On the eve of the first ballot, we have a full house of leadership pitches at last. Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, and Esther McVey are committed to leaving come what may at Hallowe’en. Only Rory Stewart refuses to put No Deal “on the table”. All the others pretend to their party electorate and perhaps to themselves, that they can swing some sort of agreement in Brussels without a hard border in Ireland.
Let’s pay them an undeserved compliment and say in the immortal words of John McEnroe, “ you cannot be serious.” What Johnson may really be manoeuvring for is a general election as Tom Kibasi of IPPR suggests, buoyed by some flattering statistics and boosted by what happened in the Commons today. As the late governor of New York Mario Cuomo memorably said: “ you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. “ And poetry, of a kind, is Boris’s stronger suit.
He will have been encouraged by the defeat of a cross party motion to begin the process of blocking No Deal by 309 votes to 298. 10 Tories defied the whip and supported it, 8 pro-Leave Labour MPs voted the other way.
Does this bring No Deal nearer? Yes, if nothing is done to prevent it. The Conservatives may about to become more united around Johnson than Labour is around Corbyn, particularly as Labour remain divided over remaining and a second referendum.
The obvious but drastic blocking device is a vote of confidence in the new government in the autumn. If today’s vote is a rehearsal, the result will be tight. But on the next occasion the margins are likely to be reversed. Would any Labour voter to keep a Johnson no Deal government in power? Quite a few Conservatives would join Dominic Grieve to topple it.
But even a vote of confidence may not necessarily block a No Deal exit, as the expert Maddy Thimont Jack of the Institute of Government explains
…if a new prime minister is determined to pursue a no deal Brexit then, under current parliamentary rules, it will be very difficult to stop them – even though MPs have previously voted to show there is a majority against no deal.
They could hold a vote of no confidence in the Government – but there is no guarantee that would be passed. And if it was, there would still be a huge question mark over how the timeline of a possible general election (if the Commons can’t coalesce around an alternative prime minister) would interact with the Article 50 timeline.
The only surefire way to direct the Government is to pass legislation – as the Commons did earlier this year when the ‘Cooper Bill’ required the Government to request an extension to Article 50 (although Theresa May had already sent the request to the EU when the bill passed).
If the Speaker did decide to allow a substantive emergency debate motion, that could enable a majority of MPs to take control of time in the Commons and pass another bill requiring the Government to act to avoid no deal. But they would first need agreement on the content of that bill – and enough time to get it through the Lords.
The progress of the ‘Cooper Bill’ was far from straightforward. Many MPs were concerned with the principle of backbenchers legislating without the same levels of accountability as the Government. There will also be the added pressure for Conservative unity under a new leader – and the threat, in some seats, from the Brexit Party.
And the votes last time around were very close. While 400 MPs voted against no deal during the first round of indicative votes in March, in April the ‘Cooper Bill’ itself passed second reading with the support of only 315 MPs (and a majority of five) and third reading with the support of 313 (and majority of only one).
The legislation which finally passed was the fourth draft of a bill designed to stop no deal – and the ‘Cooper Act’ was a very specific ‘one-off’ bill which only forced a vote on extending Article 50 the day after Royal Assent. That is why MPs don’t have a continuing power to stop no deal.
The tactics in the autumn are far from clear. MPs might find that a broader bill – seeking to rule out no deal more permanently – would struggle to win enough support, while another one-off Cooper-style bill may result in a time-sapping war of attrition between Parliament and the Government.
Summer recess and conference recess will also eat into the remaining time, and MPs will not be able to make multiple attempts to take control of the Commons’ order paper. There is also no guarantee that a new prime minister will make their intention clear until much closer to 31 October – possibly only after the European Council in mid-October.
MPs who want to prevent the UK from leaving the EU without a deal need the Speaker to give them the opportunity to pass legislation, and the majority to agree, and stick to, a plan. John Bercow’s comments may have given them some encouragement, but there is still no easy parliamentary route – and very little time – for MPs to block no deal.
Boris was boring today. Deliberately so. No point is taking a risk with actual content. No detail on how to magic his way round the backstop or his drugs history. There were cheer lines like icing without the cake. Who doesn’t promise to “unite this great country of ours?”
I know we can unite our country and our society. Because I have seen and used exactly those tools to help to unite our capital, the greatest city on Earth..
we will re-knit the bonds of this amazing country and in everything we do, we will seek to strengthen the union of our four nations. That invincible quartet, the awesome foursome that makes up the UK, the world soft power superpower, and I’ve seen across the world in our armed forces in our diplomacy, our sheer cultural impact how we are so much more than the sum of our parts…
Our friends abroad don’t think of England or Scotland, or Wales, or Northern Ireland, they think of all the values that are expressed by that Union Flag. … And over the last few years, I’ve seen in our friends the desire for this country to recover its confidence and self-belief. And the curious thing is that very often it’s been our friends and partners who have shown more confidence in this country than we have ourselves.
After three years and two missed deadlines, we must leave the EU on October 31st. We must do better than the current Withdrawal Agreement, that has been rejected three times by Parliament, and let me clear that I am not aiming for a no-deal outcome. I don’t think that we will end up with any such thing. But it is only responsible to prepare vigorously and seriously for no deal. Indeed, it is astonishing that anyone could suggest dispensing with that vital tool of negotiation.
Chilling reality from the EU contradicts Johnson’s breezy optimism
The Commission has concluded that there is no need to amend any measures on substance and that they remain fit for purpose. The Commission does not plan any new measures ahead of the new withdrawal date.
In a ‘no-deal’ scenario, the UK will become a third country without any transitional arrangements. All EU primary and secondary law will cease to apply to the UK from that moment onwards. There will be no transition period, as provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement. This will obviously cause significant disruption for citizens and businesses and would have a serious negative economic impact, which would be proportionally much greater in the United Kingdom than in the EU27 Member States.
As outlined by President Juncker in the European Parliament on 3 April 2019, should a ‘no-deal’ scenario occur, the UK would be expected to address three main separation issues as a precondition before the EU would consider embarking on discussions about the future relationship. These are: (1) protecting and upholding the rights of citizens who have used their right to free movement before Brexit, (2) honouring the financial obligations the UK has made as a Member State and (3) preserving the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and peace on the island of Ireland, as well as the integrity of the internal market.
Three months to Leave is nowhere long enough to prepare
An official note to the British cabinet leaked to the Financial Times claimed the government needed a further six to eight months of engagement with the pharmaceuticals industry “to ensure adequate arrangements are in place to build stockpiles of medicines by 31 October”.
The note added that the government would need “at least 4-5 months” to improve trader readiness for the new border checks that would be enforced in the event of the UK leaving on Halloween without an agreement with the EU.
Scott Wightman, Britain’s outgoing senior diplomat in Singapore, has said Britain is now seen worldwide as a country beset by division, obsessed with ideology and careless of truth.
In a valedictory note, he compared Brexit to the fall of Singapore in 1942 and said major investors expect future investment in Europe to be directed more towards Germany and France.
Closer to home….
The Republic of Ireland would have to build border inspection posts if it wanted to continue importing food from Northern Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit, a report for NI’s department of the Economy has concluded.
The report concludes that “many, perhaps most” Northern Ireland small and medium businesses which trade across the border will face significant challenges if the no-deal scenario materialises. The Irish government has pledged that there will be no new checks or controls at the border even if there is no deal…
Trade between the Republic and the North would be hugely affected, the report warns, with agricultural trade worst affected. It lays out in great detail an array of checks, inspections and declarations which could be required.
Trade across the Border is especially important to very small businesses in the North. “Over 80 per cent of microenterprises (employing fewer than 10 people) in Northern Ireland who export, only export to the Republic of Ireland,”
The report is cool on the suggestion that electronic monitoring of the Border could be a substitute for checks.
“Although the Border does not have any customs posts, there is some surveillance of vehicle movements. The authorities are thus able to track cars, trucks, etc in their journey along and across the Border. However, this surveillance is for security purposes,” it says.
“In practice, effective implementation of the objectives articulated in the customs authority’s mission can only be achieved by conducting inspections based on risk-analysis methods, which includes random checks.
“Furthermore, the existing security-based surveillance infrastructure would have to be repurposed for customs. Aside from the issue of whether such repurposing is technically feasible in the light of the situation under a no-deal scenario, there is the issue of whether it would be politically acceptable, including amongst the population living along the Border,” it says. It also says that the Republic will have to establish inspection posts that are closer to the Border.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London