The PM’s latest scheme has all the hallmarks of a Baldrick wheeze – and the odds are against it, writes Brian Monteith
You might be forgiven for thinking that last week was tough for the Prime Minister, and in many respects it was.
On Monday, Hilary Benn’s Bill passed into law. Branded the “Surrender Bill”, it will force Boris Johnson to ask for an extension to European Union membership if a deal acceptable to Parliament is not achieved by 19 October. Worse, it surrenders the nomination of the date of departure to the EU Commissioners to Brussels, which the Prime Minister can reject only if he has the support of Parliament.
Given the Bill is the work of the Remain-supporting MPs who now have a working majority in the Commons, what the EU wants the EU will get. The title Surrender Bill is not so much a pejorative description as a statement of fact.
Then on Tuesday three appeal judges of the Court of Session issued a unanimous decision that the Prime Minister had acted unlawfully by proroguing Parliament with the intention of stymieing debate rather than to allow a new Queen’s Speech to be heard as he has argued. This conflicts with the earlier ruling by the High Court in England that decided the motives of the Prime Minister were political and therefore beyond their competence to make judgment upon.
Tomorrow the Supreme Court will make its own ruling which, if it agrees with the Scottish court, will change fundamentally the vital separation of powers between the Executive, Parliament and Justiciary.
Johnson then tried to win support to hold a general election, but that too was voted down – his sixth defeat in six parliamentary votes.
To rub salt into his wounds, former Tory MP Phillip Lee, who opposed gay marriage, joined the Liberal Democrat benches and, on Saturday, Sam Gyimah, the former tax-cutting Tory leadership contender who attracted only three votes, joined the party to a fanfare at its annual conference. Neither is an obvious fit for Jo Swinson’s social justice warriors.
Surely the Prime Minister would be demoralised, surely he can have no way out from the ignominy of defeat? I would not be so sure.
The High Court in Belfast has judged that leaving the EU is not in conflict with the Good Friday Agreement, exposing the threats of Brexit to peace as self-serving alarmism.
Yesterday an opinion poll gave the Conservatives 37 per cent – the same number that gave David Cameron his victory in 2015 – opening up a 12-point lead over Labour. With the Brexit Party on 13 per cent, the combined potential Leave vote reaches 50 per cent, making an informal alliance still an attractive proposition.
By the end of the week there was some evidence that at the EU’s mid-October council meeting Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement will rise zombie-like from the dead for a fourth time, gaining the sobriquet WA4.
The Democratic Unionist Party is said to be softening its stance on the nature of the backstop protocols that would keep the whole of the UK in the customs union to avoid a physical border between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Apparently DUP leaders are willing to consider using EU standards for agriculture and livestock across the whole of Ireland. Can Johnson find a solution?
UK Government sherpas have signalled to their EU counterparts that if the backstop is softened then the rest of May’s Withdrawal Agreement would be accepted by the British Government. Described by my colleague Christina Jordan as a form of house arrest for nations not allowed to leave the EU home – WA4 would be brought to Parliament with a view to having it passed and the necessary legislation signed-off so Johnson can keep his promise of leaving the EU by 31 October.
This scheme has all the makings of a cunning plan devised by a Baldrick-like adviser. By keeping the DUP onside and maybe as many as 20 Labour MPs willing to break their own whip, maybe Johnson could win? If such a zombie agreement passed, he could play the role of the hero that took us out of the EU, just as he said he would – and surely romp home in any subsequent general election?
If he is defeated and fails to keep his promise then he can blame the opposition parties and play the role of martyr – calling on the revenge of the electorate to let him finish the job.
Reason to believe this latest political wheeze was given greater weight when reports surfaced of Leave Tory MPs being told that if they rebelled against WA4 they would lose the whip, just like the 21 Remainers before them. With efforts being made to bring some of those 21 expelled MPs back into the party, it would be the Brexiteers who would be cast out, unable to stand as Conservatives in a general election.
Nevertheless, in such a scenario a defeat for the Prime Minister looks the more likely outcome of the two. Surely Labour will vote against it, not wishing to give the Prime Minister any chance of claiming success? Surely the illiberal undemocrats and the SNP will both vote against, given they profess there is no Brexit they believe can be acceptable? Surely, for all the noises-off about the DUP softening, they could not accept a border appearing down the middle of the Irish Sea, the consequence of Northern Ireland remaining in the EU’s customs union once the rest of the UK has left? All-Ireland agriculture and livestock arrangements differing from the UK are a small concession, and exist to some extent already, but how could DUP MPs bring themselves to vote for such a breach with Britain? And surely more robust Tories would rather rebel than face Brexit Party candidates holding them to account?
As we all know from comedy show sketches, if not our own life experiences, cunning plans have a habit of being too-clever-by-half and ending in disaster. Johnson himself may yet be stymied.
The Commons Remain majority, encouraged by their recent tactical victories, are minded to not only defeat the zombie WA4, they smell blood and could vote before 31 October for a second referendum – or revoke Article 50 – withdrawing our application to leave the EU altogether. There would be no second vote, no involvement of the British people who voted in record numbers. We would simply stay in.
Either outcome would be a repudiation of democracy, requiring a general election to reverse – or is that also too clever by half?
l Brian Monteith MEP is chief whip of the Brexit Party in the European Parliament