In his pursuit of Brino (Brexit in Name Only), prime minister Boris Johnson has used a daring tactic to outmanoeuvre his remainer opponents. He has suspended parliament for five weeks, leaving them with very little time to prevent Britain leaving the European Union (EU) on 31 October, with or without a deal.
Johnson fully expects that this is the only tactic that will pressurise the EU into giving him what he wants, namely, acceptance by the EU of Theresa May’s deal but without the northern Irish ‘backstop’. He believes that he can get sufficient parliamentary support to accept this compromise and thus enable the UK to ‘exit’ the EU with minimum harm done to imperialist interests.
The strong probability of this gambit failing, leaving Britain to the mercy of a “disastrous crash out”, has left the Financial Times editorial board foaming at the mouth:
“Boris Johnson’s protestations that he is doing nothing abnormal are as disingenuous as the claims plastered across the bus from which he fronted the Leave campaign in 2016,” it shrieked when the announcement was made, in terms more usually found in the tabloid press than in the revered Pink ’Un. Other choice insults include:
“Mr Johnson is using constitutional chicanery to thwart a parliament that he knows has a majority against his chosen policy,” and “to muzzle parliament as part of a reckless negotiating ploy is an act of constitutional vandalism”. Were Johnson to ignore any vote of no confidence that might be passed against him “and try to hang on until after Brexit, [this] would confirm that Britain has a despot in Downing Street”. (Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament is an affront to democracy, 28 August 2019)
The Financial Times, however, is not beyond indulging in chicanery itself, asserting as quoted above that Brexit is Johnson’s policy as opposed to a policy endorsed by the British people in the 2016 referendum. It then expresses outrage that Johnson is departing from his party’s 2017 election manifesto, when it cannot fail to be aware that parties depart from their election manifestoes on a regular basis when this suits imperialist interests.
Moreover, it has to admit that the 2017 manifesto did say that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, but seems to think that this was window dressing only, which any honest prime minister would have stalwartly ignored, since the manifesto “pledged to secure the best possible deal for Britain … delivered by a smooth, orderly Brexit” – as if the Conservative party, or any other party for that matter, was able to dictate terms to the country’s EU partners.
The Telegraph, on the other hand, expressed admiration for Johnson’s gamble: “It is impossible to understand the past 24 hours without realising that No 10 genuinely believes that this is a historic ‘do or die’ moment, and not just because of Brexit. It is convinced that it has to work harder, faster and more intelligently than its opponents, leveraging the power of the executive and pushing constitutional conventions to their limits to defeat the enemy.
“Like the most ruthless of generals, it is prepared to incur losses along the way, and to sacrifice anything or anybody non-essential, in pursuit of the ultimate prize. It is ready to take as many massive risks as necessary, as military leaders must always do in war time.
“Hence yesterday’s latest, explosive chess move: it fell well short of proroguing Parliament in the full sense of that term, and was therefore constitutionally proper. But, by reducing the time available to remainers to overthrow the government or halt Brexit, it has wreaked havoc with their planning, and driven them into another wild rage.
“The reality is that the Boris/Cummings agenda is extraordinarily ambitious, and amounts to the greatest political gamble in recent history. They want to push through a real Brexit, preferably with a massively better deal than May’s; win a majority in Parliament for a Tory party reshaped along Johnsonite lines; destroy Jeremy Corbyn and force the Labour party back on to the political centre-ground; eliminate the need for the Brexit party; and recast the country with historic reforms to education, taxation, planning, immigration and economic policy.
“For Johnson to pull all of this off would require him not just to win the looming general election but probably to stay in power for a decade, allowing him to emerge as the third great Tory leader of the past 100 years. Whether they like it or not, he is the centre-right’s last and only chance. He either gets his way, or the Tories will break up and the most socialist Labour party in our history will seize power, backed by all the left-wing parties, including the SNP.
“Under such a nightmare scenario, Brexit would be made to fail disastrously, discrediting the idea entirely, or it would be cancelled.” (This is Boris’s Falklands War, and he will do everything he can to win it by Allister Heath, 28 August 2019)
Have the remainers lost all hope?
The earliest date Parliament will be shut down is 9 September, giving the remainers several days to get their act together to frustrate Boris’s plans – cheered on by the Financial Times and, of course, The Guardian. (The prime minister’s action might adhere to the letter of the law but in spirit it is an act of wanton constitutional vandalism, Editorial Board, The Guardian view on proroguing parliament: an affront to democracy, 28 August 2019).
Obviously, the Guardian does not consider that ignoring the 2016 referendum result would be “an affront to democracy”, as that is the voice of the people and not the voice of Parliament!
Be that as it may, the remainers, who lack any kind of political adhesiveness, now have an extremely short time in which to reach sufficient agreement among themselves to mount a meaningful challenge to Johnson’s policy. But even with the wholehearted backing of finance capital, they have been finding it close to impossible to get their act together.
Arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg has taunted them either to pass a No-Deal law or force a change of government. “He appeared to taunt Europhile MPs as he suggested they did not have the ‘courage or the gumption’ to act.” (Change the government or change the law by Jack Maidment, Daily Mail, 29 August 2019)
What they would need to do, and probably could achieve, is to table and win a vote to take control of the Commons. To do this would involve some more flouting of parliamentary convention as it would require lodging a request with the Speaker for an emergency debate.
The Speaker – John Bercow – is an ardent remainer, so that should present no problem for them. However, emergency debates conventionally do not lead to the passing of major resolutions, but again Bercow can probably be relied on to “tear up precedent and allow a vote on taking control of the Commons order paper on a given day, presumably Wednesday [4 September].
“MPs would at that point try to pass, quickly, primary legislation requiring Boris Johnson to seek and implement a third Brexit delay. He would have to comply, but the legislation must be watertight and leave no scope for Mr Johnson to refuse an extension or persuade the EU not to offer one.” (The six ways that MPs can still block no-deal by Henry Zeffman, The Times, 29 August 2019)
What would happen if, unprovoked by Johnson, the EU refused such an extension? Britain would still automatically leave the EU without a deal unless Article 50 was revoked altogether before the 31 October deadline, which the UK is entitled to do, as confirmed by the European Court of Justice on 10 December 2018. This could be finance capital’s devious ploy, but no doubt time will tell.
The alternative, suggested mockingly by Rees-Mogg, is for the remainers to overturn the government, starting with the passing of a vote of no confidence in the present government. Were such a vote to succeed (and this is problematic in itself for the Tory remainers because they would be voting themselves out of office), there would then constitutionally be 14 days for a potential government to be put together that was capable of commanding a majority in the Commons – a so-called ‘government of national unity’.
But most remainers are so terrified of seeing the only viable leader of such a government – ie, leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn – installed in Number 10, that it is unlikely that such a government could ever be formed, notwithstanding the example being set by Tory veteran Ken Clarke, who has declared he would serve in a caretaker government under Jeremy Corbyn to avoid the “childishly disastrous mistake” of crashing out. (Boris Johnson suspends Parliament to thwart no-deal Brexit rebels by Steven Swinford, Henry Zeffman and Matt Chorley, The Times, 29 August 2019)
Even supposing such a caretaker government could be formed, what could it do? It could ask for an extension to give time for a general election to be held, and, if refused it too would have to ‘crash out’ or revoke Article 50. If the extension were granted, a post-general election parliament is unlikely, unless the Brexit party gained an overall majority in such an election – an improbable outcome – to offer any way out of the impasse facing Britain’s two main bourgeois parties.