Richard North, 29/10/2019  
 


Considering that most MPs had already made up their minds before yesterday's debate had even begun, it was hardly surprising that Johnson lost his third bid for an early general election. It would have saved a lot of time and energy if MPs had proceeded directly to the vote.

When it actually came to the vote, 299 MPs supported the election motion and only 70 voted against. But that was 135 votes short of what Johnson needed, 265 MPs having abstained. Undaunted, he's going to try again with a variation of the Lib-Dem idea of a one-line Bill. If passed, it will amend the FTPA and set us up for an election on 12 December.

The Lib-Dems and the SNP may be on board, although both parties have their reservations, especially as they still favour the 9 December as opposed to the 12th favoured by Johnson. The earlier date – breaking with tradition by being on a Monday – has the merit of catching university students before the term ends.

With that, the smart money is on the prime minister in office getting his way, especially as earlier in the day he had accepted the EU's extension offer, effectively fulfilling the precondition of taking a "no-deal" exit off the table.

That now leaves us with round two of this particular parliamentary soap opera, but we can be reasonably well assured that the torture will soon be over, one way or another. Mind you, getting the Bill through to Royal Assent by 6 November is going to be no mean feat, requiring the full cooperation of not only the Commons but the House of Lords as well.

Should we actually get to the stage where an election is finally declared, the nation will probably breathe a collective sigh of relief. As least we will now be spared the endless speculation about whether there will or will not be an election and will be able to get down to the task of deciding who we will vote for (if anyone).

Come the campaign, though, there is going to be an unusual dynamic. In the blue corner, we have Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson who may struggle with his failure to keep his "do or die" promise of leaving the EU on the 31 October. He will be constantly reminded that he once said: "I'd rather be dead in a ditch than delay Brexit". Going to the country while we are still in the EU could be a serious handicap.

In the red corner, though, we have Jeremy Corbyn, a man so "frit" that he has been running away from the very election he claims to have wanted. This is an opposition leader with a policy on Brexit so incoherent that he makes Johnson look like a tactical genius.

Gone are the days when the tabloids win elections, but it will not help to have The Sun refer to "Jeremy Corbyn and his cowardly MPs" having "denied Boris Johnson the chance for an election for the third time".

In what will inevitably be a personality contest – the media being incapable of playing elections any other way - the mantle of "coward" could be very hard for Corbyn to shrug off, especially when the Mail is proclaiming: "Labour bottles election AGAIN".

Teflon Johnson, however, shows every sign of intending to shrug off his broken promise, blaming parliament and Corbyn for his failure to extract us from the EU. His hallmark tactic of brazening out his critics may well serve him yet again.

We can see something of this in his letter to Donald Tusk accepting the extension. He writes of "this unnecessary prolongation of the UK's membership of the EU" and, in urging the EU Member States to make it clear that an extension after 31 January is "not possible", he accuses parliament of inaction "as long as it has the option of further delay".

What was interesting in yesterday's debate, though, was watching the DUP's Sammy Wilson dissect Johnson's deal, condemning its harmful effects on Northern Ireland. The prime minister in office has managed to convert an ally into a powerful enemy and, if the election campaign ever gets down to discussing issues, the detail of the deal is unlikely to work in Johnson's favour.

He would cast it as a great victory, securing something that his critics said could not be done but Wilson's criticisms could gain some traction. The DUP's Brexit spokesman complains that the agreement goes totally against the promises made by both the former prime minister and the current prime ministers, "that there would no impediments to trade between our part of the United Kingdom and GB, and that there would be no danger of the Union being imperilled".

Another thing that might weigh against Johnson is the amount of money wasted on no-deal preparations, estimated by some to be as much as £2 billion. This includes the highly visible £100 million set aside for preparedness advertising, which has now been put on hold.

Corbyn is certainly making a big deal of this, asking in the Commons, "How many nurses could have been hired, how many parcels could have been funded at food banks, how many social care packages could have been funded for our elderly?"

For all that, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Recent experience tells us to be very cautious about predicting anything connected with Brexit, and there is still room for the putative tryst between Johnson and the Lib-Dems and SNP over supporting his adopted one-line Bill to unravel. Should that happen, there is a significant chance that we could miss the slot for a pre-Christmas election.

Even with a 12 December election, getting the WAB ratified before 31 January might be challenging, given the Christmas break. But the earliest a post-Christmas election could be called is in February, which would put Johnson in the invidious position of having to ask for another extension, when he had already asked the EU to reject any further delay.

Then, of course, there is the spectre of a hung parliament – whenever the election is called – leading to more guerrilla warfare in parliament, and delays in the ratification of the WAB. Even if we get an election, therefore, Johnson is very far from out of the woods.

Going against the grain of a single-issue election, the media and some of the parties may broaden out the campaign to embrace other issues, such as public services, and in particular spending on hospitals, schools and the police. It is perhaps significant that some of both the Lib-Dem and Labour pre-election leafleting barely mentions Brexit.

Electorally, there may be some sense in this. Despite Johnson's promises, he is still weak in the battleground areas as none of the promised improvements will have materialised by the time we go to the polls.

A post-Christmas election is said to be especially dangerous for Johnson as, by the time the election is held, there is a high chance of the NHS having to deal with a flu epidemic, with the media headlines featuring a service under considerable stress. So significant might this be that it could explain his enthusiasm for going to the polls before Christmas.

In between then and now, however, there is another major event which will deservedly divert attention from Brexit – the Grenfell Tower report. For a few days, that is going to shunt Brexit off the front pages.

Whether that will allow MPs to focus on the essentials is moot, but with ten months of delays already in the bag, the next few days are going to be crucial in deciding whether we face still more delay at the end of January. But MPs should be aware that the anger at the current delays will be nothing compared to the reaction if we face another three months next year.






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