Wednesday 7 August 2019
As Downing Street stamps its authority on Britain’s impending departure from the EU, the Remain campaign suddenly finds itself out of constitutional ordinance.
“I am confident that Parliament does have a way of preventing a No Deal exit on October 31 without parliamentary consent and I intend to work with others to ensure Parliament uses its power to make sure that the new government can’t do that,” said Philip Hammond on the Andrew Marr show last month alongside announcing his imminent resignation in anticipation of Boris Johnson’s arrival in office.
There’s only one parliamentary lever for Hammond and his allies to pull, a no confidence motion triggering a general election, and it’s already too late.
“They don’t realise that if there is a no-confidence vote in September or October, we’ll call an election for after the 31st and leave anyway,” Boris’s chief strategist, Dominic Cummings told ministers and officials during a Downing Street briefing, the Telegraph reported on Saturday.
“I can’t see how the courts could say the Prime Minister wasn’t entitled to take political considerations into account. It’s an intensely political process. These aren’t questions of law for the courts,” said Lord Sumption on the Today programme.
Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act the prime minister is under no obligation to resign if he doesn’t receive the confidence of a majority of MPs. The timetable of the ensuing general election is his prerogative, the monarch is obliged to heed his recommendation. This is the most cast-iron feature of the entire withdrawal fiasco since the backstop was conceived almost two years ago.
Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act an early general election cannot be called until 14 calendar days after the no confidence motion has passed. Polling day is then set no earlier than 25 working days after the ensuing dissolution of Parliament. Had Jeremy Corbyn ganged up with the Lib Dems to table a motion before recess, as suggested by their new leader Jo Swinson, the opposition might have been able to squeeze an election just before the end of October, but they didn’t.
The ministerial briefing has scared the life out of the likes of Hammond whose nerves will already have been shredded by Boris’s barnstorming arrival at Number 10, since which he has doubled down on No Deal Preparations.
Naturally, Dominic Grieve fired back, claiming an emergency “government of national unity” could be formed in time to plead for an extension with Brussels. “There are a number of things which the House of Commons can do, including bringing down the government and setting up a new government in its place,” The deselected MP for Beaconsfield told the BBC.
But where’s the substance? In truth, Grieve is running out of ideas. In his desperation to hit back, he is carelessly revealing how weak his hand is.
Again, like Hammond the threat is vague, insipid. Lib Dem MP turned academic, David Howarth has attempted to add flesh to Grieve’s bony declaration, in doing so he has only weakened it further. He kicks off his rebuttal with the following.
The situation would be that Johnson, having lost the confidence of the House, simply squats at Number 10. Can anything be done to dislodge him? The answer is technically yes. The Queen can dismiss him. Admittedly no monarch has exercised this power since 1834, and it was a bit of a disaster then, and the Queen would almost certainly not exercise it if there was any chance that an incoming Prime Minister would fail to command the confidence of the House.
With that reassuringly gloomy preface Howarth goes onto sketch out a fragile process whereby “it should be possible” to table an emergency motion under Standing Order 24, which under a recent revision of parliamentary procedure could be amended to prescribe a new prime minister and government to take over with immediate effect and stop Brexit.
Note, SO 24 is the last resort for another Commons takeover. 19 of the 20 opposition days have already been used up and the government designates when the single remaining day is used.
The Remainers have the Speaker, John Bercow on their side. Bercow de-neutralised SO 24 to make it amendable and has already suggested the opposition use it to direct Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. The theory has merit, but the pre-eminent political reality begs to differ.
First, there’s the precedent. In March and April, the House of Commons couldn’t agree on a single alternative to Theresa May’s deal when MPs took control of the House to hold indicative votes on what to do instead. The Remain side is fragmented. While most MPs voted Remain, many recognise the ultimate need for the referendum result to be honoured. They will not compromise with the hardcore Remainers who themselves will not countenance withdrawal under any circumstances – Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson recently stated her party would still campaign for Remain if the public voted Leave at a second referendum.
The indicative votes exercise produced nothing not once, but twice with a third attempt at taking control of the House failing to get a majority (see below). Oliver Letwin, who led the operation, then admitted that Parliament was finally out of Brexit-blocking options.
In the event Bercow fast-tracks a coup attempt within parliament, MPs will face the same dilemma in their attempts to nominate an interim leader and assemble a cross-party government, but with ideological and partisan lines further entrenching divisions. Already, John McDonnell has said the unity government would have to be Labour-led.
“It would be a Labour government because we wouldn’t enter into coalitions or pacts. But it would be a Labour government which had a particular purpose, that is to stop a no-deal [Brexit],” said the shadow chancellor at the Edinburgh Fringe yesterday.
McDonnell may have lamented the level of organisation behind the many beer tents amassed around the festival and the piss ups sloshing around inside, his party is bereft of such skills. Getting the SNP and the Lib Dems to hitch to the Corbyn wagon, even for a brief period, is simply beyond Labour.
Then there’s the question of who would lead. Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper (see above) are despised by the Corbynites. Cooper is loathed by many Remainers for having flirted with cutting immigration. Anyone who thinks Caroline Lucas, the Green Party’s sole MP, could lead the nation needs their head examined. The same applies to Swinson and her pitiful 13 MPs. Each of these prospective leaders has very different ideas on how to move forward, the supporters and detractors will cancel each other out, which is why Lord Sumption’s suggestion that the prime minister could be ordered by the Commons to revoke Article 50 won’t materialize either.
Like Grieve and Hammond, McDonnell, who has been instrumental in moving Labour away from its originally pro-Leave position, did not venture to explain how these huge cleavages might be bridged. Besides, like Corbyn, McDonnell’s absolute priority is getting into power at the next election, he will not risk compromising that by trying and failing to avoid No Deal Brexit.
You might argue that the impending arrival of “cliff edge” Brexit will fix minds. But if we are to give the political context it’s proper consideration, the picture only gets dimmer for Remain. The Tories have the most MPs and none of them would be willing to help get Corbyn nearer to Number 10, a man who will tank the economy more than any European divorce ever could.
Following the first two defeats of Theresa May’s deal, the government was obliged by section 13(6)(a) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 – inserted as part of a compromise with Remain MPs – to table a motion towards “next steps”. Thus, MPs had the opportunity to take control of the House by amending the motion – even though it was supposed to be neutral, therefore unamendable. The amendments set in motion a daisy-chain sequence (see above) whereby indicative votes were supplemented by amendments towards further takeovers. The daisy-chain was broken on 3 April when the amendment towards another takeover failed.
Back in the spring, many Conservative MPs flirted with alternatives to May’s deal. A no confidence vote is an altogether different proposition. For instance, arch-Remainer David Gauke has already ruled out voting against his party in the event of a confidence vote.
The optics for the Westminster elite, already held in deep suspicion by the electorate, would be harmful to the point of oblivion, particularly for the Conservatives: “Cosseted MPs replace dynamic prime minister with Remainer stooge”. The Brexit Party would dine out on the subterfuge, winning big at the coming general election. Johnson’s rise in the polls is testament to the public’s tremendous appetite for a leader with gumption who will not bow down to Brussels, a fundamental truth that all MPs will recognise.
Ultimately, Hammond, Grieve, Letwin, McDonnell, indeed all Remainers – to borrow a Trumpism – are losers. They have been beavering away at Parliamentary mechanisms for years now, desperately trying to steer Brexit to no avail. Howarth also suggests using SO 24 to amend the Fixed-term Act, but that’s even more far-fetched. the Remainers have depleted their arsenal of constitutional tricks with only a delay to the withdrawal date, which handily spurred the Brexit Party’s growth, to show for it. Meanwhile, a pro-Brexit administration has finally installed itself in Downing Street and is intent on delivering.
The game is up. It’s time for Remain to leave.