Considering the ‘impossible’: can the Government pass a Brexit deal?
By Jacob-Millen Bamford
The current Withdrawal Agreement is, by most people in Westminster considered dead. However, in the spirit of proper planning what if a deal isn’t dead? What if Johnson’s rhetoric- we’re leaving on the 31st October come what may- is actually aimed at getting MPs in line, rather than, a negotiating tactic? Both can, of course, be true at the same time, but it is worth considering whether a deal could actually be passed before the 31st.
The dangers of putting a Brexit deal to a vote for Johnson are clear. Like May, if he is defeated in another large vote against the government, it would damage his governing credibility, and furthermore, there is a chance MPs will add, and pass amendments Johnson find deeply unpalatable.
Bringing a deal to the Commons may also solve several problems for Johnson.
First, there is still a high probability of a Vote of No Confidence (VONC). Anti-no-deal MPs have agreed to pursue a legislative route to blocking no-deal (e.g. forcing the PM to request an extension) but with the announcement of proroguing parliament, this will be increasingly difficult.
Therefore there could be a VONC he could lose. The numbers are tight and the Conservative MPs who would consider voting supporting a VONC would do so to stop no-deal. They take no pride in bringing down a government of their own colour. Johnson has promised to bring a deal for MPs to vote on and this could cause Conservative MPs to rethink voting against their government in a VONC. Without these MPs, a VONC would not pass and therefore the Opposition will not call for one. Corbyn has repeatedly said he will only table one when he thinks he can win it. Issue number one solved for Johnson.
If Johnson can get a deal through, any deal (more on this below), this will benefit him in a post-exit day General Election in Autumn. If doing so, he neuters the majority of Brexit Party’s support as it removes a key selling point, however, there is a good chance Brexit Party would try and play on a betrayal narrative. A passed deal where the UK has left the EU reduces the threat of the Liberal Democrats. They may have to change position from stop Brexit to rejoin the EU, a much less popular policy. Finally, a deal would bring back Conservative Remain voters, who are not happy with Brexit but will accept a deal.
Going to the country having ‘finished’ Brexit meanwhile turning on the spending taps will give Johnson a distinctively different offer to May, and arguably allow him to challenge Labour’s anti-austerity narrative by claiming austerity is over.
Johnson is likely to go for an election soon as he needs a majority. With a deal passed, he could plausibly bring together a constituency in the right places to give him one.
For this all to be plausible it is important to look at what has changed since May suffered historic defeats in the Commons.
Johnson has been elected the leader of the Conservative Party on an explicitly pro-hard Brexit platform. He secured a large victory, from MPs and members of the Conservative party, over his opponent in doing so
“Do or die: The rhetoric and planning, or appearance of planning, has been ramped up by his government to show he will not countenance extending Article 50 again
Everyone believes the Withdrawal Agreement is dead and therefore a deal is dead. This leads to the conclusion that the only alternative is a no deal Brexit or no Brexit at all
Since May’s departure, Parliament now believes there is a PM whose words and actions will lead to a no-deal Brexit if he has it his way.
However, there is another side to Johnson’s rhetoric. What seems to matter more to him is when the UK leaves the EU, not how the UK leaves. He has consistently said he believes a deal is possible but if the EU doesn’t agree then he would exit the EU on the 31st October “do or die”.
It is possible he believes he can present a deal that will pass the Commons. A new Parliamentary session means he is not held back by Parliamentary rules like May was. This means he could bring the same deal back, however in practice he will need changes to please many MPs.
Due to MPs believing his “true believer” hard Brexit narrative, he may be able to do two things May couldn’t:
Bring hardline Brexiteer MPs, such as the ERG with him to vote for a deal
Give a lifeline to MPs opposed to no-deal, but do not want to be seen to block Brexit
These are two camps May failed to unite. No-one believed she was a Leaver neither did they think she would take the UK out without a deal. This allowed both camps to vote against her deal.
There are, however, a range of conditions that will have to be satisfied if a deal is to pass:
The EU agrees to changes to the Withdrawal Agreement that satisfies hardline Brexiteers (though this may prove difficult if pro-Brexit MPs continue to move the goalpost of what they find acceptable)
A Vote of No Confidence fails
Legislation to prevent no-deal has failed and all Parliamentary routes have been exhausted
Johnson bringing back a deal and passing one is a long-shot idea. It is however plausible and should be accounted for when forecasting the next couple of months. Stranger things have happened.