Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire/PA Images
As this is an article focussing on Boris Johnson, a man who parted company with honesty some decades ago, let us focus on truth. Specifically, five truths. First, Johnson wants to be prime minister and in four weeks, almost certainly will be. Second, a majority of MPs in the House of Commons do not think he is up to the job. That is, almost all opposition MPs and almost half of all Tory MPs. Third, both Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are advertising their determination to take us out of the EU without any further delay, even if that means a no-deal crash-out. Fourth, a majority of MPs are implacably opposed to no-deal.
Which takes us to our fifth truth: we are either heading for a political crisis in July, or October, or both.
Let’s start from basic principles. The EU will not renegotiate the backstop because it has no incentive to do so. Its leaders would sacrifice their own leverage, shatter their own political cohesion and credibility, throw a small member under the bus to appease a departing one, and strengthen a political opponent who once literally compared them to Hitler. They would be idiotic to back down to the UK now, and they will not. This, then, is the bottom line.
Johnson and Hunt, however, have established their own parallel bottom line: that we must leave without a deal rather than revoke Article 50. Johnson told the BBC on Monday that both Labour and the Conservatives would face “mortal retribution” if we did not leave on 31st October, deal or no-deal. On Tuesday he insisted that no-deal must be “do or die” (likely the latter). Meanwhile, over the weekend, Hunt—let’s remember, the more serious and credible candidate—discussed a factory near Kidderminster which relies on EU trade and would be “wiped out” by no-deal. Without pausing for breath or apparently thought, he then declared that “if that was the only way to deliver Brexit, then I’m afraid we have to do that, because that’s what people have voted for.” Ignore the fact that a majority of voters, who in 2016 were guaranteed increased prosperity and free trade, emphatically did not vote for their fellow citizens to lose their jobs. This is now our political reality, and this is our next prime minister’s starting point.
And so here we are. The EU will not renegotiate the deal. The prime minister will not request a new extension. We therefore revert to the control Brexit intended to take back: the sovereignty of parliament.
Now we know that a new PM will almost certainly take us to the brink in October, parliament may finally feel compelled to take the initiative. The Tories will announce their new leader on 23rd July. May will conduct her final Prime Minister’s Questions the following afternoon, then visit the Queen to tender her resignation. The day after that, MPs begin their summer recess. The scene is set for chaos.
It now seems increasingly likely that parliament will test the confidence of the government before that recess begins—possibly on the Tuesday, after the Tories unveil their new leader, or even the Wednesday, before May has reached Buckingham Palace. Why would it not? Labour’s strongest and most consistent Brexit policy has been to reject no-deal. Now that is effectively the government’s default policy, it will perceive both a duty and opportunity to stop it.
The SNP, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and Greens will support the vote, as will, surely, the current and erstwhile members of Change UK (even if it means losing their seats in a subsequent election). We then turn to the small core of Remain rebels still on the Tory backbenches. Dominic Grieve and Ken Clarke say they would bring down the government in order to prevent no-deal. Tobias Ellwood, a current minister, has told the BBC that a dozen MPs, including himself, would join them. And so the first question is, would they do so next month? After all, since Johnson has already made his ultimate intentions plain, they cannot give him the benefit of the doubt because there won’t be any. Why, in that case, let him take us on a direct route to the autumn cliff-edge?
If they do go on the offensive, we could be heading for a major constitutional crisis. Johnson will in practice have lost the support of the Commons before he even begins. The subsequent turbulence is difficult to overstate. The Queen could potentially be dragged in if the Commons demonstrates its lack of confidence before she invites Johnson to form a government. Buckingham Palace would consider this anathema and do everything possible to avoid it. The Tories might have to call upon a caretaker leader, such as David Lidington, who would command the House’s confidence. In any event, an immediate election would ensue.
Alternatively, let us suppose that Grieve and Clarke decide to indulge Johnson for a few weeks, and allow him his courtesy meetings in Brussels where his fellow leaders smile politely and tell him to go away. Parliament returns in September—by now in its longest session of sitting days in centuries—and Johnson has an urgent decision to make. Assume he goes for no-deal. He has calculated that parliament will support him. He is wrong.
MPs have no appetite to usher in an economic crisis. They have repeatedly rejected no-deal in Commons votes, and polls show two-thirds of the public agrees with them. Johnson would be mistaken to rely on the parliamentary vote two weeks ago in which MPs declined to seize control of the Commons agenda. Many members considered it was the wrong time for a vote, and Tory whips had assured them that there would be other opportunities to defeat no-deal. The motion, in the end, failed by 11 votes. Three MPs who voted with the government had previously resigned in order to stop no-deal, while other MPs who would have supported the motion were, for various reasons, absent. A future, clear motion to stop no-deal will almost certainly not fail. In this circumstance, it is difficult to see how Johnson survives.
The second possibility is that Johnson successfully requests an extension after all. His fragile coalition will fall at the first hurdle. You cannot tell moderates you will secure a deal, simultaneously tell the European Research Group that you will go for no-deal, and appease them both. The hardliners have no personal investment in Johnson and will not hesitate to bring him down if he betrays them. Johnson will lose a confidence vote and his government will fall.
The third scenario is that Johnson fails to secure an extension. Parliament must then answer the most fundamental question of all: whether it should revoke Article 50. The UK enjoys this unilateral right, and quiet Tory moderates have said that they would exercise it. Only a tiny number of Labour MPs would oppose. Johnson would not last the rest of the week.
We therefore face two potential blow-ups: a full constitutional breakdown in July, or a straightforward political crisis in September or October. They will trigger either an election or referendum or likely both. Beneath it all, the truth remains the same as it always has: a no-deal exit is the least likely option, and we are in for many more months or years of national chaos.