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Brexit: The Rubik’s Cube of British Politics

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks outside Downing Street in London, England, July 24, 2019. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)
Parliament wants to halt Brexit, but a no-deal Brexit may be unstoppable. Or not.

For most of the last two years, the conventional wisdom on Brexit has been that a no-deal Brexit was impossible because it was certain to be blocked by a Remain-majority House of Commons. For the last few months, however — roughly since it became clear that Boris Johnson was about to be elected Tory leader and prime minister — the conventional wisdom has changed to the view that a no-deal Brexit is now unstoppable.

In both cases, the conventional wisdom was and is wrong. The best approximation to the truth is that both these outcomes are possible but that there are large obstacles in the way of either: A no-deal Brexit is at risk because a majority of MPs want to block it at all costs; the blocking of a no-deal Brexit is at least as difficult because MPs earlier voted by a huge majority to legislate an automatic no deal if Parliament couldn’t agree on a deal, and now there is no apparent majority for any available deal.

As I’ve argued before, Brexit is now the Rubik’s Cube of British politics.

Naturally, both sides of the debate hanker after some bold move, unforeseen by all, that would settle the issue in their favor. In the last week, each has proposed cutting the Gordian Knot in a different way. How plausible are their solutions?

Consider, first, the idea proposed by Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, the brain-heavy Dominic Cummings: The prime minister, if he lost a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons while pursuing a no-deal outcome, would simply dissolve Parliament and declare a general election on a date after October 31 so that Brexit would occur automatically.

I should issue a brief accuracy warning at this point. Cummings has been extensively profiled, notably by Iain Martin here, and the upshot is that his strategy is rooted in deception: He is almost never doing what he seems to be doing; he misdirects opponents and throws them off balance. Well perhaps, because if not, he has given his opponents plenty of time to think of counter-moves to his proposal of running out the election clock on Brexit.

As to the proposal itself, the prime minister is constitutionally entitled (indeed expected) to remain in office for two weeks after losing a first no-confidence vote while everyone tries to find if there’s a Commons majority for him or someone else. Nothing very dramatic there. Boris would certainly stay in office after the passage of the first vote. Only if some other political figure were then to assemble majority support and inflict a second defeat on Boris would he be required to resign and thereby lose the right to call an election.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think for a moment that Boris would refuse to resign after a second parliamentary defeat, and if he did, he would both lose office and discredit himself in the process. Instead, like any shrewd political leader, he would be likely to resign, lead his party onto the opposition benches, relax, watch the new government of None of the Talents fall apart, and then be forced into the election he wants — at that point more than ever.

It’s important to know that, because the Gordian Knot strategy now being discussed by anti-Brexit MPs of all stripes is to assemble an all-party majority coalition under a leading candidate for the highest office who would inflict a second defeat on Boris and then become prime minister. This new government would move to prevent a no-deal Brexit (and perhaps a Brexit of any kind) by either postponing or revoking it, or even repealing it altogether.

The underlying case for this new government is that the Boris Johnson administration has seen its working parliamentary majority (including the Democratic Unionists) reduced to one at the same time as an unknown number of Tories, including former cabinet ministers, are threatening to vote against it on a Brexit-related vote of confidence. The underlying case against this is that a “government of national unity,” as its proponents call it, is on very shaky ground if the main reason for its existence is to deep-six the policy chosen by 52 per cent of the voters in a national referendum.

But the arithmetic needed for such a GNU is even more discouraging. Here’s the present balance of parties in the Commons: Tories 311, Labour 247, Scottish Nationalist 35, Liberal Democrats 13, Democratic Unionists 10, Sinn Fein 7, and assorted independents, nationalists, Greens, etc., all adding up to 630. Almost all these parties hate one another, and a good number of MPs hate their colleagues in the same party, especially where it concerns Brexit.

In order to win the necessary vote, a political leader has to persuade all the opposition parties plus independents and in particular rebel Tories to vote in the same lobby. That’s difficult enough when they are all voting in opposition to a Brexit proposal from a Tory government. There are probably enough dissident Tories to swing such a vote against Boris, provided there are no or very few opposition defections to the government at the same time.

But there will certainly be some such defections. For instance, some Labour MPs from northern constituencies that voted heavily for Brexit will undoubtedly cross the floor to signal they’re keeping faith with the referendum result. So will a few independents. Will these odds-and-sods number more than the Tory defectors? No one will know until such a vote, but it’s possible. But voting down a Tory proposal is just an expression of opinion unless a new government gains power to change law and policy.

And all these difficulties are multiplied when MPs are asked to vote not against a Tory government but in favor of installing a GNU that will. For starters, who will be the leader of this piebald coalition? As opposition leader with 200 MPs more than the next party, Jeremy Corbyn is the obvious candidate. But not many Tories would cross the floor to vote this raggle-taggle Marxist into Downing Street. Nor all Lib-Dems. Nor all independents — some of whom left Labour in protest at his tolerance of anti-Semitism within their old party. A GNU led by Corbyn is not just a non-starter; it’s an anti-starter.

If not Corbyn, then who? It can’t be a Tory defector (though Ken Clarke would be the best candidate as one of the few MPs who at the last election opposed the Brexit referendum result). Most Labour MPs couldn’t bring themselves to install a Tory prime minister. Nor a prominent Scot-Nat who would discredit the coalition throughout England less because of the SNP’s support for Scottish independence than because it’s almost as hard left as the Corbynites. Nor a Liberal Democrat, since the Lib-Dems are now Labour’s deadliest opponent as the party most likely to replace them on the center-left. An independent? We eliminated that possibility in the previous paragraph.

Who then is left? Again, as the elected Labour leader, Corbyn could legitimately refuse to serve under any prime minister other than a distinguished Labour elder statesman. I’m struggling to think of anyone who fits that description, but it’s clear that anyone who might fit that description — former prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — would be bitterly hostile to Corbyn and, of course, vice versa. How about a current loyal colleague of Corbyn who is also sophisticated and realistic? Not many people meet those requirements either, but one who does, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, is widely distrusted and even feared on all sides as being more wobbly than his boss on such matters as democracy and civil liberties. In general the internal factional fighting in the Labour party now runs so deep that almost any leader would invite a rebellion from some Labour MPs to keep him out of Downing Street.

So it’s hard to see a GNU being established and harder still to see it surviving beyond a few weeks. It would crumble more or less quickly, confirming the dire predictions that Boris Johnson and a Tory party shorn of its most troublesome rebels would have been hurling at them from Day One.

Nothing can ever be ruled out in democratic politics, as the last four years in British politics have gloriously demonstrated. It’s even possible that the EU will unexpectedly bend and offer a deal dramatically better for the U.K. than May’s broken deal. But the most likely outcome of the present situation is either that Boris Johnson will succeed in getting a no-deal Brexit through before an election or that his attempt to do so will be defeated and will lead in a short time to an election on the issue.

It’s no surprise, therefore, to learn that Boris is ordering the Tories to prepare urgently for a possible election in October. And such an election, if one happens, will almost certainly change the underlying problem of British politics: namely, that Britain currently has a parliament that wants to halt Brexit and reverse the Brexit referendum by stealth. Democracy, however, has prevented that. So far.

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