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20 October 2019

Boris Johnson’s letters are an attempt to recast defeat as victory

The Prime Minister's promise to die in a ditch has gone the same way as his commitment to stop Heathrow's third runway. 

By Stephen Bush

Boris Johnson has written to the European Commission to seek an extension to the Article 50 process, after MPs voted for an amendment in the name of Oliver Letwin which welcomed Johnson’s deal but in a form which kept the British government’s obligations under the Benn Act alive. 

There is some political theatre around the letter itself. Johnson has not personally the signed the letter seeking an extension, and has added two further messages, one bearing his signature saying that he thinks an extension at this point is unnecessary, and another from the UK’s permanent representative to the European Union, explaining the political context for benefit of any EU politicians without access to a TV, a radio or a subscription to Morning Call.  

But the reality of the letters is that it is an attempt to recast defeat as victory and to distract from the reality that the promise to die in a ditch has gone the same way as his commitment to stop Heathrow’s third runway. (Turns out that the bulldozers are the one thing he won’t lie in front of. Who knew?) My underlying assumption has always been that if we leave on 8 November then no Leave voter is going to care that we were still in on 31 October — but Andrew Cooper, the pollster and David Cameron’s former strategist, believes that due to Downing Street’s repeated insistence on the 31 October date there are now millions of voters for whom it is a vote-moving issue.

The extension is in the hands of EU member states, but think about it like this. If you’re the EU, you have the possibility of short-term economic disruption by mistake if you don’t grant an extension. Otherwise, every viable British political party is now committed to resolving Brexit with a deal if Boris Johnson’s Conservatives win a majority at an election, then you have this very good deal (from the EU’s perspective), or Theresa May’s deal, or something softer negotiated by Jeremy Corbyn, or Remain. The EU is a risk-averse institution and seeing as the consequences of playing it long and kicking the can are all pretty good from the EU’s perspective, it seems unlikely to me that the risktaking instincts of an Emmanuel Macron will prevail over the more cautious approach of an Angela Merkel or a Donald Tusk. 

The difficult truth for Downing Street is that this is all very much a mess of their own making. There are by my count, at least 30 MPs who voted for the Letwin amendment who did so for the reasons laid out by Letwin himself: to prevent a no-deal Brexit by accident or design. Of that 30, 10 are Labour MPs who like Jim Fitzpatrick sit for heavily Remain constituencies but think that their 2017 promise to honour the referendum result should be honoured, but because unlike Fitzpatrick they aren’t retiring, their votes are not up for grabs. But the rest a ragtag of Labour MPs for a deal, independent Conservatives who want a deal but oppose a no deal in any circumstances, and various independents are very much up for grabs. Add the votes of either group to those voting against Letwin’s amendment and you have a parliamentary majority for a deal. 

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Downing Street could have treated the final vote as a show of support and it would have been reported as such by much of the press. Instead they have treated it as a major defeat and that might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

While there are the votes in the House to pass this Brexit deal, it’s a parliamentary coalition that runs from Brexiteer ultras like Bill Cash through to reconciled Remainers like Greg Clark all the way to Labour MPs like Melanie Onn. At least one of the MPs in that trio is voting for a deal that isn’t in fact on the table and the pretence may not be able to endure through every legislative stage. That the DUP do anything to make sure that the customs and regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom does not come into being is a destabilising factor that might yet prevent any hope of passing this deal through this Parliament

Downing Street is in a fight because that’s where the most influential strategists in the building like to be but it doesn’t mean that it will necessarily win that fight, or that its bellicose approach might not be storing up problems for the election that may very well be essential if it is to pass its deal.