Brexit weekly briefing: snap election looks increasingly likely
13 August 2019 06:00
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Amid growing certainty that the UK is heading intentionally towards a no-deal Brexit, No 10 refused to rule out scheduling an early November election for immediately after Britain leaves the EU on 31 October if Boris Johnson loses a confidence motion.
Insisting that he wanted a deal but that Theresa May’s “doesn’t work”, Johnson urged the EU to show “common sense”. But his top aide, Dominic Cummings, said the government could call elections for after 31 October and leave anyway if it loses a confidence vote.
Michael Gove, in charge of no-deal preparations, ramped up the rhetoric, accusing the EU 27 of intransigence and calling it “wrong and sad”, while the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, insisted during a visit to the US that Brexit would bring “a huge series of upsides” for the UK in international trade.
As the Irish government again said the backstop would not be up for renegotiation at a meeting next month between the PM and Leo Varadkar, No 10 reinforced its “do or die” Brexit message by suggesting that UK diplomats would be pulled out of the EU’s institutional structures of power in Brussels within days.
It was also revealed that Johnson’s chief of staff had cancelled all leave for Downing Street advisers until 31 October, further increasing already fevered speculation about the likelihood of a snap election in the aftermath of a no-deal Brexit.
Meanwhile, fears that the UK could be heading for its first recession in a decade were stoked by grim official figures showing that the economy had contracted in the second quarter – and parliamentary resistance to the Johnson/Cummings plan stiffened.
A cross-party group of MPs began working on a plan to thwart a no-deal Brexit on 31 October by forcing parliament to sit through the autumn recess, while Jeremy Corbyn wrote to the cabinet secretary saying a no-deal Brexit during an election campaign would be an “unprecedented, unconstitutional and anti-democratic abuse of power”.
Labour said it was talking to other opposition groups about a possible rapid vote of no confidence against Boris Johnson once parliament returns in September, and the “rebel alliance” began mulling over new governments, emergency legislation, breaches of convention and court cases – while being unsure whether no deal can be averted.
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The Institute for Government also warned that a no-deal Brexit now appeared increasingly likely given the lack of time to secure a new agreement and of opportunities for MPs to block it.
Downing Street has said it expected the cross-party alliance of rebels to precipitate the parliamentary battle on 9 September, a week after MPs return from their summer break, and did not foresee any move from the EU27 until after that.
With the stage set for a historic clash between the executive and the legislature, a number of outcomes are possible. Johnson has a working majority of one and it is certainly feasible that enough Tory rebels would join opposition parties to ensure he loses a no-confidence motion. That would usher in a 14-day waiting period in which an alternative government could, in theory, be formed, but this would be unlikely to be headed by Jeremy Corbyn, who does not have sufficient cross-party support to enter No 10.
There could, therefore, be some kind of “national unity” government, probably temporary, to delay Brexit until a new election or referendum – but the problem there is that it would need significant numbers of Labour and Tory MPs to break ranks, fast.
Johnson might be able to force a no-deal Brexit by simply refusing to resign and letting the clock tick down, but the political pressure would be huge, and some have speculated that the Queen could be called on to, in effect, sack him.
To thwart the opposition, Johnson could call a post-confidence vote election himself and decide on a polling day that falls after 31 October. That might contravene the convention of “purdah” (civil servants are not supposed to push through major policy changes during an election period), but no one is really sure.
Finally, MPs could seizing control of the Commons order paper to try to delay Brexit or call a referendum. But this can only happen if there is meaningful government business on Brexit for MPs to amend, and with no deal seemingly the government’s intended course, there might not be any.
For those with an interest in crystal-ball gazing, some wildly different scenarios are sketched here by assorted figures from the worlds of politics, arts and science.
In the Observer, Andrew Rawnsley says Johnson’s plot to subvert democracy is more dangerous than Brexit itself, and Conservative MPs have to stop it:
A former cabinet minister goes viral: