. The Cabinet secretary has presented legal advice to this effect, although the attorney-general disagrees, according to the Sunday Times.

Emergency government? 

Now, of course, Johnson might press on regardless towards the abyss ignoring all wise counsel. But MPs could still then stop him. Under UK law, an election doesn’t automatically follow a vote of no confidence. There are 14 days to see if anybody can command a majority in Parliament.

We would be facing a situation where a prime minister was disregarding the will of Parliament and seeking to preempt the will of the people too. Sensible MPs from different parties might then come together to form an emergency government, whose sole purpose was to ask the EU for extra time to hold an election.

Naysayers may say the UK doesn’t do caretaker governments. But nothing in our constitution prevents them – and extreme situations call for extreme measures. 

If Johnson won the ensuing election, we would still crash out. But if pro-Europeans band together in a “remain alliance”, he would probably be dethroned. It might then not even be necessary to hold a referendum. The election would have been the “people’s vote”. The new government, presumably a coalition, could then cancel Brexit and get on with the business of fixing the country’s real problems.

7 Responses to “Don’t believe naysayers: Remainers are very much in business”

  • ” Otherwise, MPs will force the new prime minister to delay Brexit yet again. ”

    They cannot force him to delay Brexit. They can probably force him to ask for an extension, but any one of 28 countries (including the UK) can veto that.

    Given Macron’s sensitivities it won’t be difficult for Boris to provoke France into vetoing an extension.

  • Nice, Hugo! Very nice. The PM would be under huge moral pressure to ask the EU for an extension, you say. My assumption, going by Johnson’s form with blatantly telling porky pies and his behaviour in a few private matters dealing with unwanted progeny, is that Johnson has no moral fibre to talk about. He unfolded his flag in the Oxbridge dominated Brexit wide boy’s camp and seems much emboldened by it. He’s taken back control to himself and his friends and not to “the people”; wholly in the style of Donald Trump. No doubt the argument to do so was that democracy was in fact sinking the UK. It remains very much a case of preparing for the worst.

  • The sensible, rational EU grown-ups have said an extension could be granted for a good reason (no more ploys), ie a game-changer such as a new referendum or a general election. What Johnson will go for – if he has a choice – will be whatever he and Cummings think they have the best chance of rigging in their favour.

  • I sincerely hope that “The EU won’t give the new prime minister what he wants”, as this would be an absolute disaster. Firstly, we’d be out of the EU. Secondly, it would encourage a sense of British (really English) exceptionalism not that different from the belief in the superiority of the ‘British race’ in the nineteenth century. Thirdly, the final arrangement between the British and the EU (because a deal is just the start of the process) might well fall short of the hopes of the British, by then firmly convinced that they were the ‘victors’ because the EU had apparently folded. Such disappointment might make significant pro-Leave elements react much as the Italians did when the Versailles settlement didn’t adequately reward them after the First World War. None of these tings would be remotely good for this country. Let’s hope the EU and its member states stand up to Johnson (though I accept the point about Macron above). I’m convinced if they do we can stop No Deal.

  • I hope you are right, Hugo. But Johnson’s giveaways and absolutism over the leaving date could sink the Brexit Party and leave the Tories polling in the high thirties. Labour is getting even more inept and with the nationals gunning for Watson and Corbyn, plus most Blairites giving up on the party, they could go down below 20%.
    What is probably needed is for the rest of us to get behind the Liberals, even if they are not well placed to actually govern. Best of a bad bunch, etc. A hung parliament with no one wanting to work with Johnson may be the only way to change Brexit.
    There may be up to 13 seats available to the SNP as a result of Johnson’s elevation, so the Nats would need serious consideration – perhaps more devolution.

  • Well said, Hugo. If anyone wants to look at a consideration of the various scenarios have a look at ‘Preparing Brexit: No Deal’ by the Institute for Government. It will confirm just how crazy Johnson is. He is going to spend £100m of taxpayers’ money on propaganda to boost his chances. Please God, we can stop Brexit altogether.

  • I too hope Hugo is right and Camilla Cavendish is wrong. The situation is certainly grim though, or we would not even think of desperate measures to ask the Queen to intervene. Maybe William Taylor is right and we should pray to God.

    My guess is that Johnson calculates that if we fall off the cliff, there will be a public sense of relief that the worst is over, we have survived the fall and are still alive, Newspapers will trumpet triumph and promise a new golden age as both sides return to the negotiating table. An election will then be called to cement the crew of crooks in place.

    As I say, we should pray to God