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Johnson’s phantom majority: why we’re heading for a Christmas election

October 19th, 2019

His deal won’t pass, even if the numbers are there

Boris Johnson has a problem and it’s not the one that most of the Westminster Village spent yesterday pondering. It is, however, one that gives the lie to the aphorism of the PM’s namesake, the 36th president of the United States, that “the first rule of politics is that its practitioners need to be able to count”. It’s not: that’s the second rule. The first rule is that its practitioners need to understand the rules.

There is no point being able to count if it turns out that you’re counting the wrong thing, or at the wrong time. For it looks as if just as he might have found a majority for his deal – courtesy of an abundance of goodwill among both the Spartan wing of the ERG and the Ind Con Burt-rebels, combined with a decidedly weak Labour whipping operation in the circumstances – he won’t be able to bring that majority to bear.

That such a majority might well be there in the first place is extraordinary. I tweeted a thread yesterday where I rated the chance of his deal being approved at less than 15%. In retrospect, I might have under-rated that but not by much. The odds were definitely stacked against the government.

Even now, we have to remember that if Johnson retained the support of the entire Conservative parliamentary party and gained the voluntary backing of all the whipless wonders who resigned or were booted out over the Benn Act, he’d still need 10 opposition MPs to offset the loss of the DUP. May only managed 9 on the third meaningful vote: 5 Labour, 2 ex-Lab Independents, 1 ex-LD Independent and Lady Hermon. Obviously, that requirement increases if Boris can’t bring home a full house of Con / Ind Con MPs but the number of Labour MPs already going public with their support suggests Johnson might well be able to win the vote.

But here’s the problem: that vote might well never take place. An amendment tabled by Oliver Letwin boots any vote on the deal until after (or into) the votes on the legislation to implement the Agreement. Of itself, there is some sense to this. One short route to a No Deal exit was to approve the deal (which would then have avoided triggering the requirement of the Benn Act to seek an extension) but then not to implement it. Letwin’s amendment closes that risk off. However, by its nature, it does a lot else besides.

If the amendment passes (and assuming that any attempt to authorise a No Deal Brexit fails, which it will), then the PM will have to seek that extension and despite the noises coming out of Brussels this week, the answer will almost certainly be a weary ‘yes’. For all sorts of reasons, we have to assume that the amendment will have more support than the main motion and that therefore it’ll be all-but impossible for the government to get the deal approved unfettered. All that counting yesterday would be for naught.

That said, creating an unlikely majority and then not being able to do anything with it has been the story of Brexit since day one.

In fact, the true risk for the government (and one that’s been surprisingly unnoticed so far, even by those commentators who have understood the importance of the Letwin amendment), is also similar to the rest of Brexit: the majority disappears as soon as you get into the detail.

Without the DUP, the government’s majority plunges to -63, which is hardly a stable base on which to push through a complex and controversial piece of legislation. There would be absolutely every chance of both Commons and Lords mauling whatever the government put forward, and tying all sorts of undesired conditions into ratification.

Chief among the amendments we could expect would be to make ratification dependent upon a confirmatory referendum. It is just possible that Corbyn might withhold Labour support from such a move as it would close off his ability to negotiate his own Brexit deal but that prospect is becoming more and more fanciful. If he doesn’t, there’s every chance that the amendment would pass.

Such a development would be unwelcome to the government, to put it mildly. How then do they forestall it? The obvious answer (albeit a contingent one) is to force and win a general election.

Corbyn has called for an immediate election dozens of times in the last few months and while he had a justifiable case for opposing it in September, when it really would have played fast and loose with No Deal and made the production of an agreement probably impossible, that argument falls away as soon as an extension is agreed. For Labour to then vote against a dissolution would appear both cowardly and hypocritical, especially if all the other parties were in favour, as is likely. For what it’s worth, I think Corbyn would back the call, as he did in 2017 in similarly unpropitious circumstances.

However, so big is the threat to Johnson’s Brexit plans and so little control would he have over an extended legislative process to implement the deal that I think he’d also need to issue a threat of the nuclear political option. (Before exploring that, let’s note that if the deal passes without amendment, Johnson might be able to ram an Act through parliament using the 31 Oct deadline as the anvil: the time pressures and his willingness to No Deal if necessary might just be enough; an extension would completely destroy any chance of those tactics working).

If parliament refused to endorse the deal (even if by kicking the can), and also refused a dissolution, Johnson could threaten to resign in the reasonably secure knowledge that no-one else could form a government. After all, if it couldn’t be done in September when the pressure really was on, it won’t be doable now. The cost to such an action would be to let Corbyn into Number 10 and allow him the trappings of office for an election campaign but the prize would be that campaign.

Such a threat though returns us to the First Rule. If Johnson carried it through, we’d probably be looking at a Dec 19 election: not a happy prospect for anyone and one that’d certainly give pause for thought for any party reliant on younger voters and/or those without postal votes. Or, for that matter, any party seeking to drag the focus away from Brexit.

Which is one of several reasons I don’t think MPs would want to go there. By contrast, an election triggered by a dissolution motion next week and allowing for a brief wash-up session (although presumably excluding the scheduled Budget), would point to a polling day of December 5.

A December election (which of course covers either option), is available at 3/1 and that, to me, is very good value.

David Herdson