Boris Johnson’s Trumpian decision to prorogue Parliament at a time of national emergency is illustrative of an era where ‘strong-arm’ politicians feel able to exploit public disillusionment with mainstream politics by running rings around the democratic processes which form the very foundation of any liberal society.
Forget rhetoric about funding the NHS and fighting crime, the Prime Minister’s actions are all about driving a wedge between the people and their actual representatives – the members of parliament who have been democratically elected – in a bid to strengthen his grip on power and deliver Brexit on 31 October as promised, “do or die”.
Yet he ignores two extremely important facts. First, he has no mandate for a catastrophic No Deal crash-out. In the run up to the 2016 referendum the Leave campaigns promised voters a quick and easy trade deal with the EU, and there is still nowhere near a public majority for stepping over the No Deal cliff edge. Secondly, plenty of the members of the public who insist that the democratic result of the referendum should be respected do so in an entirely genuine manner. They are not all ‘No Deal at all cost’ voters – they are genuine democrats, hence why a snap YouGov poll yesterday showed that only 27% of voters support Johnson’s plans. For many of the public, the proroguing of Parliament is every bit as undemocratic as trying to overturn the referendum result. They recognise that our parliament is the cradle of our democracy.
Yet assuming Boris ploughs ahead, the options for MPs like myself who a desperate to prevent No Deal are disturbingly limited, as explained recently by the Institute for Government. Primary legislation is needed to block No Deal, yet the government controls the parliamentary timetable. On 22 May, second referendum purists rejected the chance to amend the one piece of primary legislation that was available to us – the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. Now we’re desperately trying to discover new methods of seizing control of Parliamentary business in order to legislate against No Deal. This is still ‘Plan A’. If, against the odds, we are successful, Johnson is likely to call a general election via the mechanism within the Fixed Term Parliament Act.
If Plan A fails then we must move swiftly onto Plan B – a vote of no confidence in Johnson and his government. This must come next week. If we were to win it, Jeremy Corbyn should be given the chance to form a government. The reality is that he only has any chance of gaining Lib Dem and moderate Tory support if this is a temporary measure, based purely on a mandate of asking the EU for an extension to article 50 in order to hold a General Election.
Johnson would be favourite in any election, given recent polling, but for the first time the public will at least have the chance to vote definitively against No Deal by backing Labour. The Lib Dems and Tory rebels simply must support this course of action if their words about avoiding No Deal mean anything. Yet should Corbyn fail to win enough support, he should also consider backing Plan C, whereby a moderate MP to would lead a temporary government of national unity, with that same short-term mandate.
However, if self-interested, partisan politics scuppers Plan C, we’ll need a Plan D – which would ironically be the best route forward for both the major parties, and the country. By 18 October it is highly likely that Johnson will have failed in his bid to kill the Irish backstop. Johnson must then decide whether he really does want to risk our national security, wreck parts of our economy, and risk the Conservative’s reputation for economic competence, by entertaining No Deal, or whether he would prefer the deal that is still on the table. At this point MPs must tell Johnson that if he tables the Withdrawal Agreement Bill then we will get it over the line.
As I wrote in the Observer on 6 July, the WAB was a completely different kettle of fish to May’s initial offer, which was rejected three times, as it was a product of the cross-party talks. It gave concessions to Labour – a Bill on Workers Rights, a vote on a customs arrangement, a role for Parliament in future UK-EU trade talks, and even a vote on whether to put the deal back to a confirmatory public referendum. But it also contained a promise to Tory Brexiteers that we would step up plans to find alternative arrangements to the backstop, and a guarantee to the DUP to keep Northern Ireland aligned with the rest of the UK. The WAB should be presented for what it is; a cross-party piece of legislation that should be debated, amended where necessary, and then voted on by the House.
The 52:48 referendum result has always been a mandate to move house but stay in the same neighbourhood. It’s time for us all to recognise this, and for British politics to rediscover the lost art of compromise.