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Woodcock is right: Remain’s grand strategy is so muddled as to not exist

August 17th, 2019

What use do Remainers hope another A50 extension would be put to?

Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan is commendably clear: leave on 31 October without a deal. The clarity might be the only thing that’s commendable about it and it leaves many questions open about what happens into November and beyond but on the central point of Britain’s EU membership, the issue would be closed.

Johnson and the rest of the government might argue that No Deal isn’t technically the government’s policy and that they leave open the possibility of leaving with a deal, and indeed would prefer to. Such an assertion, however, runs contrary to two key facts. Firstly, the demands to remove the N Irish backstop in entirety is clearly so unacceptable to the EU and leaves so little room for concession from London that it’s extremely difficult to see how a deal is remotely possible. And secondly, even if a deal could be done – presumably at the October European Council summit – there simply wouldn’t be time for parliament to ratify it (which requires a Bill to enact the Withdrawal Agreement into law first) before the end of the month. The policy is No Deal, do or die.

Against which, the policy of those opposed to No Deal is what, exactly? In the first instance, secure a further Article 50 extension, either by forcing the government to request and accept one through legislation or by changing the government. That much at least makes sense: lose that battle and they lose the war. But then?

As the ex-Lab, now-Ind, MP John Woodcock rightly pointed out, no-one’s really come up with a credible grand strategy that thinks beyond the next couple of months at most. Indeed, the fact that there are at least three different plans in circulation for that first stage alone (a Cooper II Act, a VoNC and a Corbyn government, and a VoNC followed by a non-Corbyn-led government), highlights the difficulties that the anti-No Deal forces face in September and October, never mind beyond. Unless the disparate groupings can unite around one strategy, chances are that all will fail when the numbers are so tight to begin with.

Of course, the ‘anti-No Deal’ party isn’t anything like a party at all. For one thing, its MPs come from many different political parties – although on an issue this important, that’s not necessarily critical. What is critical is that it’s split into those who are prepared to tolerate some form of Brexit, and those who aren’t. While they’re all opposing No Deal, that division doesn’t matter; as soon as they get the chance to set their own agenda, it is.

Let’s game through those three initial options to identify where they come unstuck.

Constitutionally, the most natural solution where the Commons is opposed to an absolutely core policy of the government is to No Confidence that government and replace it. In this case, where there government has no majority and where no MP from the governing party could take office within the existing administration’s framework (i.e. a Con minority government with DUP Confidence and Supply support), that would usually mean the Leader of the Opposition being invited to the Palace.

Unfortunately, the Leader of the Opposition is toxic to too many MPs to lead a TANDA (Temporary Anti-No Deal Administration – it wouldn’t be a GNU; there is no NU). The Lib Dems might have been the first to pour cold water on the idea but they’ve been joined by what remains of Change UK – unsurprising given both the reasons for the ex-Lab members defecting in the first place, and that Corbyn didn’t even bother to ask them despite their five MPs being critical to the success of the project.

If the purpose of a TANDA was simply to head a government for a few days to gain the A50 extension, it might be tolerable for Corbyn to head it but the reality is that woudn’t be the case. If a Confidence vote is tabled in September, it’d be more than a month to the EU summit and then even if an election was immediately called, polling day wouldn’t be until late November. Corbyn could easily be PM for getting on for three months before an election.

And crucially, the question that’s not been adequately answered: what after the election? We presumably still have Johnson and Corbyn leading the two main parties: the one is still committed to leaving at the earliest opportunity, the other to leaving after negotiating his own deal which could take years. Unless the Lib Dems can somehow form a government, an election still delivers either a No Deal Brexit or a Corbyn government and, maybe, a lesser Leave. For many, both Brexit policies and both PMs are unacceptable.

What then of the ‘Cooper II’ option: forcing Johnson to request and accept (subject perhaps to Commons ratification) another Article 50 extension? Assuming the EU27 agree to the request, the plan’s attractive to some in that it avoids the necessity of having to take control of the executive but it still fails to look beyond that event. May was willing to go along with Cooper I because she wanted a deal. By contrast, Boris isn’t bothered and leaving him in No 10 changes nothing fundamentally.

However, Boris doesn’t have to meekly comply with a Cooper II Act: he could resign. Doing so would not only absolve him of any responsibility to implement a policy he’s committed to reject, and also – probably – trigger an election, though presumably the PM appointed in his place, even though he or she didn’t have the Commons’ confidence, would still – as they’d be obliged to do – request the A50 extension (this may cause problems if Commons ratification is required by the Act but parliament has already been dissolved when the extension is granted).

But once again: what then? A Cooper II does nothing but kick the can. Remain would be not a jot closer to achieving their aim and the best that its proponents might hope for would be to discredit Johnson and split the No Deal vote – but to what end? The alternative would remain a lengthy Corbyn government that might still take Britain out anyway.

So what of a non-Corbyn TANDA? The first objection is clearly that such a government would be extremely difficult to put together and require Corbyn’s assent – presumably after he’d tried and failed to form a government himself. Such assent may well not be forthcoming and without it, the country might well find itself propelled into the vortex of both a No Deal Brexit and a general election by automatic operation of the law but without any positive intent.

However, let’s suppose it could be done. Again, we run up against the barrier of the likely imminent election. Could Corbyn continue to support a TANDA once it had achieved the first objective of gaining the extension? What would its mandate be? Its policies, domestic, Brexit and otherwise foreign? And if there were to then be an election, wouldn’t the public be being given much the same choices that parliament had themselves rejected – unless there was a major realignment in the parties?

This all sounds fairly hopeless and in the current situation, it is. Not only do the diverse objectives of the anti-No Dealers to some extent cancel each other out, with the likely result that Johnson will get his way, but even if he can be stopped for now, at what cost and for how long? The policy of a referendum under Labour may well be a chimera, with perhaps two years of renegotiations and then months more before a referendum could be held. Could a Corbyn government last that long – and if it could, what would it do in the interim? Yet what is the alternative? The theoretical (if otherwise logical) possibility of discontented MPs defecting from their own party won’t happen because they know that divided, the ‘other side’ will win, which in current circumstances would be even more intolerable than the policy of their own leadership (never mind personal considerations).

The current odds of a No Deal 2019 Brexit are slight odds-against. That seems some way too long to me. The disunity on the anti-No Deal side, both in parties and in objectives – short term and long term – is sufficient to persuade me that Johnson is likely to get his way and lead Britain out of the EU on Halloween.

David Herdson