August 05, 2019
No deal first, elections later
We have been writing for some time that elections in the UK will not automatically stop a no-deal Brexit. That also seems to be the view of Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s enforcer. To precipitate an election before Brexit day, Jeremy Corbyn needed to have called for a vote of no confidence before the parliamentary recess started last month.
The reason is that the prime minister is ultimately in charge of the election date. If a vote of no confidence were held on September 5, the earliest possible date, it would still be technically possible for elections to be held on October 24, the last election day that could produce a government to revoke Brexit or ask for an extension. But the timetable is in the hand of the government, not the parliament.
This would imply that a successful vote of no-confidence could inadvertently trigger a no-deal Brexit as parliament would be dissolved at the end of October. Johnson could even hold the elections on Brexit day itself. No winner would be officially declared until the next morning - when Brexit could no longer be reversed.
We are now at a point in the Brexit discussions where legal and procedural details matter. We keep hearing commentators waffle about parliament stopping a no-deal Brexit. This is a legally and politically illiterate construction. Parliament can pass a vote to revoke Brexit. It won’t do that. Parliament could alternatively exploit the possibility outlined in the fixed-term parliaments act and elect a new prime minister - following a prescribed procedure. It could, for example, elect a government of national unity with the sole task to ask for a Brexit extension and to call new elections afterwards. But why would Jeremy Corbyn vote for a national unity government under a moderate Conservative when he could have elections instead? And what about the 20 or so Labour MPs who do not wish to frustrate Brexit?
So, there are exactly two ways for parliament to frustrate Brexit - national unity government and outright revocation. Neither is likely.
Sebastian Payne reports in the FT that Cummings had a good laugh when he heard about the suggestion that the government should ask for a Brexit extension after a vote of no-confidence. It is under no legal obligation to do so, and won’t do it.
The big misunderstanding in the British debate is that the no-deal Brexit is already legislated. It is embedded in Article 50, and in the corresponding UK legislation. It is not a decision to be taken or to be stopped. It is what will happen if no other decision is taken. As we keep pointing out, it was Theresa May who extended Brexit earlier this year, not parliament.
We hope that the news reports over the weekend may lead to a shift of expectations in the EU. There is still a body of opinion in continental Europe that has bought into the narrative that parliament would stop a no-deal Brexit. If the no-deal Brexit happens, a lot of people in the EU will not have seen it coming.
In the UK, the election campaign has already started. As Payne notes there is already a lot of strategic gaming going on inside Number 10: if Corbyn were to align himself with the second referendum crowd, he would simultaneously destroy his own project and fail to stop Brexit, one official is quoted as saying. Payne also writes that the current thinking in Downing Street is for elections to be held in November.
We agree with Peter Foster of the Daily Telegraph who noted that the normalisation of no-deal is perhaps the most amazing development in the Brexit debate. People aren’t as scared as they used to be - which itself makes it more likely.