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24 October 2019

Remainers have been granted an election reprieve. Will they take it?

The decision not to go for an election in September has plainly been a disaster for Remainers in general, and Labour in particular.

By Stephen Bush

What’s that coming over the hill? Is it an election, is it an election? The short answer is “Yes, definitely”, but the real question is: when, exactly?

The inconvenient truth for the government is that there is a majority in this parliament to exit on the terms negotiated by Boris Johnson: but there is not a majority for the future relationship he envisages. That is why it is not accurate to say that MPs are voting for a harder Brexit than that negotiated by Theresa May if they approve the withdrawal agreement.

They are in fact voting for a Brexit deal that allows a harder Brexit than May’s. By freeing the British government from its vow that no new barriers to trade will arise between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, a future prime minister could negotiate a more distant end state than that available under May’s deal. (Though May’s preferred end state was still pretty hard, as it goes.)

It’s only the unnecessary additions to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill – which make a virtue of reducing MPs’ ability to prevent a no-deal Brexit at the end of 2020 and codify Johnson’s post Brexit-vision – which make this a vote for a harder Brexit. And it’s highly unlikely that those sections will survive unamended in any case.

If Johnson’s priority is to “Get Brexit Done”, he can achieve that by putting forward two bills. First, a more narrowly defined withdrawal agreement bill that restricts itself to simply to the fact of exit, and a second future trade agreement, absent the unnecessary sections that commit the United Kingdom to the harder future relationship he favours.

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The former would pass this parliament, securing Brexit, while the latter would fail, which would necessitate the election he would need to get the majority required for the Brexit he envisages. But he would be able to fight this election having got the UK out of the EU.

But as I write in my column this week, the electoral appeal of Johnson’s Brexit, or indeed any specific Brexit, is by definition narrower than the broad appeal to carry out the result of the 2016 referendum. That’s why parts of Downing Street want their election now, so they can seek that broad mandate, rather than later, when they will be fighting on narrower, and potentially trickier terrain.

But an election requires the support of the Labour Party; the reality is that the SNP, for all they crave an election sooner rather than later, would find it politically difficult to facilitate an election with the co-operation of the Conservatives and against the objections of the rest of the opposition. Will it be forthcoming?

There is widespread opposition within the Parliamentary Labour Party, with Labour MPs privately suggesting that as many as 140 MPs could rebel against a motion to bring about an early election. But as we’ve seen, the reality is that the call of the Labour whip is pretty strong and if the Labour leadership wants an election then it will get one.

Jeremy Corbyn’s first preference was to go for an election after the Benn Act had passed. His hand was stayed by the lobbying of organised Remainers inside Labour and the fear of the electoral damage that might be inflicted by organised Remainers outside it if he went for it.

But the decision not to go for an election in September has plainly been a disaster for Remainers in general and Labour in particular. That clever-clever strategy to let Johnson self-destruct when he asked for a Brexit extension has instead facilitated a month of election campaigning in which the government controls the discourse thanks to its dominance of the broadcast media outside election season, and gave Johnson the time to secure a Brexit deal. Worse still, it nearly led to the nightmare scenario of a hard Brexit facilitated by Labour votes.

The reality is that if this parliament runs on, the only resolution it will reach is to pass Brexit by a narrow majority. That means fighting Boris Johnson against an economic backdrop of standstill transition, in which the pound recovers, likely to something well short of its pre-2016 level but still in a way that gives voters a temporary boost, and in which any negative effects of the deal are still yet to be felt. It means a political backdrop in which Remainers are demoralised about everything and angry with the main opposition party, and in which the cross-party tactical voting initiatives that would, in practice, benefit Labour, will detonate at launch. 

There are still risks to an election. The Liberal Democrats might fail to break through. Jeremy Corbyn might fail to turn around his appalling approval ratings. Boris Johnson could come through the middle in Remain-heavy seats and win at a canter in Leave-dominated ones.

But the risks of having an election have to be balanced against the certain damage of not having one. The question for both sides, as neither relishes the prospect of an election in early December, is can they find some way to manufacture a contest in early 2020 rather than in the dog days of 2019?

But the decision may well be taken for them. While it may be posturing for domestic consumption, it is still possible that Emmanuel Macron will insist on a short 15-day transition, despite the downside risk that he may go down in history as the pro-EU politician who in a single month blocked two countries from joining the EU and facilitated the accidental disorderly exit of another.