Top 3 Developments
- The European Union (Withdrawal) (No.6) Bill to Parliament will likely complete its passage through the House of Lords today, forcing the Prime Minister to request an extension of Article 50.
- Dominic Cummings faced fresh criticism after it was reported that he referred to the current Brexit negotiations as a ‘sham’.
- European leaders have stated that an election victory would not allow the UK more concessions in negotiations.
On Tuesday night, a cross-party group of MPs presented the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill to Parliament, which seeks to require the Prime Minister to request an extension to Article 50 until 31st January 2020 from the European Council, if a Withdrawal agreement has not been ratified by 19th October or if Parliament has not consented to a no deal. The Bill passed through the Commons by 328 to 301 as the Prime Minister lost control of the Brexit process and his party.
The Bill is now with the House of Lords. Originally Government whips complained about the timetabling of the Bill and pro-Brexit peers had pledged to filibuster the Bill so that it would not be able to progress through the Lords. However, at 1:30am yesterday morning the Government retreated from its position and announced that all stages of the Bill will be completed by 5pm today in the Lords. Assuming that the Bill passes, it will then receive Royal Assent on Monday.
The 21 Tory Rebels who voted against the Government have had the Conservative whip removed. Notably, this week also saw the Prime Minister’s brother, Jo Johnson, resign as a Minister and an MP stating that the Government’s strategy and a no-deal Brexit are not in the nation’s interest. The removal of these MPs seems to form part of a wider strategy within the Government to force an early election where the Conservative Party consists of hard Brexiteers to push a no-deal Brexit through. Having failed with its first attempt on Wednesday, it has been confirmed that the Government will table another motion to call an election on Monday, although it is unlikely to succeed, as opposition leaders have refused to support a General Election until after the Prime Minister extends Article 50 to 31st January 2020, something he has pledged not to do but may be legally obliged to do after the Brexit delay Bill passes.
Sham on you!
Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings has been the centre of constant controversy this week after leaked comments suggested he had described the current Brexit negotiations as a “complete sham”. The former Campaign Director of Vote Leave is notorious for his abrasiveness and the contempt he shows for enemies and allies alike. One of the biggest concerns about his entrance into Number 10 was the inevitable headlines he would cause with his ruthless and confrontational nature.
Boris Johnson was forced to combat claims this week that Cummings had described the Brexit renegotiations with Brussels as a “complete sham”. Johnson has consistently outlined publicly that he wants to do a deal with Brussels and that his team are constantly talking with the EU to find a solution to the Irish backstop. But Cummings’ comments have shed light on the possibility that these claims are only paying lip service to the idea of negotiations, and that this is only a ploy whilst Number 10 pursues a no-deal Brexit for the 31st October. Further leaks have suggested that Attorney General Geoffrey Cox told Number 10 repeatedly that it was “a complete fantasy” to think that the EU would scrap the backstop.
While there is no doubt that UK officials have been meeting with the EU, this is more about the ulterior objectives at play in these negotiations. Official communications from the EU have suggested that the two sides remain “some distance apart” on these key issues, but privately EU officials have expressed scepticism about whether these negotiations are genuine, or simply to convince Westminster that there is a possibility of a compromise deal. The general consensus is that Number 10 is split, with some wanting a deal and some wanting no-deal. It is generally believed Cummings is in the latter camp.
Welcome to the Cummings tirade
Cummings this week caused further headaches by launching a tirade at ex-Business Secretary Greg Clark after he proposed the Government set aside a day after the October EU Summit for MPs to vote on a no-deal Brexit. The exchange was reported to be extremely explicit and is understood to have upset the Prime Minister, who would have preferred to not burn his bridges with his colleagues so spectacularly. But the ex-communication of the 21 rebel Tory MPs from the Party is a move straight from the Cummings playbook, and this heated exchange simply confirms that the brainchild of the deselection was Cummings.
On the surface, it looks like Cummings has had a rather tough week, but it is short-sighted to say that his plan has failed. The Benn Bill will most likely pass, and there will almost certainly be an extension to Article 50. But Boris will get his election, and he will be able to convince the electorate that he has been boxed in by Parliament and the EU, and the only way to break the deadlock is through an election to get Brexit through. By banishing these anti no-deal MPs, Cummings has positioned the Conservative Party as an unmistakably pro-Brexit party ahead of this election, and this may go a long way in neutralising the threat of the Brexit Party stealing votes from the right wing of the Party.
If there were any doubts about the enthusiasm for an election from Number 10, then they were well and truly squashed by none other than Cummings himself on Wednesday, when he was reported to have goaded Jeremy Corbyn when he bumped into him on the Parliamentary estate, saying “Come on Jeremy, let’s do this election, don’t be scared.” Boris Johnson will be hoping for sure that these Cummings related headaches are worth it, because there will no doubt be plenty more of these stories to come during his tenure in Downing Street.
Sturgeon makes a brave(heart) proposal
SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon revealed this week that she is planning to table a formal demand by Christmas for the UK Prime Minister to grant another independence referendum. This came as the First Minister unveiled her programme for Government, with which an accompanying document disclosed that civil servants have been ordered to update the White Paper on independence originally drafted by Alex Salmond’s administration.
The proposals included a Continuity Bill for Scotland to continue to adopt EU regulations and standards after Brexit. This would suggest that Scotland would diverge from UK regulations (in the event of a Brexit which saw the UK diverge from EU rules – i.e. a no-deal Brexit or eventual future relationship that depended on a free trade agreement.) even though the Scottish economy is far more heavily reliant on the UK than the EU.
The last time that Sturgeon did this – in 2017 – the backlash from voters saw the SNP lose 21 seats and half a million votes. It is unclear how Scottish voters will react this time, but Sturgeon is clearly willing to bet the house that Scottish resentment at Boris Johnson and frustration with Parliamentary paralysis may catalyse new momentum for an independent Scotland. It is unlikely the PM will grant this request, but it is clear that Sturgeon is not going to drop this issue anytime soon.
Brexit is a (natural) disaster
It was reported this week that Brussels has been considering using an emergency fund reserved for natural disasters such as earthquakes or volcano eruptions to help EU countries affected by a no-deal Brexit. The EU Solidarity Fund was set up in 2002 to support ‘major disasters’ and so far has spent about £4.5 billion on about 80 separate events. The European Commission has been evaluating whether to consider a proposal to reform the fund’s rules to allow it to be used in the event of no-deal. It is very telling that the severity of the impact of no-deal has necessitated the use of funds reserved for earthquakes or volcano eruptions than the scores of other economic relief packages available to EU nations.
Same same but no different
Amidst all of the Westminster posturing about how an election is the only way to break the deadlock in Brussels and to secure meaningful changes to the backstop, the EU claimed that an election victory by Boris Johnson would do nothing to strengthen his ability to attain concessions from EU states keen to avoid a no-deal Brexit. Officials in France, Germany and Brussels have shown solidarity in highlighting that even a convincing Boris victory would not change their position. A French Government spokesperson said that “our principles are not changing, and are not linked to British political life.” The EU has also responded by continuing to go full speed ahead with its no-deal preparations, as there have been no new proposals from the UK and the default position across the continent now is that no-deal is expected. None of this is surprising, but it should be noted that an election may do nothing more than rearrange the furniture in Westminster, and changes to the backstop extreme enough to win over hardcore Eurosceptics may never be attainable.
Upcoming Key Dates
- 9th September: Motion to call an election tabled
- 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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