It is not new news that British politics are fragmenting. What we can’t be sure about is how the political lines may permanently be redrawn. How might the two main drivers, Brexit and the next General Election (if and when held), impact on the process and determine political outcomes for the foreseeable future?
Under Boris Johnson the Conservative (Tory) Party could triumph in the months to come or go the same way as the Liberals early last century; while the Liberal side of politics in one form or another may stage an exponential revival. The implications are not dissimilar for the Labour Party.
Johnson and his Swengali-like adviser, Dominic Cummings, are utilising major shifts in the political landscape – impatience over Brexit and changes of their own making to the Conservative Party’s base. In a first-past-the-post voting system a mere third of the vote across key electorates can deliver majority government, which was missing at the 2017 elections. The fact is that Brexit divides almost as many in the Labour Party as it does among Conservatives. The Left/Right dichotomy has fractured. The character of the workforce in the modern economy is more variegated than in previous decades. And the liberal, rational and outwards looking elements in Conservative politics are being excluded in these changes. The long ‘neglected’ factions in both parties have become vociferous, ready to embrace a nationalistic approach with simple solutions to complex issues. They feel disparaged by the political class and are dismissive of their former elites. The Bexiteers believe that Parliament and the cities are out to frustrate and cheat them of their referendum victory three years ago. It is irrelevant that they didn’t vote for a Brexit without a deal.
The 21 senior members expelled from the Parliamentary Conservative Party this past week included such distinguished long-standing grandees as Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond (both former Chancellors), Sir Nicholas Soames (Sir Winston Churchill’s grandson), as well as bright up and coming younger members (not least Johnson’s own brother!) – all of whom have sacrificed or set back their careers on a matter of principle and in the national interest. Others are resigning of their own accord as they have had enough of playground politics.
Two Ministers resigned this weekend – one being Johnson’s friend, the Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, who is also resigning from the Tory Party. She regards the decision to expel the 21 senior parliamentarians as “an assault on decency and democracy” and “an act of political vandalism”. Cabinet, she told the media, is being denied critical information about decisions being taken by Johnson and his close advisers. She added that Johnson had also withheld the legal advice given to government on the Queen’s recent prorogation of Parliament, now being contested in the superior courts.
As a columnist in the conservative leaning Daily Telegraph (Jeremy Werner) has put it: “There is no longer a place, it would seem, for the weathered pragmatist in today’s Conservative Party”. Nor a place, he added, for the 48% who voted Remain, or for those opposed to a no-deal Brexit. The once ‘One Nation’ party of a broad church is, as many assert, virtually an adjunct to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, together with the Jacob Rees-Mogg rightest faction (the so-called European Research Group) that contrived so hard to defeat Prime Minister Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement and bring down her prime ministership.
The issue that precipitated these recent events was Johnson’s ‘promise’ to the Tory shires that he would deliver Brexit by 31 October come what may, with or without a deal. The latter is more likely as no serious negotiations are presently underway with the EU Commission. The time-frame for a deal to be agreed by both the UK Parliament and the EU has been deliberately constrained by the move to prorogue Parliament from Monday this week until the Queen’s Speech on 14 October – just a few days before the EU Council meets on 17–18 October, the last practical occasion for consideration of any new proposals the UK might have for its exit.
Parliament though has bitten back. As Philip Stephens of The Financial Times wrote: “This week the vulgar swaggered Mr Johnson’s short premiership faced a first collision with reality. A politician accustomed to lying and cheating his way out of tight spots was roundly defeated in the House of Commons. Parliament now looks set to disarm the October deadline by blocking the path to a no-deal Brexit”. Moreover, he wrote, Johnson appears to have lost control of the process that will set the date for the inevitable General Election.
Johnson’s strategy relies on capturing the increasing wave of disenchantment in the regional cities, towns, boroughs and rural regions of England. But meanwhile he must face a number of practical difficulties in turning that wave to electoral advantage: his is a minority government lacking the confidence of Parliament; it has an obligation under law to settle a withdrawal agreement with the EU by 19 October without which he must seek an extension of time under Article 50 of the EU Treaty – provisionally until 31 January 2020. All 27 members of the EU must agree to the extension, though any one may refuse it as a favour to Johnson. Johnson has stated that notwithstanding that he is bound by law to request an extension in the absence of an agreement, he will refuse to do so. He is determined to take the UK out of the EU on 31 October even if there is no agreement and will take the consequences. First and foremost an agreement with the EU is almost a practical impossibility as Johnson refuses to accept the Irish border ‘backstop’, a non-negotiable matter for the EU, which Johnson holds to be undemocratic! One might believe this is where everything stops, leaving both the UK and the EU in a legal limbo. No agreement, no withdrawal. Under what rules then could the two function together thereafter? What if there were no British Government in place able to take the next step?
A resolution would seem to lie, one way or another, with a General Election or even a second referendum (widely opposed) – but who is to decide that and how? The ‘alliance’ that secured the law to prevent the UK’s exit without an agreement is no longer of one mind over these questions. The Labour Party, which has its difficulties, has a different view on the date for a General Election – though it is determined not to compromise the objective of preventing the UK exiting without a deal.
The Fixed Parliamentary Term Act imposes requirements for an early election not least of which is that the government should have failed for want of confidence and that within 14 days no other person or party has secured that confidence. Otherwise a two-thirds majority is required to force an election leaving discretion to the government (whomever) as to the date. The opposing, now majority, parties do not trust Johnson on the date as he would seek an early election that would have the UK out of the EU on the 31 October without a deal by default. Those opposing Johnson would have it after 31 October to safeguard the no-exit-without-a-deal law and allow for calmer negotiations over the ensuing three months under a new government. Meanwhile once in election mode the Parliament will be in limbo – a critical matter in these circumstances if issues involving the evolved governance of Northern Ireland have not been formally settled beforehand. Another scenario is that Johnson could move a no-confidence motion in his own government and seek to enact a one-liner election writ with a date to suit his purposes. This is seen as most unlikely. The procedural issues here are bound to be challenged in the courts as Johnson seeks an early election to secure his Brexit either way.
As to the future given an election, a populist Tory Party as reshaped by Johnson with his Swengali adviser, together with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, might well by this time have attracted even deeper electoral appeal, well ahead of that of any other party or group – unless the Liberal Democrats meanwhile were to make, as they are now doing, a huge effort to disabuse the electorate of Johnson’s bluff and bluster, squashing the myths and half truths propagated by his narrow visioned English nationalists. Johnson is already in election mode having found time lately to campaign in rural regions in particular. Although ahead in the polls the Tories, in whatever modified form, stand to lose not only its decent middle ground but also significant support in Scotland, in parts of Wales and in Northern Ireland – areas that would be struggling from the effects of the legal vacuum brought about between Britain and Europe over the withdrawal. Essentially it will come down again to being a contest between Brexiteers and Remainers, with supporters of both parties disunited on the issues voting across parties. The Remainers may have the best of the argument but the former may surge on a wave of anger and disenchantment powered by Johnson and emotion.
The upshot at this stage is that Johnson remains determined to get Brexit with or without a deal by 31 October regardless of the law prohibiting a no-deal exit. If not voted out of office or arrested beforehand (having refused to seek an extension of time from the EU); and having “tested” law and process to the limit, Johnson will get his Brexit regardless of what the courts might say or do as this is an area where, in spite of theory, politics would probably prevail over law because of the absence in the UK of a written Constitution (in other words a technical revolution). Meanwhile there could be a legal vacuum in the country with chaos developing around borders, over cross-border people movements, over transport and critical supply lines, even over law and order – just for starters
This is not just a constitutional crisis; it looks like an existential one for Britain.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, law academic and trade adviser, currently in the UK to observe Brexit.