August 27, 2019
Remain’s narrowing pathway
No, there really isn’t any Brexit news. The situation is the same as it was two weeks ago - indeed the same as it was in April when we wrote that the probability of a no-deal Brexit was high.
This morning we think it useful to look at the strategic choices for the Remain-supporting MPs in the UK parliament, ahead of today’s meeting between Jeremy Corbyn and other opposition leaders. Anybody who ever bothered to read Art. 50 would know that there is no provision for "stopping no-deal". This is not a technical detail. If parliament does not ratify a withdrawal agreement, or revokes Brexit outright, then no-deal Brexit is the default. So, what can parliament do?
As of this morning, there is no agreement within the Remain camp about the right course of action. This does not surprise us since every course of action has its potential traps.
Before we went on holidays, MPs seemed to favour the option of a confidence vote. That lasted until they realised that the fixed-term parliaments act, combined with the prime minister’s prerogative to set the election date, could be potentially self-defeating. Boris Johnson could, if he wanted to, hold an election on Brexit day itself, or the day after before chaos sets in - as we also pointed out before the holiday.
An alternative approach, which appears to have gained ground over the holidays, is to vote for another Cooper/Letwin-style piece of legislation to force the prime minister to ask for an extension. Let’s presume that this is technically possible, and parliament finds the time to do it. Even then, it is not a fail-safe mechanism. We should remember that Theresa May was a willing accomplice both times when she asked the European Council for an extension. In addition, the EU has to accept a request by unanimity. We don’t think it is possible for the parliament to water-proof this legislation. The prime minister might threaten to veto EU business if EU leaders were to agree to an extension. EU leaders might agree an extension on conditions the prime minister could reject. Both the prime minister and the EU could argue that the conditions for an extension are not given. The EU made it clear in the April decision that an extension would have to be accompanied by a way forward. It is not a unilateral decision for the UK to take. If the UK parliament merely forced the prime minister to ask for an extension, but without the prospect of an election or a second referendum, the request might be null and void. All of this tells us that MPs really didn’t read, or comprehend, Art. 50 when they voted to trigger it. It really sets a guillotine.
And of course, it is quite possible that MPs might simply leave it too late. Angela Merkel may have misjudged the snake pit of British politics when she made her off-the-cuff remark about an alternative deal within 30 days. All she said was that in EU politics things can happen in 30 days that are impossible over longer periods. This is clearly true. The main consequences of this useful misunderstanding - useful for Johnson - is that Tory MPs may hold their fire while talks are going on. Once the process drags into the political conference season at the end of September, parliament will have run out of time to play the usual games. We agree with Zoe Williams in the Guardian this morning that Labour's choice for Labour is whether to back outright revocation.
What about the other side? We noted one story in the Daily Mail according to which Downing Street is gaming a number of scenarios, including one of an October 17 election, to capitalise on Johnson's good polling numbers. Still, it would be a high-stakes gamble: they could lose both power and Brexit.
Another difficult scenario would be a narrow victory for Boris Johnson in a vote of confidence, with parliament trying to force him to extend Brexit. This would be the scenario of uncertainty. He might threaten prorogation. Or a policy of the empty chair. Nothing will be what it seems.
The events to watch out for are today’s meeting of opposition leaders, followed by Jeremy Corbyn’s decision on whether or not to go ahead with a confidence vote. We think he will. The drama will unfold then.
A further factor to consider is legal action. No UK court can revoke Brexit, since Art. 50 is EU law. But the courts can rule on issues such as prorogation.