Lord William Wallace writes… Brexit endgame?

This feels like the endgame for Brexit – and quite possibly for Boris Johnson. Briefings in Sunday papers on how the prime minister will refuse to resign when Parliament next votes him down – remember, he hasn’t won a single vote yet – to force the Queen to dissolve Parliament and let him fight an election on the ‘betrayal’ of Brexit suggest that he doesn’t expect the latest negotiations to succeed, and doesn’t know how to evade the terms of the Benn ‘Surrender’ Act.

The tactical judgement of Johnson’s advisers is that they can win an election on these terms, in spite of leaving themselves open to attack from the Brexit Party for being pushed into another extension.

Others have their own tactical considerations in mind. The SNP want an early election, before the embarrassing trial of Alex Salmond is due to start in the New Year; that’s one reason why they’ve said they’re willing to accept Jeremy Corbyn as a brief caretaker prime minister. Many Labour MPs rightly fear an early election, under an unpopular leader and against an effective populist; quietly, many would welcome an alternative caretaker premier who would hold things together while the Conservative Party fell apart.

It’s to our advantage for the bankruptcy of the Conservative approach to Brexit to sink in to the British public – which means an election some time after October 31st, or preparation for a referendum overseen by an interim government.

Which should come first, election or referendum? Labour strategists see the attractions of a second referendum before an election, allowing them then to campaign on their domestic agenda. The problem is that it necessarily takes much longer to prepare for a referendum – agreeing the questions and the competing campaign organizations, allowing for a better-informed campaign over several months. Since this will only happen if and when the current government collapses, it will require more than a caretaker government: a ‘government of national unity’ which could hold together through at least 4-6 months, presenting a budget, taking unavoidable decisions, coping with unexpected crises abroad and at home. That would mean not just agreeing on the temporary head of government but negotiating a coalition agreement, and allocating Cabinet and ministerial posts among several parties and a clutch of independents. That’s a different order of complexity than a 4-6 week caretaker government during an election campaign, and requires a much higher level of mutual understanding and trust. Remember, we have hard experience of coalition government.

Events may well sweep tactical preferences away. We may find ourselves in an acute constitutional crisis in three weeks’ time. The gradual departure of one-nation Tories from a party that has been taken over by its radical right may speed up. We can take advantage of developments, but we cannot control them. Jo Swinson has been right to resist accepting that Jeremy Corbyn has the right to take office if Johnson is forced out; he could not assemble a Commons majority behind him either. Replacing a weak Prime Minister for whom Dominic Cummings pulls the strings with a weaker man for whom Seamas Milne pulls the strings would provide no solution for the current chaos.

So we will most probably end up with an election first, at some point over the winter. The Liberal Democrats are getting stronger month by month, winning by-elections, gaining members, at last bringing in additional funds. Working in London, I happily note that we are taken much more seriously than we used to be. A city lawyer even said to me last week that our record in the coalition qualified us for government, and that she would now be campaigning for Chuka Umunna. And I met a businessman whose name I knew from the media, at a charity concert, who told me that he had just joined our party – ‘my children persuaded me’.

An election will not leave us in an easy situation. Which would you prefer: an outcome in which one party (most probably not ours) wins a bare majority of seats on a third or less of the votes, or one which creates a Parliament with 3 or 4 significant parties apart from ourselves, none of which have more than 200 seats? But the time to worry about that will be after October 31st; we have to get past the immediate crisis first.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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  • nigel hunter 7th Oct '19 - 1:06pm

    when the polls have been saying for a long time that people now want to remain in the EU WHY HAS THAT NOT BEEN HEARD! (apart from the right wing press). It should be all over the internet linked with our Revoke article 50.

  • Chris Leeds 7th Oct '19 - 1:30pm

    William quite rightly poses the question whether we prefer a referendum or an election first? We aren’t the final decision-makers on that, but we do have an influential voice.

    As a Liberal Democrat, I’d prefer an election first. It’s not unrealistic to believe we can take swathes of Tory seats and many from Labour.

    From a Brexit perspective, though, I want a referendum first. If that happens and Remain wins then Article 50 is Revoked and it’s all over.

    If the election comes first, then precisely because there are so many parties with significant support, the composition of the HoC would be a complete lottery. How confident are we that Johnson won’t get a clear majority leading to a crash out Brexit on around 30% of the vote? I’m not anywhere near confident enough about that to risk it.

    This is the country’s biggest crisis since WW2 and it involves an issue that is central to who we are as Liberal Democrats. Therefore, for me our priority has to be to stop Brexit, even if that limits our gains in a subsequent GE.

    Even on a practical level, we won’t be forgiven if we’re not seen to be willing to anything, and that really does mean anything, to stop Brexit. Right now, our red line on Corbyn makes that look a hollow pledge to many who would otherwise support us.

    A GNU with a Prime Minister other than Corbyn is clearly the answer, even with the practical difficulties William points out, but we shouldn’t be qualifying our pledge to do anything to stop Brexit. Let the rebel Tories do that.

  • Here from a distance it seems clear to me that Boris Johnson is doing everything he can to provoke the opposition to vote him down, preferably before he has to send the letter asking for an extension from the EU. I expect the Queen’s speech to be impossible for the opposition to digest, in the hope of a vote of no confidence.

    From there, Johnson probably hopes either that the opposition can’t agree on a Government of National Unity, which would trigger a general election, which might enable him to postpone the election over 31 October, causing a Brexit without a deal, or he hopes that the Lib Dems will support a Corbyn government, which would enable him eventually to use the slogan “Vote Lib Dems, get Corbyn”.

  • Paul Barker 7th Oct '19 - 2:26pm

    We dont have much influence of course but we should use what we have to delay The Election as long as possible, January is better than December. The more time we have for Voters to think, the better for Us & The UK.

  • Johnson is assuring everyone that the votes for his “deal” are there in the Commons so we must assume that he knows they are not! He will carry on looking for people to blame in an election campaign for his failure. If Corbyn were to call a vote of no confidence, knowing that the votes are not there, he would be wanting people to blame in an election campaign and that probably means Liberal Democrats. The Parliamentary Party have the delicate task of making sure the united opposition to Corbyn holds and making stopping Brexit a top priority while ensuring that the Liberal Democrats are not damaged by that. There is no reason why this is not perfectly possible and the collaborative ways of working amongst the Lib Dem MPs seems to have delivered the goods so far. Maintaining unity in the cross-party task is quite separate from responding to a Corbyn or nobody for PM cry from Labour.

  • Barry Lofty 7th Oct '19 - 2:42pm

    Boris Johnson and his allies seem desperate to have an early election, that being the case all opposition parties should do all in their power not to give them one! A new referendum would be the best solution, but it all seems such a mess at the moment.

  • William Fowler 7th Oct '19 - 2:46pm

    There is nothing to stop parliament passing an emergency referendum act that sets the options in stone (no deal v remain if EU closes down Boris’s latest deal), and dictates a similar period to a GE rather than six months of messing around with the questions and debating the issue, etc… no-one wants six months of two sides screaming abuse at each other. Let Boris stay in power for this period if he want to as he will be constrained by a lack of a majority and the parliament could even be sensible and let him get his spending plans through.

  • John Marriott 7th Oct '19 - 3:56pm

    @nigel hunter
    The polls are for Remain, hey? Well not around here they ain’t! Mind you, the polls were for Remain both before the 2016 Referendum was called and for most of the time afterwards. I would be inclined to have a small wager that, in any subsequent referendum, the result might well be no more conclusive than the last one. So your desire to press the Revoke button may be a way out, but one which would be fraught with danger. Anyone for Norway Plus?

  • I’m not convinced that “the bankruptcy of the Conservative approach to Brexit”, although very real, is going to sink in anytime soon for either its keenest or for its most numerous backers.

    My experience is that for those driving it, attitudes are deeply frozen despite the falsification of ALL the confident promises made in the referendum campaign including about how easy it would be to get great free trade deals with the EU (even as it was being attacked as a “protection racket”) and other leading economies – NONE of which follow free trade policies (except the US pre-Trump). I suspect Internet echo-chambers and rampant confirmation bias are involved.

    For those less engaged in politics, a common refrain is, “this is a democracy – just get on with it”, which is a perfectly reasonable position if you are unaware of the likely consequences but how do you contact them? Dominic Cummings knows how, and Boris knows how; his conference speech was a masterpiece of hope offered – cynical yes, but rhetorically effective. Contrast the ‘progressive’ approach which tends to treat them as a problem – “deplorables” as Clinton put it.

    And how can people be aware of those likely consequences when the media does such a dreadful job? Most of it is either explicitly pro-Brexit or simply useless at calling out the nonsense. For example, I’ve not heard anyone pointing out that the touted option of a “clean-break Brexit” means walking away from, arguably, half our exports given that (for example) few if any of the car manufacturers will stay and they are important exporters to other markets as well as to the EU.

    Then again, Brexit is often treated as an event horizon where everything ends but, in reality, it doesn’t. If we leave without a deal every EU27 member country has a veto on any subsequent deals we do with them which means they can ask for, and expect to get, almost anything. So, what might France demand? And Spain? And the rest?

    In short, the messaging needs to be upgraded by about 1,000% and quickly.

  • For anyone concerned about the ‘LibDems enabling No Deal Brexit’ nonsense being peddled by the Labour party, Euan McColm has a really good column in the Scotsman explaining why it’s nonsense. He is not a natural LD sympathiser.
    We should all push back hard on this rubbish. Our party need take no lectures from anyone on stopping Brexit, and certainly not from the Labour party.

  • David Allen 7th Oct '19 - 6:54pm

    Gordon is right. To most voters, Johnson looks as if he is taking action and has at least come up with an impressively complex-sounding plan, which for some strange reason, the EU do not seem to be taking seriously. Then by contrast, what are the Opposition parties doing? The BBC can tell us:


    “Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP appear increasingly at odds” “The SNP called on the other two parties to “grow up” and warned that time was running out” “The disagreements appear to be getting worse rather than better”

    The comments below the BBC line – which a month ago were heavily Remain-leaning – are almost all negative. Labour and the Lib Dems are equally criticised.

    If we can’t act, it would have been better had we never sought to do so. We are showing the nation how competent we are. They will vote accordingly. Beating Boris on that score should be an open goal, but we are missing it.

  • “The comments below the BBC line – which a month ago were heavily Remain-leaning – are almost all negative”

    And all our resident Brexi’s and Lexi’s are missing, strange I wonder if in a desperate attempt to gain the “precious” they have migrated to the BBC!

  • @David Allen

    Jo Swinson wants Corbyn to announce in advance, that when the Queen asks the leader of the official opposition to try to form a govt, as precedent dictates, he’ll decline. Jo is being wholly unreasonable. Were the Lib Dems the main opposition, and were she in Corbyn’s place, would she stand aside and decline at urging of the leader of a small party with just 14 MPs?

    It’d be thrown back at him in any subsequent election: ‘The man too unpopular to lead his own party into govt’ ; “The leader who didn’t want to lead”. The truth is, he has to have first dibs and the Lib Dems need to support. He may well not have the numbers as Jo claims, then and only then, an alternative can be found.

  • You’ve got it, Andy. Corbyn is indeed massively unpopular – not just with the general public, but even with his own MPs.

    To go from Johnson (who is very unpopular with a lot a people) to Corbyn (who is unpopular with virtually everyone) is the sort of suggetion that brings poliicians into disrepute.

    Never mind the fact that Corbyn is totally unfit to be PM.

    Corbyn as PM? Just say No!

  • @Simon Shaw

    Even if the outcome of that inflexible stance is no deal?

    Were Johnson to refuse to seek an extension and a VONC carries, only for attempts to form an alternative administration to fail, it’d trigger a GE. By default we’d leave with no deal. And I’d wager in that scenario the SNP will scoop up nearly every Scottish seat, including Jo’s.

  • Ross McLean 7th Oct '19 - 10:14pm

    But Andy – The fact that Corbyn won’t rule himself out is causing the 40 or so Ind/TIG MPs to say they won’t even vote for a VONC, which means we wouldn’t even get to the ’14 day’ stage. That’s the point. You say lets have the VONC and then we can see who can get a majority, but those 40 MPs are saying they won’t even vote for the VONC if JC as PM is a possibility. In that light, you can see that what Jo is doing is trying to make sure No Deal is actually stopped.
    And btw we have 19 MPs, not 14. I wouldn’t normally quibble about that but the parliamentary arithmetic is really quite important in this situation.

  • David Allen 7th Oct '19 - 11:47pm

    “The fact that Corbyn won’t rule himself out is causing the 40 or so Ind/TIG MPs to say they won’t even vote for a VONC, which means we wouldn’t even get to the ’14 day’ stage.”

    They may indeed be saying that. When it becomes clear that voting against a VONC means voting for an imminent No Deal, they will be under severe pressure to eat their words.

    Labour are saying they won’t support anyone but Corbyn. When that means an imminent No Deal, Labour will be under severe pressure to eat their words.

    Tactical considerations give Labour the edge here. Labour can call a VONC, without declaring whether or not Corbyn will seek to be the replacement PM, and dare the other anti-Johnson forces to vote it down. That would concentrate pressure on the recalcitrant Ind / TIG MPs – oh, and also the Lib Dems too – to back the VONC first, and argue about the successor PM later.

    It’s tough on Lib Dem / Ind / TIG to be in the strategically weaker position, when from the point of view of principle, their claim to the moral higher ground is about as good as Labour’s. But that’s the reality. Denial of that fact won’t help.

  • @Ross McLean

    The 40 know how this process goes. It would be unprecedented for a leader of the opposition elected in 2016 – for the second time – with 313,209 votes, to stand aside at he behest of disgruntled Tories flirting with supporting no-confidence.

    If Corbyn were to be made interim leader, all that would entail is getting an extension and calling an election. If those Tories and Lib Dems can’t hold their noses for even that, then sorry , but they aren’t serious about preventing no deal and are just looking for excuses.

    If Johnson gets a no deal due to this dithering & intransigence, it’ll hurt the Lib Dems far more than Labour in any general election focused on other issues. The Brexit issue has pulled the Lib Dems out of the coalition doldrums and made the party relevant, it’s the Lib Dems unique selling point. Deprived of it, especially by refusing to support no confidence, the political consequences will likely be dire.

    P.S. Yes, it’s now 19, sorry. It’s hard to keep up with all the defections.

  • John Marriott 8th Oct '19 - 8:12am

    Get your act together before it’s too late!

  • Jayne Mansfield 8th Oct '19 - 9:57am

    @ John Marriott,

    To believe that those who oppose the deal cobbled together by Mrs May or Johnson are capable of ‘getting their act together’ , requires a belief in unicorns.

    The vanishingly small window of opportunity for compromise is being wasted by those who have made clear that they have absolutely no intention of contemplating compromise.

    Thanks to premature public pronouncements, the opportunities for the face-saving, climb downs, possible when difficult arguments are conducted behind closed doors, has passed, The red lines have been drawn – and this amongst what is is supposed to be a unified opposition!

  • If the “alleged” talks break down then there will be an extension. Government will be under severe pressure from Brexit party, they will not want an election. They know that.
    Therefore any extension would probably be a face saving long one, with the government blaming the EU. Then the Referendum comes into play and if legally binding, not advisory, should close matters down one way or another.

  • Arnold Kiel 8th Oct '19 - 11:10am

    All arguments against Corbyn as PM are right. All arguments against Johnson as PM are right. So? Unless one believes in another PM after the eventual GE, rejecting (no-deal)-Brexit and Corbyn is inconsistent. Assuming that remain-MPs will eventually have to live with Corbyn as their vehicle, the problem is reduced to one of campaign-tactics.

    SNP, Plaid, and the Green(s) have solved it for themselves; for the ex-Tory/Labour independents it is anyhow a personal call, so only the LibDems really have this dilemma. If the choice appears to be letting a no-deal Brexit happen (with or without prior dissolution of Parliament) or supporting Corbyn, Jo would anyhow have great difficulties whipping her mixed-heritage group of MPs for either. Just declaring it a free vote at that point would be entirely justifiable.

  • Peter Hirst 8th Oct '19 - 4:18pm

    It’s worrying to predict what will happen if there’s no deal. Will the government come up with a fix such as the request for an extension being refused? And even if we get an extension, will we have a people’s vote or a General Election? I think if parliament agrees to a referendum there would be relief and most would see it as fair, despite the further delay.

  • Nigel Hardy 13th Oct '19 - 6:37pm

    @ Geoffrey Payne

    When we get the extension to Article granted the Tories will be crapping themselves. Failing for a second time to meet the deadline to square the circle that is Brexit will not be good for them. Government will be under severe pressure from Brexit party, who will not do pact the Tories unless they go for hard Brexit. This is a dilemma of: do they go hard Brexit manifesto to win big but lose another eighty or MP’s who will not sign such a manifesto, or risk BxP splitting the leave vote. Another problem will be Labour in this equation – are they seen as remain or leave party? Where will those Labour leavers go? Most unlikely toward the party of posh Etonians, possibly the BxP or maybe they’re so tribal they’d stay put.

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