Yet again, one topic has dominated the news from Europe this week: Britain’s planned, but now perhaps less than likely, exit from the European Union.
There’s a little over two weeks to go until the 19 October deadline, by which, according to legislation passed by the British parliament against the executive’s wishes, prime minister Boris Johnson must seek an extension of the 31 October departure date – unless, prior to then, a new deal with the EU has been approved.
Despite a new “plan” presented overnight, there is every reason to doubt that Johnson is genuinely seeking such a deal. But even assuming he is, and assuming (more improbably) that his brinkmanship can produce some sort of agreement with the EU, no-one has been able to explain how he could then get it through parliament.
Fundamentally, he has the same problem as his predecessor, Theresa May. If he tacks “soft”, the hard Brexiters will abandon him; if he tacks “hard”, he throws away the already slim chance of getting significant opposition support. As I said almost twelve months ago, “While there may perhaps be a Commons majority for Brexit in the abstract (…), there is no way to put together a majority for any particular Brexit plan.”
What Johnson really wants is an election in which he can unite the Brexit forces behind him and spearhead their cause against a divided opposition. Conversely, the opposition wants to humiliate Johnson by forcing him to seek the extension first, hoping to split the “leave” vote between Johnson’s Conservatives and Nigel Farage’s more hardline Brexit Party.
The EU leaders, not surprisingly, are losing patience with this farce. But although the temptation to cut Britain loose by refusing an extension will be very real (French president Emmanuel Macron seems particularly drawn to this line of thinking), the incentives they face have not really changed.
The boost to EU prestige that would accrue from having Britain crawl back with its tail between its legs is sufficiently great that as long as a reversal of the Brexit decision seems possible – and it clearly does – they will feel obliged to keep that option alive.
For now, the EU leaders and the British opposition parties are both waiting for Johnson’s next move. There had been speculation that the opposition would propose a vote of no confidence this week (having succeeded in getting parliament to sit again, some of them obviously felt they should do something with it), but that idea has been dropped.
Nonetheless, the odds of a no-confidence vote at some point remain quite high, and there’s been renewed interest in the question of what would happen were Johnson to defy such a vote – to simply stay in office and run the clock down for the 14 days prescribed by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act until an election can be held. It’s thought this may be part of Johnson’s cunning plan to evade the requirement to seek an extension.
Back in August when the point came up, I said that parliament could insist on an alternative government if it had majority support in the Commons, and that “Faced with such an address from the Commons, the queen would have no alternative but to ask for Johnson’s resignation. If he refused, she would be entitled to dismiss him.”
The constitutional requirement is that the prime minister has the confidence of the house. If that confidence is lost, and it is clear that another politician is better placed to have that confidence, then there is nothing stopping that politician being asked by the monarch to take over. This would not be an exercise of arbitrary power by the crown: the scope and exercise of the power to appoint and dismiss prime ministers is determined entirely by what would be acceptable to the elected representatives in parliament.
There is no assurance, of course, that the anti-Johnson majority in parliament will be able to agree on an alternative government. If they do, their inability to agree on anything else much will almost certainly ensure that the life of such a government will be short. One way or another, an election will surely happen soon.
And the outcome of that is a gigantic unknown. For some ideas about it, the most recent report of Lord Ashcroft’s polling is well worth a read. The main takeaway for me was that Jeremy Corbyn is a huge drag on the prospects of “remain”; even among Conservative “remain” supporters, the vast majority (67% to 16%) would prefer a no-deal Brexit to a Corbyn Labour government.
It’s also interesting to note that the Tories’ claim to be the “unionist” party is wearing thin: 33% of Conservative “leave” voters in England and Wales say they would be happy to see Scotland leave the union – the most of any group. If Brexit does end up going through, the campaigns for Scottish independence and Irish unity should get very interesting.