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27 August 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:11pm

On Brexit, opposition leaders have set a collision course with Boris Johnson

By Patrick Maguire

After a summer of acrimony, opposition parties have finally agreed on the bones of a plan to prevent a no-deal Brexit on 31 October. In a joint statement released after a meeting convened by Jeremy Corbyn, Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Independent Group for Change, and Caroline Lucas said they will seek to delay exit day via legislation, rather than via a motion of no confidence. 

Why the outbreak of peace? While Labour and the Liberal Democrats spent most of August refusing to accede to the other’s terms for a government of national unity and blaming one another for a no-deal outcome, it is ultimately in neither’s political interests to let that outcome actually happen. The politics of the question meant the opposition parties were never going to agree on a caretaker prime minister. But they have managed to agree on legislative mechanisms for stopping no-deal in the past. 

Though Labour insists that its plan for a no-confidence motion has not been abandoned entirely, the reality of parliamentary arithmetic means it is overwhelmingly unlikely to a) pass, or b) actually result in the formation of a temporary administration that could stop or delay a no-deal Brexit even if it did manage to pass. The fundamental stumbling block remains the reluctance of Conservative MPs even serial rebels whose relationship with their party whip is now all but non-existent, such as Oliver Letwin – to take the nuclear option and vote down their own government, to say nothing of the objections of independents like Nick Boles to putting Jeremy Corbyn into office even with a preset expiry date. 

What plenty of Conservative MPs opposed to no-deal do have a proven appetite for, however, is teaming up with the opposition to muzzle the executive. So it is unsurprising and inevitable that the other opposition parties are characterising the outcome of today’s meeting as an agreement to prioritise the legislative route over its blunter alternative, which their counterparts on the opposition benches understandably view with suspicion. It has not been ruled out, but nor is anyone’s commitment to pursuing it anything more than nominal. Sources familiar with today’s discussions say the group will hold a series of smaller meetings over the next 48 hours, in which they will “war-game” a way forward.

With the Commons returning from recess next Tuesday, there are two obvious opportunities for opposition to seize control of the parliamentary agenda and pass legislation: the update on talks to restore devolution in Northern Ireland on 9 September (which is itself happening as a result of an anti-no-deal rebellion), and via an emergency debate at a time of their choosing (which John Bercow is practically begging Remainers to request). While it was far from clear that the opposition stood any chance of assembling a majority for a no-confidence motion, they have now chosen to play on home turf. 

That decision not only gives the lie to an increasingly popular (and tedious) Westminster meme that parliament’s Remainers simply don’t want victory enough – but the increased odds of opposition victory also increases the chances of Boris Johnson responding in kind. The view of some senior members of the prime minister’s operation is that parliament might eventually have to be ignored or circumvented to make Brexit happen. Should the plans agreed today come to fruition – as their mere existence after a summer of disagreement suggests is more likely than not then they will have all the more reason to do so.

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