House of Commons

How Boris Johnson’s position collapsed

Published: 4 September 2019
Author: Richard Parry

Richard Parry discusses the Commons vote and the relationship between passing the new Brexit law and calling a General Election.

In the end the anti-no deal coalition did have the numbers (328-301, with 21 Conservative rebels and only two Labour the other way) to pass not just a bland motion but forensic texts to take control of the Commons timetable and have the means to legislate their European Union (Withdrawal) (No 6) Bill. The Bill attempts to preclude all the stratagems that might be applied to evade it – including getting political cover by allowing a no-deal exit if the Commons votes for it.

Boris Johnson’s humiliation on 3 September was a combination of three elements. The first was the implausibility of his position that a deal in Brussels was in prospect as long as he was not stabbed in the back in Westminster. The current talks on the backstop are similar in character to the exploration of alternative arrangements envisaged during the post-exit transition period. They do not have the rigour and detail necessary to replace the backstop before 31 October.

The second element was the sense of lack of fair play in the prorogation of parliament, which looks worse the more detail that emerges in court cases (as in the Court of Session on 3 September, a case now won by the UK government). Time management in the run-up to 31 October was to be expected; selling the line that this was a normal inter-session procedure was not. This was compounded by futile claims (set out in Boris’s Downing Street statement on 3 September, and characteristic of Theresa May) that what the electorate really wants to talk about are non-Brexit issues.

The third is the propulsion of the ‘wicked advisers contemptuous of party activists’ view of Dominic Cummings and his associates by the summary dismissal of Sajid Javid’s special adviser Sonia Khan on 29 August. Something very likely to have happened in the end thus became available as an element in the backbench rebellion. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s demeanour when opening for the government in the emergency motion debate was also a contribution. Stretched languidly over the front bench, his courtesy taking a on a sneering edge, Rees-Mogg made it psychologically easy for rebel thoughts to solidify. It was a reminder of the conviction of No 10 that the 2016 referendum result as implemented by the rights given to the Prime Minister under the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 already gives legislative cover for the executive action to implement withdrawal. 

Attention now turns to the Prime Minister’s intention to table a motion under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 to have an early general election. This requires two-thirds of the total number of MPs (434) have to vote for dissolution (not just abstain), and so Labour has a veto. The motion’s terms are specified in the 2011 Act and do not include an election date. This is dome subsequently by Crown action on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. The expectation (as with Theresa May’s early election in 2017, agreed by 522-13) was that the date would be specified when MPs are asked for consent. The timetable then works back from polling day: ‘the Parliament in existence dissolves at the beginning of the 25th working day before’ (the 2011 Act said 17 days but this was amended in 2013).

At the moment, a deal looks possible whereby, if the No 6 Bill passes its Commons stages on 4 September, the government would not filibuster it in the Lords and let it become law in return for a subsequent opposition vote in favour of an early election on 15 October. Some opposition faith would be necessary that the date of the election date set in the dissolution proclamation would be the one agreed.  With the new law in force, no-deal on 31 October would only happen if the Commons voted for it when it reassembles.

All parties face dangers with an election. Having crossed the bridge to advocate a second referendum before Brexit in all circumstances, Labour is in a more stable position than it was: it would still have to decide whether it really would go back to Brussels to negotiate a soft withdrawal agreement to be put to the electorate. Boris Johnson is in difficulty because of his stated position that he would recommend the existing withdrawal agreement if the Irish backstop were replaced and that he can make this happen if he wins. He needs the bravado no-deal vote but for the present much of that belongs to the Brexit Party. Party unity can surge back; whips withdrawn can be restored. But neither main party really knows whether securing a mid-October election would prove be a good or bad call.

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