September 26, 2019
Could Johnson be headed for an electoral landslide?
The focus this morning is on last night’s bruising exchange in the House of Commons, which had a certain perpetrator-victim quality to it. We believe that Johnson’s rumbustious Brexit-delivery message will ultimately weigh heavier with the electorate than the near-tearful outrages over prorogation, or over his use of the term surrender bill. Johnson is the agent provocateur of modern British politics, very much in the spirit of Donald Trump but with more panache. British opposition MPs and US Democrats have a lot in common.
What we found most interesting last night was Johnson’s outright assertion of what appears to be a paradox to most British observers: that he will simultaneously comply with the Brexit-extension bill and not extend Brexit.
This assertion is not paradoxical to us. The legislation is well drafted, but the loophole that cannot be plugged by British legislation is the European Council. UK journalists and MPs are mostly ignorant about the working of the European Council. One reported suggestion is that MPs would ask the Royal Courts of Justice to instruct a civil servant to write the extension letter. If they had read Art. 50, they would discover the total absence of any notion of a letter. If Johnson tells the European Council behind close doors that he does not want to extend, the European Council will take that as official policy, not a letter from a civil servant. The UK parliament may be critically misjudging the nature of the European Council and its willingness to collude with a parliament against a sitting prime minister - especially a prime minister who is likely to win the next elections.
Another noteworthy aspect of Johnson's delivery last night was his attempt to co-opt Labour MPs who are minded to agree to a withdrawal agreement. He will need them if he wants to get a bill passed.
We heard a suggestion that a withdrawal bill would definitely get a majority if it were accompanied by a pledge for a second referendum. We doubt that very much, since the Conservatives would not support a withdrawal bill under those circumstances. A majority of the recently ejected Tory rebels supports a second referendum, but the total number has not really shifted. There was always a dozen, maybe 20, diehard Tory Remainers, ready to usurp Brexit. Without the party whip, they are more likely to support a second referendum than they might have been otherwise. But their number is not higher than the number of Labour MPs who oppose it. The arithmetic has not really changed - maybe by a handful. The only way for a withdrawal agreement to pass is for the Tories to agree to it almost unanimously, and for a dozen or so Labour MPs to support it.
What about elections? Jeremy Corbyn said yesterday that Labour would agree to a general election once Johnson complies with the Brexit-extension bill. There are Labour MPs who want to frustrate an election at all cost, as they prefer a second referendum instead. If the UK ends up extending, an election is very likely if only because Corbyn cannot afford to wait much longer.
Last night’s exchange in the Commons is a foretaste of what promises to be the ugliest election campaign in British history.
We think the government may formally table a one-off general-election bill to override the fixed-term parliament act. Such a bill would set a firm date for the general election - which can still be held before end-October. If that bill is rejected, Johnson could prorogue the parliament for a second time. His powers to prorogue are not affected by the recent Supreme Court ruling. But he cannot prorogue parliament for longer than five or six days. This is why the Commons are so desperate to amend the Benn bill to bring forward the deadlines - in order not to be caught out by another prorogation.
We are not certain that Johnson is really plotting to circumvent the extension bill. He may simply be bluffing, sidetracking his opponents while he focuses on the bigger picture.
The one big risk we see for Johnson is that his bruising strategy might unite his opponents. They were all against him yesterday, but we should not underestimate the personal animosity between Jo Swinson, the LibDem leader, and Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn will not agree to a government of national unity except if it is led by him. She rules that out. The SNP is no friend of Johnson, and would support a government of national unity, but has its own agenda. We don’t want to rule out completely the possibility of a government of national unity, especially if Johnson were to push the process towards a no-deal Brexit.
Being displaced by a government of national unity would not necessarily be the worst for Johnson. It would get him off the hook on extension. And it would forcefully underline his message of Brexit betrayal and surrender. He wins either way.