Opposition should keep Johnson twisting in the wind for now

by Hugo Dixon | 24.10.2019

Jeremy Corbyn and the other leaders should subject the Prime Minister’s terrible Brexit deal to scrutiny rather than saying “yes” to an election. They should also work on a contingency plan to ditch him in a vote of no confidence, but not trigger it yet.

Two elephant traps

Boris Johnson is trying to lure the Labour leader into backing an election on December 12 – on the assumption that the other European leaders will agree to his request to delay Brexit until the end of January.

Corbyn and the other opposition leaders don’t look like they will fall for this trap. With the Tories leading in the polls it would be foolish to hand him an election on the plate. If he won, he would be able to implement his rotten deal. One of the many bad things about it is that it merely delays the risk of crashing out of the EU’s single market until the end of next year.

The Prime Minister says that he will allow Parliament to resume its scrutiny of the legislation to approve his deal if Labour agrees to an early election on Monday. This is another trap. A motion under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA) cannot specify the date of an election. 

So if Johnson didn’t like the way MPs were amending the legislation, he could switch the election to February. By then, we would have crashed out. He could also threaten to quit with no deal in order to blackmail MPs into agreeing his Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) without changes.

Strip lipstick off pig of a deal

Opposition leaders must say “no” to the Prime Minister’s call for an election. But they also must come up with a viable alternative. 

Plan A should be to push the WAB through Parliament. Every day it is subjected to scrutiny, the more its flaws will be exposed. (Read this article for our rebuttal of Johnson’s latest false claims.)

Downing Street was briefing tonight that the government would pull the WAB if MPs don’t give him a pre-Christmas election. That’s a hollow threat. It needs MPs’ permission to cancel legislation. (See section 20.22 of Erskine May, the authoritative book on parliamentary procedure). 

True, the Prime Minister could go on strike and keep the WAB in limbo. But MPs can respond to that by scheduling debates and votes themselves. The idea wouldn’t be to pass it unamended. Rather, it would be to strip the lipstick off this pig of a deal and then improve the legislation.

A majority of MPs may now be in favour of the UK staying in the EU’s customs union. If so, they could offer Johnson a choice: either attach a customs union to his deal, or put it unamended to the people in a new referendum. A People’s Vote would be much better than an election because the issue of what happens to Brexit would not then be muddled up with the issue of who runs our country.

Prepare for a GNU

Johnson probably won’t play ball. So using the WAB to get a People’s Vote may only get so far. The opposition leaders therefore need a Plan B – to kick him out of Downing Street and create a government of national unity (GNU).

But they need to move carefully. Even if the Prime Minister loses a vote of no confidence and MPs are prepared to back an alternative, he may shamelessly continue squatting in Downing Street. There would then be an election – with Johnson still prime minister for the duration of the campaign.

So MPs should first change the FTPA so that a Prime Minister must resign if they lose a confidence vote and MPs want somebody else. The opposition leaders must also agree who would lead such a GNU – and what it would do.

Corbyn will obviously want to do the job himself. But he should hand over to somebody else if he can’t command the confidence of other parties.

As for the purpose of a GNU? Simple. Push through legislation calling for a Brexit deal (probably Johnson’s) to be put to the people; ask the EU for enough time to do that; and then persuade the public to cancel Brexit.

Edited by James Earley

7 Responses to “Opposition should keep Johnson twisting in the wind for now”

  • John McClintock: just accept it. It’s what a majority, small as it is, wanted. One of the silly and infantile characteristics of the British first past the post system.

  • John – I agree the best option now is still a peoples vote with remain as an option, and acknowledge your point. However, there are no guarantees. it will be up to the people again. If you trust, or even suspect (as I do) that the numbers have changed in the light of what we have learnt in the last 3 yeas (and especially the last few days) then I think we have to go for the ref/peoples vote, in order to deal with Brexit without the complication of other issues. Have the GE afterwards, when (hopefully, DV etc) the brexit issue is decided (one way of the other).
    If the GE comes first, that would to my mind be a much bigger and riskier gamble, with both main parties split or at least with multiple inconsistent subgroups. My own guess would be another hung plt, much as now, with perhaps Libdems and SNP holding the balance. But a Boris win would solve nothing – we’d be in an worse position than now.
    I reckon Peoples Vote first is the only way to get this country back on track.

  • Absolutely correct, Hugo. Let him stew in his own hubris. Johnson cannot be trusted. Peter Oborne’s expose on Open Democracy shows how No 10 is feeding fake news to the media. Using nomenclature such as an senior No 10 source’ lies are sent to the press. For example, Hilary Benn and Oliver Letwin have been colluding with foreign powers. Unless you know the person who is saying this stuff there is no way victims can get back at them. They would use the same tactics in any GE campaign.

  • @ McClintock
    If the result of the next referendum is 50/50, I suggest partition, only partly tongue in cheek. NI is practically already gone under Johnson’s bill, Scotland is to follow, and England, well….now that the Tories have divided and conquered everybody else, including themselves, why not chop England up? The country is dissolving anyway.

  • I know it’s fantasy but what we need is a leader with balls who can say “screw all this, turn back the clock and revoke A50”. But apart from Swinson, who obviously lacks the necessary equipment, there are no politicians who have the courage to point out the obvious – namely, leaving the EU is potentially absolutely disastrous. A GE will result in, probably, a tory win with another minority government who won’t be able to form an alliance with any of the other main parties because none of them can stand BJ and his policies.

    An overwhelming win for the LDems would be ideal but that’s for never-never land.

  • There’s a massive problem here in that some undecided people or even remainers like me have an issue with JC, DA & JM Given his colourful past and terrorist sympathies it’s likely to draw them the other way.
    This a massive opportunity missed by labour and probably to the cost of the remain movement.
    Why oh why can’t the Labour Party see this ?