5 September 2019

Yesterday, MPs passed Hilary Benn’s Bill, which seeks to force the Prime Minister to seek an extension to Article 50 unless Parliament has agreed a Brexit deal or approved a No Deal exit by 19 October. They then rejected Boris Johnson’s motion for an early general election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. This motion needed two-thirds of MPs (434) to vote in favour, but only 298 did – with the Scottish National Party (SNP) and most of the Labour Party choosing to abstain.

Meanwhile, the Benn Bill is making its way through the House of Lords. In a late-night agreement last night, peers agreed to submit the Bill back to the Commons by 5pm on Friday at the latest – allowing it to receive Royal Assent and become law on Monday, before Parliament is prorogued. Today, the leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, confirmed that the Commons will not be prorogued until the Benn Bill has completed its passage – and that the Government will bring forward another motion for a general election on Monday.

Since recess ended, Johnson has suffered four consecutive parliamentary defeats (on the motion to secure time for the Bill, the second and third readings of the Bill, and the election motion). He has also lost his majority, after removing the whip from 21 rebel MPs who backed Tuesday’s emergency debate motion. Governing in these circumstances, let alone attempting to deliver Brexit through this Parliament, is unsustainable; it is therefore unsurprising that he is seeking an election as the only way out.

The key question now is when that election will be. In principle, there are broadly three routes to an early general election:

  • A motion under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which requires a two thirds majority. Johnson tried and failed this route last night. It is possible, however, that the Speaker would allow him to bring forward the motion again after the Benn Bill has passed, on the basis that the political context has changed.
  • A short, one-off Bill for an election, “notwithstanding” the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. A key difference here is that this route would only require a simple majority of MPs. It would also allow Johnson, or MPs, to specify the date of the election in law – thus giving both sides confidence that the election really would be on 15 October.
  • A successful vote of no confidence, with no motion of confidence passed in a Government during the subsequent fourteen-day period. There is unlikely to be time for this before prorogation.

The second route – the “notwithstanding” Bill – may be Johnson’s best chance for the election he wants on 15 October. However, without a majority in his own right, he will still only be able to get this if he persuades at least 21 opposition MPs to vote for an early election.

There is a subtle division emerging within the opposition parties who refused Johnson’s bid for an early election last night. Some, notably the SNP, have suggested that they will not back an election until the Benn Bill is passed into domestic law. This could allow them to back a 15 October election via the second route outlined above.

However, other MPs say that their condition for an election is not only that the Benn Bill is in law, but also that the extension has been sought and secured from the EU27 – which would mean a November election, at the earliest. The Labour leadership is split over the issue, with contradictory signals about its official position. There is a calculation among some opposition MPs that forcing Johnson to seek an extension would undermine his chances in a delayed election, as he would have broken his totemic promise to leave on 31 October. However, it is far from clear that Leave voters – or the Brexit Party – would blame Johnson, rather than the MPs who voted for it, for a decision to delay. Although Johnson has been accused of attempting to run down the clock, opposition MPs who withhold support for an election until after the extension deadline would effectively be doing just that. The Government is already accusing Labour of seeking to prevent the public from voting in favour of leaving the EU on 31 October.

The suggested 15 October date is not incidental; as I point out here, a Conservative majority Government elected that day would have a (very short) window before the October 19 deadline, in which they could either repeal the Benn Bill, or fulfil one of the Bill’s conditions for not seeking an extension (such as a parliamentary majority for leaving with No Deal). 15 October is also the earliest possible date for an election called on Monday (as there is a statutory requirement for Parliament to be dissolved 25 working days before an election).

That effectively makes Monday the Government’s last chance to secure the election it wants, at the time which it wants. If it fails, then it will essentially be stuck in office without a parliamentary majority and with the clock ticking on the deadline to seek an extension. This would leave major questions for both main parties. Johnson faces a legal obligation to ask for an extension which he has categorically said he will not do, while Labour will need to decide at what point they are going to actually vote for the general election they have spent a year calling for.

News in brief

1. Irish Government in talks with EU about checks away from border

The Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, has confirmed that Ireland is in talks with the European Commission about how to protect the Single Market in the event of a No Deal Brexit. Speaking on Wednesday, Coveney said Ireland “will face difficult choices in the context of how we introduce a checking system somewhere, away from the border, that can protect the integrity of the single market and reassure other EU countries that we don’t have an open back door into the single market through Northern Ireland.” Further details are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, Coveney updated the Irish Cabinet on Tuesday about the Government’s latest No Deal planning. According to the Irish Times, the Government’s briefing document estimates that 10,000 jobs in the tourism and hospitality sectors could be lost in the first three months after a No Deal Brexit.

2. EU extends deadlines for No Deal transport contingency plans

The European Commission has released another communication calling EU27 governments and businesses to prepare for No Deal. Notably, this proposes extending some its time-limited contingency measures to reflect the extension to 31 October. Under the proposals, the Regulation for ensuring basic road haulage connectivity would be extended from 31 December 2019 to 31 July 2020, while the Regulation for ensuring flights between the EU and UK can continue would be extended from 30 March 2020 to 31 October 2020.

3. Boris Johnson “recognises the reality” of all-Ireland agrifood zone

Addressing the House of Commons on Tuesday, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said that the Government acknowledges that “for reasons of geography and economics, agri-food is increasingly managed on a common basis across the island [of Ireland].” He added that the Government was prepared to come to an arrangement “that recognises this reality” provided that it “clearly enjoys the consent of all parties and institutions with an interest.”

Nigel Dodds, the Westminster leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), said the party was “willing to sit down and look at” what the Government was proposing but that any arrangements would have to be with the “consent and assent of the institutions in Northern Ireland.”

A spokesman for Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said, “That particular proposal covers just one aspect of cross-border activity. It’s not a replacement for the backstop.” Johnson will meet Varadkar on Monday.

4. New government formed in Rome

The new Italian government, led by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, has been sworn in this morning. It is composed of 10 ministers from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement – its leader, Luigi Di Maio, has become the new Foreign Affairs Minister  – 9 from the centre-left Democratic party, 1 from the left-wing Free and Equal party and 1 independent. Conte will nominate former PM Paolo Gentiloni as Italy’s new EU Commissioner.


Open Europe in the media

Open Europe Acting Director Stephen Booth told IGTV that so far, “Parliament has not done any of the things that would really prevent a No Deal Brexit: vote for a deal, revoke Article 50 or vote for no confidence in this government.” In his ConservativeHome column, Booth wrote, “The backstop is now a matter of principle as well as policy… the EU might be prepared to make a new offer but it is unlikely to meet all of Johnson’s demands.”

In a new blogDominic Walsh explains why an Article 50 extension under the Benn Bill “would merely put off the fundamental choices facing Parliament” rather than automatically blocking a No Deal scenario. In a piece for The Article, he argues, “If an election can be secured with enough time before the 19 October, then the [extension] Bill’s passage would mean seeking an extension would be the default after the election – but with the crucial caveat that this could be overturned by an incoming majority Conservative Government.” Appearing on TRT World, he assessed whether the Conservatives could win a general election.

Pieter Cleppe told Euronews, “The prorogation of [the UK] Parliament definitely puts pressure on the EU to change its position,” and wrote for The Telegraph, “Boris Johnson and his allies have been very transparent with their strategy. The idea is to make sure that there are only two options left: a deal acceptable to the UK or No Deal.” He also discussed Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament on Al Jazeera English Inside Story programme, spoke to Dutch TV programme Een Vandaag, and was quoted in Dutch newspaper Trouw.

Speaking to BBC World NewsDavid Shiels said MPs are “seeking a delay to the deadline rather than making a final decision about whether the UK should leave with a deal, without a deal or stay in the EU.” He also argued that an election is a risky gamble for the Conservatives, saying, “If the Government goes to the country, it might not get a clear answer: there could be another hung parliament.”

Anna Nadibaidze reviewed European press reactions to Boris Johnson’s first major parliamentary defeat on our blog and on Twitter. She told Australian ABC News that Johnson has set red lines which reduce his Brexit options, and discussed the new Italian government on Al Jazeera English, saying that Brussels will be reassured about the new coalition’s less confrontational approach.