Brian Monteith: Keep calm and carry on – Brexit is coming, deal or no deal

Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Jane Dodds (left) and Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson. Picture: PA
Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Jane Dodds (left) and Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson. Picture: PA
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Keep calm and carry on. That is my message to those waiting to see if the UK does finally leave the European Union on Hallow’s Eve, this year of our Lord, 2019.

Talk of a second referendum is now sinking into a cold watery grave as deep as the Mariana Trench after the leader of the undemocratic liberals announced she would not respect the outcome if we voted to leave again. So what’s the point of having a second vote then? The leader of the Greens agreed, revealing her own dogmatism more appropriate for a religious cult.

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Talk of an early general election, while gaining easy currency now that the minority Conservative government’s nominal majority has been reduced to only one, also happens to be a distraction – as does all talk of pacts. There may or may not be a general election this side of Christmas. There may, as a result of the circumstances that cause such an unpredictable event, be any number of electoral pacts formed, but too much of this talk is of the purest hot air and has little substance too it.

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First, what are the chances of a general election? While having the slimmest of majorities increases the likelihood of the Prime Minister losing a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, it does not mean he would automatically lose the next one and thus be forced into a general election against his wishes.

A vote of confidence will be a three-line whip; if any Tory members vote against their own government they will have the whip removed immediately, making it impossible for them to stand as a Conservative candidate in any election they help bring about. They would have to stand as an independent, join another party and have other parties not contest their seat to have even a small chance of remaining an MP. For some that might not matter, and “some” might be enough to bring the government down, but for most it will be too far a leap.

Yes, the Rory Stewarts of this world, like the Anna Soubrys and Chukka Umunnas, have a guid conceit of themselves, but facing the untapped wrath of the electorate could deprive them of the daily dose of publicity that is their opium. Dare they go without it? Hubris is the cause of many a political death and humility is the only possible cure, but as it has to be self-administered it rarely is allowed to do its good work.

And why have a vote of confidence to stop Brexit when it does no such thing? Looking at the calendar, it seems to me the possibility of having a general election this side of 31 October has passed. Even if a no-confidence vote is passed in early September it then has to happen again two weeks after. The government can then delay the writ to move the general election long enough so that it happens in early November. During that interregnum, Parliament would be dissolved and unable to meet – Brexit on 31 October would come and go, with ministers still in place but no MPs around to harass them.

November is a far more likely prospect for a general election and would be at a point when Boris Johnson would have delivered Brexit and a Brexit Budget would have been presented. The PM’s chief strategist, Dominic Cummings, sees it the same way, apparently, and has already briefed civil servants to prepare for a no-deal Brexit on that basis.

A general election held on that basis would be an entirely different prospect from one held before leaving. The Prime Minister would be able to claim he delivered on his promise to honour the referendum result – and those seeking to talk up the worst of all possible economic and social outcomes would be seen to be urging calamity on the British people rather than helping us rally round. That would not be a good look for Jeremy Corbyn, Jo Swinson or even Ian Blackford.

Such a potential outcome could yet make the EU blink, offering Johnson a fudged deal to offer Westminster.

Furthermore, if last week’s Brecon and Radnorshire by-election demonstrated anything, it was that the public’s appetite for leaving the EU remains firm. The number of votes for the Conservatives, Brexit Party and Ukip was more than half the total cast. It has been said that the Brexit Party split the Leave vote and should not have stood – but this is self-interested spin coming from Tory cheerleaders or those intentionally ignoring unhelpful facts. There was never any possibility of a by-election pact. The writ was moved by Theresa May’s government after she had resigned as leader and was seeing out her time as a lame duck PM. Nor was there any need to select the recalled MP, Chris Davies, who had admitted his guilt in the courts for falsely claiming expenses.

These decisions could have been postponed, leaving the new party leader to find a fresh candidate and move the writ at a later date. May’s behaviour in proffering such a poisonous cocktail contributed more than anything to her party losing the seat. The idea that the Brexit Party should wave through Davies, who apart from his conviction had voted for May’s Withdrawal Agreement, was never a runner.

The hyped talk of a by-election pact with the Tories also highlights the conceited sense of entitlement among some in the Conservative leadership. No single party represents all Leave voters. Claiming the Brexit Party voters would have voted Conservative and kept the seat blue ignores the reality that many would have formerly voted Labour and would have no interest in backing the Tories’ man.

The intentional misrepresentation (or failure to understand) what drives the Brexit Party founders, its supporters and the voters they attract is why talks of pacts are so misplaced and certainly premature. The Brecon and Radnorshire result showed Johnson he must deliver Brexit on time or see his party face extinction. It also showed Corbyn that Labour will leak Remain votes to other parties and Leave votes to the Brexit Party. No Labour seat north of the metropolitan bubble he inhabits will be safe.

Leave supporters should keep calm and carry on – only after 31 October – when we know if Brexit has been delivered – should we consider when and how a general election should be fought.

Brian Monteith MEP is chief whip of the Brexit Party.