Top 3 Developments
- After several defeats this week, the Government has published their Operation Yellowhammer papers, outlining the worse case scenarios in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
- MPs on Monday rejected Boris Johnson’s second motion for a General Election, ruling out any possibility of an election happening before the current Brexit deadline of 31st October.
- Boris Johnson is attempting to secure support for an all-Ireland regulatory zone, to remove the Irish backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement and secure a deal with the EU ahead of October 31st.
No prorogation for the nation?
This week, Scotland’s highest civil court ruled in favour of the appeal that Boris Johnson’s suspension of Parliament was unlawful. 78 Remain MPs tabled the appeal to the Scottish court after Parliament was prorogued on Tuesday for five weeks, the longest such shutdown since the Second World War. The court concluded that the prorogation of Parliament was “motivated by the improper purpose of stymying Parliament” in scrutinising the Government.
This outcome contrasted with the judgement reached by the High Court in England, which concluded that even if the shutdown was motivated by political purposes, it would still be legal, and that prorogation was a political matter into which courts should be “slow to intrude”. The Government has subsequently confirmed that they will appeal the decision at the Supreme Court – the UK’s highest court – on Tuesday.
Number 10 has suggested that if the Supreme Court did not rule in his favour, he would immediately recall Parliament. This was met with surprise by many, as he had earlier in the week suggested that he could ignore the legislation compelling him to seek an extension to Article 50 at the EU Summit if no-deal had been reached. This admission can therefore be seen down as a climbdown from this position due to the criticism received from both prorogation and the suggestion from Johnson’s Number 10 team that the Scottish Courts were impartial.
It is unclear whether the Queen’s Speech will still take place if the Supreme Court rules that the prorogation was unlawful. As it stands, if the Supreme Court rules that the prorogation was unlawful, Parliament will be recalled immediately. This time will either be used to get all of the necessary legislation through in order to be ready for Brexit (assuming a deal is secured, which is all but guaranteed at present), or as an opportunity to frustrate or even revoke Article 50 through a second referendum.
What do we want? A General Election! When do we want it? Not yet!
MPs on Monday rejected Boris Johnson’s second motion for a General Election, ruling out any possibility of an election happening before the current Brexit deadline of 31st October.
This was clearly not the result that Johnson wanted, as he is compelled by the Benn Bill to seek a Brexit extension if a deal has not been agreed by the 19th October, removing the leverage of no-deal to use against the EU and leaving him in the exact same negotiating scenario that Theresa May found herself in. It is looking likely that Boris will have to ask the EU leaders for an extension at the EU Summit on the 17th October. Originally Boris said he would rather “die in a ditch” than do this and suggested he might simply ignore this advice, but it is unlikely that this would happen, as it would be illegal for him to do so now this Bill has received Royal Assent.
A General Election before Christmas is still very much a possibility, however. Johnson could call one once Parliament returns, either on 14th October or earlier if Parliament is recalled following the Supreme Court’s decision. Now no-deal has been taken off the table for the foreseeable future, it is expected that Corbyn will support this call for an election, paving the way for a November election.
Alternatively, the Queen’s Speech may be rejected by Parliament on 14th October, giving Labour a perfect opportunity to table a no-confidence motion. If a no-confidence motion passes and Corbyn is unable to form a working Government within the 14-day timeframe – likely given that the Lib Dems have ruled out a pact with Corbyn – this would trigger a General Election for early December 2019. At present, no one knows what will happen. Johnson may well secure changes to the backstop that can command a Parliamentary majority and leave the EU before the 31st October. But this is optimistic at best, and all signs point to another Brexit delay and another General Election before the year is out.
And it was all Yellow(hammer)
The Government published its planning documents for no-deal on Wednesday evening, after the House of Commons voted in favour of the Government publishing this document. The document – named Operation Yellowhammer – has already been leaked to the press, as most of the information appeared in the Sunday Times in August, but the move in Parliament was more about the Government being upfront about the realities of a no-deal Brexit and being held accountable for these outcomes.
The document outlines what it describes as ‘reasonable worst-case planning assumptions’, on what could happen in the event of no-deal. These assumptions include increased public disorder, huge delays at airports and ports, significant price rises in electricity and food and potential shortages in medicine. MPs were quick to highlight that these did not represent the “bump in the road” difficulties that some Brexiteers had promised, but instead revealed some hugely damaging impacts to society. The title of these assumptions; ‘Reasonable worst-case planning assumptions’, also suggest that things could be even worse than these assumptions.
The Government went into full fire-fighting mode after these documents were released, with new Defence Secretary Ben Wallace stating that the documents represented “a planning assumption about what would happen if the Government didn’t act.”
Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, the Labour party has been accused of lacking clarity and consistency on its approach to Brexit. This has been, mainly, due to the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, attempting to appease both the Remain and Leave voters within the party. Corbyn’s strategy, however, has resulted in voters becoming frustrated with the lack of consistency and concrete position from the Party, reducing their popularity in the polls: the Liberal Democrats beat Labour in Corbyn’s own Islington area during the Local and European parliament elections earlier this year.
This week Corbyn laid out his plan to back a General Election, followed by a second referendum, once a third extension to Article 50 had been agreed upon by both the EU and UK. Labour strategists have drawn up a proposal to hold a second referendum as soon as the party comes to power after a General Election, offering the public the option of remaining in the EU or an edited version of Theresa May’s deal, which has already been rejected by Parliament three times. It is still unclear what position the party would advocate in a referendum either before or after a new deal has been struck.
Tom Watson, the Labour Deputy Leader, threw a spanner in the works later this week by using a speech to the Creative Industries Federation to set out an entirely different plan, arguing there should be a referendum before an election. This may be in response to fears that Labour might not win the next General Election, and therefore would be unable to enforce a second referendum. However, Corbyn and Len McCluskey, Labour’s main union backer, are uncomfortable with a pro-Remain stance as they fear that this could cause them to lose seats in crucial areas that they may need to win an election. The difficulty is that the unclear strategy is jeopardising their seats in other areas.
Berc-Over and Out
John Bercow, Speaker of the Commons for a decade, announced this week that he will step down either at the election or on the day that Britain is due to leave the European Union: 31st October.
Bercow would rather step down on October 31st as opposed to after an election because it would mean that the Speaker would be selected from the current House, where Conservatives do not have a majority. However, if an election occurs before Bercow steps down then a Speaker will be selected by the new Parliament and may favour a hard Brexit and Conservative Government.
With Parliament now only set to resume on 14th October, this means even if an election is called on the first day Parliament returns it cannot be held until mid-November, resulting in the current Parliament selecting a new Speaker.
Stormont Lock, Stock and Barrel
It was revealed this week that Boris Johnson was considering an all-Ireland regulatory zone for checks on goods. If implemented, this would remove the need for a Northern Irish backstop, the only remaining obstacle for a deal to get through Parliament. The idea was discussed with the DUP on Tuesday at Number 10, and involves an all-Ireland zone for livestock and agricultural goods, which makes up the majority of trade across the border. The scheme would specifically relate to health and regulatory checks, rather than tariffs, and would create a border in the Irish sea by essentially keeping Northern Ireland in the EU Single Market for agricultural goods.
The scheme would require a “Stormont lock”, which would give the Northern Ireland executive the ability to veto any future changes to the arrangement. This would require there to be an actual Executive in Northern Ireland, something that does not exist at the moment due to disagreements in the power sharing arrangement between the DUP and Sinn Fein. The parameters of where the UK are willing to move to were also confirmed, as Number 10 strongly rejected Ireland’s EU Commissioner Phil Hogan’s claim that Johnson was moving towards the idea of a Northern Ireland-only backstop. If there is a deal to be found, it will be a fudge somewhere in between these two positions.
The early response to this idea was positive. The DUP and their leader Arlene Foster are reported to be receptive to the idea, so long as there is no divergence in tariffs between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The EU has not offered a public comment on this proposal, but the common perception from EU officials is that this is an unmistakably softer line than what Johnson has previously taken, and that this shows that the UK really is keen to get a deal over the line before the 31st October. While on the surface this does not reveal much, the fact that the EU has not outright condemned it – like they have done with various other proposals – is very telling, and suggests that this is workable.
Perhaps the more important question is, will this pass through Parliament? At this moment it is very difficult to tell, but the initial signals are promising. The ERG, the hard-line Eurosceptic Tories who stood in the way of Theresa May’s deal, suggested that they would follow the DUP in their voting for any withdrawal agreement. As the DUP has expressed optimism about this arrangement, this is encouraging. It is also helpful that the former Chair of the ERG, Jacob Rees-Mogg is now the Leader of the Commons. Supporting this deal would get Brexit done before the 31st October and will allow them to go to the electorate in the seemingly inevitable upcoming election and say that they have actually delivered Brexit… finally.
Return of the Mac(non)
The French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, stated this week that the chaos of UK politics means that France may veto another delay to Brexit. This is mainly due to the frustration that Europe has at the political deadlock in London and the fear that the EU will be granting an extension every three months, as the situation has only worsened with the new leader of the Conservative Party. Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit negotiator, has given his support for Le Drian, arguing that “another extension for Brexit is unacceptable unless the deadlock in London is broken”.
The EU27 have stated that they will only grant a further extension if it is for a “credible purpose”, previously defined as a general election, second referendum, ratification of the withdrawal agreement or a decision to reverse Brexit. Remain MPs may be able to persuade EU27 that an extension of Article 50 would facilitate the opportunity to have a General Election in the UK, as opposition leaders have prevented this from taking place so far in order to avoid the UK leaving the EU without a deal on October 31st. It is unclear whether the this will be a convincing enough argument for EU27 leaders to support an extension, should Johnson be required to request one on 19th September. What is clear is that the UK’s political deadlock is only acting to further frustrate the EU.
Upcoming Key Dates
- 14th-17th September: Liberal Democrat Party Conference
- 21st-25th September: Labour Party Conference
- 29th September – 2nd October: Conservative Party Conference
- 14th October: House returns
- 17th October: EU October Summit
- 31st October: Current Brexit Deadline
- 31st January 2020: New Brexit deadline if Benn Bill passes
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