9 August 2019

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s threadbare majority shrank further last week, after the Liberal Democrats took Brecon and Radnorshire from the Conservatives in a by-election. The chances of a general election before the end of the year seem higher than ever; with a working majority of just three and scores of rebellious backbenchers, it is unclear whether Johnson can govern effectively for much longer unless he goes to the country. A no confidence vote seems likely when Parliament returns from recess on 3 September and, as I argued in the New Statesman last month, the numbers are extraordinarily tight.

With the UK’s withdrawal on 31 October fast approaching, the timing of any election will be crucial and there is very little time for an election before the deadline. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act mandates a 14-day cooling off period after a successful vote of no confidence in which a Government may be confirmed in office.

At the moment, the chances of an alternative government gaining the confidence of the House during the 14-day period look slim. One plan is to find a unifying figurehead to lead a caretaker government, but this looks unlikely to win support from the Labour Party frontbench. The most obvious alternative, a Labour-led government, would not only mean some Conservative rebels putting Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10 but would require the support of other various parties and independents. What might the Scottish National Party’s price be for their support? A commitment to another referendum on Scottish independence?

If a new Government cannot be formed within this time period, an early general election will take place and dissolution is triggered. The minimum length of an election campaign is 25 days. In any case, the incumbent Prime Minister sets the election date. Downing Street sources have been quoted this week as saying that in such circumstances, Johnson would simply schedule the election for after 31 October. This raises the startling prospect that, unless an extension to Article 50 is sought and secured, a No Deal Brexit could take place in the middle of an election campaign.


News in brief

1. Opponents of No Deal split over “Government of national unity”

MPs opposed to No Deal are considering a temporary cross-party Government if Boris Johnson loses a vote of no confidence – but are split over who should lead it, according to the Financial Times. Labour frontbenchers, including Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, have said that such a Government would have to be led by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. However, anti-No Deal Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs are thought to prefer a more independent figure.

2. Leo Varadkar: withdrawal issues will return in any post-No Deal negotiations

Speaking in Belfast on Tuesday, the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said, “If there is No Deal, then at a certain point we will have to begin negotiations again and the first items on the agenda will be citizens’ rights, the financial settlement (with the EU) and a solution to the Irish Border.” 

Separately, Varadkar also said this week that a vote on a united Ireland in the aftermath of No Deal would be “divisive” and “not the right way forward.”

3. Anticipated No Deal disruption to cross-channel freight downgraded

The Government has downgraded its assumptions for anticipated disruption to cross-channel freight in a No Deal scenario, BBC News reports. Previously, the Government’s “reasonable worst case scenario” was that 75-87% of traffic would be disrupted; this has now been revised to 40-60%, due to improved French preparations for customs and regulatory checks.

Separately, the UK food industry has asked the Government to waive aspects of competition law to allow firms to co-ordinate supplies with one another in a No Deal scenario.

4. Government crisis looming in Italy

Italian Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the right-wing Lega Party, Matteo Salvini, yesterday called for a fresh general election after announcing that his party’s coalition with the populist Five Star Movement has collapsed. However, for the government to be formally dissolved, a no confidence motion is needed and it is then up to the Italian President to decide the next steps. A voting intention poll from last week put Lega at nearly 39%.


Open Europe experts in the media

In a piece for The Article, Anna Nadibaidze argues,“Despite their efforts, the Commission, the EU27 and EU businesses are not fully prepared for No Deal, and maintaining the line that they are risks aggravating the existing tensions.”

Writing for ConservativeHome, Dominic Walsh analyses what a No Deal Brexit would mean for the UK’s trade with non-EU partners. He writes, “While trade deals have taken on an important political and symbolic value in the context of Brexit, their economic benefits are typically smaller and slower to materialise than many realise. As Liam Fox found on the job, there are many ways to promote UK trade interests other than trade deals.”

In a comment piece for the Telegraph, Pieter Cleppe argues, “Any damage to the UK economy would do little to soothe the pain No Deal would inflict upon the Belgian, French, Dutch and German economies. Amid predictions of a German recession and the escalating trade tensions between the US and China, one can hardly think of a worse time for Europe for a No Deal Brexit to occur.”

“Parliament has to be presented with a binary choice at some point, because there have always been three options – remain in the EU, leave with a deal or leave without a deal. Parliament has so far spent three-and-a-half years simply trying to avoid that choice.” – Stephen Booth on Channel 4 News.

“The UK is equivalent in size to the 19 smallest economies of the EU27 combined – rationally you would expect the EU to show flexibility.” – Pieter Cleppe on BBC NewsNight.