In two months, we are due to leave the European Union but there is still no consensus as to the terms of our Brexit. The new Prime Minister has met his German and French counterparts and they have agreed that we must find a workable alternative to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Various suggestions have been floated but so far none of them has been shown to be satisfactory. The Prime Minister’s bottom line is that if no satisfactory deal can be found we will leave without one.
Hard line Brexiteers want much more than the removal of the backstop from the deal Theresa May negotiated with the EU. David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary, has suggested a number of other changes he would require for him to vote for a Johnson package. One item in his list is not to pay the full £39bn ‘divorce bill’. Another hard liner, Bill Cash argues that without substantial changes, “we will be governed for a number of years by the other 27 member states under the existing withdrawal agreement, even with the backstop removed”.
Nigel Farage has gone further, threatening that if there is anything other than a ‘no-deal’ Brexit his Brexit Party will contest every seat at the next election, threatening the possibility of a Conservative victory. He claims to have already recruited 650 potential candidates.
On the other side of this debate, a majority of MPs has twice voted against a ‘no-deal’ Brexit but those votes did not change the Withdrawal Act and the provision that we will leave the EU on 31st October, deal or no-deal. To do that the Opposition parties have to work together and this week their leaders met and agreed to do that. They agreed that a vote of no confidence in the Johnson Government, suggested by Jeremy Corbyn, would not prevent a no-deal Brexit. To achieve that they have to legislate to amend the Withdrawal Act.
To do that they have to gain control of Parliamentary time and obtain majority support for such an amendment. They have done this once this year when Yvette Cooper’s European Union (Withdrawal) No 4 Act last February, required the Prime Minister to extend Article 50 from 29th March to 31st October.
To prevent this the Prime Minister is apparently going to ask the Queen to prorogue Parliament after MPs return from the summer recess on 3rd September until 14th October. Johnson justifies this, saying: “it’s time a new Government and a new PM set out a plan for the country after we leave the EU”. The former Conservative Attorney General Dominic Grieve has called this “an outrageous act” and suggested it could lead to a vote of no confidence in the Government. The Government is highly likely to lose that vote as Conservative rebels are expected to vote with the Opposition parties.
The Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 requires a two-week delay in which to discover whether there is an alternative Government that can be formed. Jeremy Corbyn would like to lead such a Government but is unlikely to find majority support. Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat leader, has suggested that a senior backbencher such as Ken Clarke or Harriet Harman should lead the alternative Government to prevent a no-deal Brexit on 31st October before calling a General Election. That would give the voters an opportunity to decide whether we should still leave the EU and on what terms.
This is a confused situation loaded with uncertainty as to the likely outcome. Whatever actually happens three results need to come out of it. First, the national interest rather the interests of any party or politician needs to be achieved. Second, the outcome is one that is seen to be reached democratically. Third, the deep divisions that the Brexit debate has caused need to be healed. Those are goals for which we can surely all pray.