Tuesday

22nd Oct 2019

Opinion

UK MPs' maths means election, not no-deal Brexit

  • UK prime minister Boris Johnson. 'The more likely a Johnson victory in a general election, the bigger the incentive for the rebel parliamentary majority to deprive the prime minister of it' (Photo: Council of the European Union)

Having lost the by-election in the previously-safe Conservative Welsh seat of Brecon and Radnorshire, the Remain coalition of Liberal Democrats, Greens and the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru has demonstrated that Conservative seats – even in Leave-leaning constituencies – can be won, as the 'Boris bounce' fails to annihilate the Brexit Party, and the weakness of the Labour party fuels a Liberal surge.

With a majority of just one in the House of Commons, it takes only two Tory defectors to carry a motion of no confidence in Boris Johnson.

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This will happen, and the prime minister knows it.

So when actively preparing for a hard Brexit on October 31st, Johnson is right to say it is less likely to happen. Not – as he claims – since the EU will budge, but because two or more heroes or traitors, depending on one's point of view, will defect and bring down his government to prevent no-deal Brexit from happening.

The interesting question is what happens next?

The moment after Johnson loses the confidence of the parliamentary majority the lion will roar; and he will have the vast majority of his fellow Conservatives behind him.

He will call for that general election, the one his spending spree and bold messaging, and theatric performances at the dispatch box are designed to help him win.

Johnson believes that in an electoral stand-off with Jeremy Corbyn and fragmented Remain parties, a Tory ticket for Brexit at last will be victorious. He might be right.

Boris paradox

However, a UK prime minister cannot call an early election. Under the fixed terms act, he needs the parliament to vote for it.

So this is the question: the moment after Johnson's fall, will the parliamentary majority of infighting Labour MPs, 'bollocks to Brexit' Liberals, pro-independence Scots, Customs Union prone euro-critic Welsh, yet-to-be-properly-named 'Independent Group' of ex-Tory and Labour rebels and the emerging class of last-minute Tory Brexit heroes (or traitors) choose to grant Johnson a general election that he might win?

Or will they deprive him of it to instead form a government of national unity to deliver a soft Brexit deal on a Customs Union and a confirmatory referendum with the possibility to vote Remain?

It is impossible to say.

Procedurally parliament will have two weeks to elect a new prime minister or accept a general election.

Next 8-10 weeks polls

Its stance will depend on how Johnson fares the next eight to 10 weeks in the polls.

The more likely a Johnson victory in a general election, the bigger the incentive for the rebel parliamentary majority to deprive the prime minister of it.

Conversely, if the results in Brecon and Radnorshire point towards a hung parliament with Labour and Liberal Democrats able to form such a coalition of national unity to resolve the Brexit question after a general election, the majority might grant to Johnson what he is so blatantly preparing for.

In any case, a hard Halloween Brexit on October 31st seems increasingly unlikely.

Johnson's ascent to Tory party leader – a position he will probably hold for many years to come as prime minister and leader of the opposition – is to paraphrase his hero, Winston Churchill, not the end of the Brexit saga, it is not even the beginning of the end, but perhaps, three-and-a-half-years on from the referendum, it might be the end of the beginning.

Author bio

Tobias Gras is a senior policy advisor at the Danish Agriculture and Food Council in Brussels. These views are his own.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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