Richard North, 06/08/2019  

With dreadful slowness, the penny is beginning to drop: the man who calls himself prime minister has absolutely no intention of seeking to renegotiate Mrs May's Withdrawal Agreement. He is set on a no-deal Brexit and has been ever since he assumed his current position. Currently, he is not even going through the motions of a renegotiation.

Through the day, yesterday, this was unequivocally reinforced, with a Downing Street spokesman saying that Britain will quit the EU on 31 October "whatever the circumstances". There are "no ifs or buts", he added.

No 10 also insisted that six Bills, previously seen as key for an orderly exit from the EU, would not be needed in the event of a no-deal, in one fell swoop removing the need for further parliamentary cooperation.

This could prove to be a blow for MPs who were seeking to use the six Bills, variously on immigration, fisheries and other sectors, as vehicles for tabling amendments aimed at preventing a no-deal crash-out.

But the No 10 spokesman said: "None of the exit bills currently before Parliament are needed ahead of exit day in the event that we don't leave with an agreement. There are some statutory instruments that may be necessary and we will bring them forward in good time. We have an existing immigration act that can be used".

With that, no-deal is now the reality that we have to learn to live with, now ever-more apparent as EU officials conclude that there is "no basis for meaningful talks" with the UK, as long as Johnson insists on removing the backstop. At the same time, they are saying: "The deal reached on Britain's withdrawal from the European Union is the 'best possible' and is not up for negotiation".

For the EU, therefore, a no-deal is now the "working hypothesis", with no expectations that parliament will be able to stop it happening.

Through the media, we are also beginning to see something of the broader Johnson game plan, which seems to be more attuned to winning a general election which will keep the incumbent in office than it has to do with a Brexit settlement.

As I suggested could happen a little while back, we're looking at an early election, this one posited for 7 November, the week after Brexit.

Assuming the first week of Brexit is relatively uneventful, and the dire warnings of immediate catastrophe are overblown, the choice of such a date would give the Johnson administration the credit of leaving the EU without a deal, before the longer-term effects become apparent which might otherwise turn public sentiment.

This is by far the best way to neutralise Farage as an electoral threat and, with the transfer of his vote to the Conservatives, that will be sufficient to ensure Johnson prevails over a divided opposition and returns to the Commons with a working majority.

How we get there is relatively simple to predict and, for Johnson, does not represent much of a gamble. He needs only to rely on Corbyn obliging with a vote of no confidence after the summer recess, which has to be on or about 3 September. And Corbyn seems ready and willing to fall into the trap.

Given that the House passes the motion, there is then a period of not greater than 14 days allowed for the formation of a new government. If a new government is formed, it must be confirmed in office by a motion of confidence in the House, not later than the 14 days after the original no confidence motion.

One assumes that it will not be within the grasp of the opposition, fractured and divided as it is, to form an alternative government. This is a group that would have trouble uniting to form an orderly queue to the toilet. But even if the opposition parties could cobble together an unstable alliance, they still have this second hurdle of a motion of confidence. My working hypothesis is that the opposition would fail to surmount this obstacle.

What then follows is all-important. In the event of the opposition failing to form a new government, the incumbent prime minister stays in office until a general election has been held, in Johnson's case free to allow the clock to run down to a no-deal Brexit.

Currently, diverse media organs, such as The Times are making a big deal about indications that Johnson would "refuse to resign" after a vote of no confidence.

But there is no obligation for a prime minister to resign unless the opposition can present an alternative government which has the confidence of the House. If no new government is formed, then there is nothing to stop the incumbent remaining in place until the general election result.

And if Johnson does plan to stay in place, timing will be everything. He will not be able to dictate the time of the first confidence vote but there is then only a very limited window for the formation of a new government and a second vote if that move is successful.

According to the current session timetable, by 13 September, parliament will be back in recess for the conference season, starting on 13 September and finishing on 9 October.

Assuming that Johnson beats off any move to form a new government, under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, there is no requirement for dissolution to follow immediately. Contrary to what The Sun tells us, an election is not automatically triggered.

The paper actually says that the earliest an election could be triggered if the no confidence vote succeeded and no alternative government was formed, would be 18 September. But, it would not be in Johnson's interest to declare early. It is still for the prime minister to recommend a suitable polling day to the Queen, and she usually accepts the advice she is given. It would make sense to delay it until after Brexit.

If Johnson sought to choose 7 November as his date, he must only allow 25 working days before the polling day for parliament to be dissolved. That takes him to 3 October. The writ, announcing the date of the election comes the following day. This would allow MPs with no time to create mischief.

Thus, when 31 October comes, there would be no MPs and no parliament. Parliament will not be able to intervene because it will temporarily no longer exist. This leaves Johnson in charge, with a free hand to take us out of the EU. For this, being the default option, he has to do precisely nothing.

Meanwhile, with no tiresome negotiations to detain him, Johnson is very evidently out on the campaign trail, visiting hospitals and throwing money at every dog-whistle issue he can think of. While others relax on their holidays, he is firing on all cylinders, dominating the political news agenda.

In the background, there is intensive activity to reduce the immediate, headline effect of a no-deal exit, thus ensuring that there are no causes for undue public concern which might weaken an electoral resurgence. On top of this, the as yet undeclared election is being framed as a "people versus parliament" campaign, drawing attention to the failure of parliament to deliver Brexit.

No attempt will be made to convince or convert the corps of disaffected "remainers". The targets will be Tory loyalists and the Farage vote. The two combined, against a fractured opposition, are enough to ensure a working majority. If national unity is desirable, it certainly isn't necessary.

Thus, it would seem, the die is cast. There is an outside chance that MPs could intervene and block Johnson's attempts to foist us with a no-deal Brexit. The few opportunities, however, look very weak and are probably beyond the capabilities of the opposition groups to exploit.

In fact, the only way MPs could have guaranteed to prevent a no-deal exit was to have ratified Mrs May's Withdrawal Agreement. And since they refused that option three times, they are faced with the consequences of their own actions.

While some may have thought that they could frustrate Brexit by blocking the Withdrawal Agreement, they will now find that the alternative to Mrs May's deal was not to remain in the EU but to leave without a deal at all. And, not only that, they risk being saddled with Johnson as prime minister for the next five years – or until he crashes and burns, whichever comes first.

This is the law of unintended consequences, writ large.

***  Edited to take account that the dissolution of parliament 25 days before the election refers to working days. This, in fact, strengthens Johnson's hand.

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