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7 August 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 4:23pm

Could a government of national unity stop a no-deal Brexit?

By Stephen Bush

The United Kingdom’s constitution, in reality, has one rule: if you have a parliamentary majority you can do whatever you want. Everything else is noise. We can see that with the various breaches with precedent under John Bercow’s speakership, both to frustrate Brexit and to allow votes on a European referendum in the first place.

So if there is legislative time, there is, in reality, an opportunity to stop a no-deal Brexit. That’s the really important thing – in fact, in many ways, the only important thing – about Yvette Cooper’s bill to request an extension to the Article 50 process, in that it served as proof of concept. Parliament can carry a bill through outside of the usual time allotted for private member’s bills.

 The open question is whether or not MPs will use that power or if their opposition to no deal will remain confined to motions that deplore no deal but don’t actually stop it.

One of the ways that you could, in theory, prevent a no-deal Brexit, is for a government of various parties and parliamentary factions to take office with a single task: to seek an extension to the Article 50 process and to trigger a general election.

It’s theoretically possible but as plans go it has so many moving parts as to be frankly ridiculous. To take office, this government would need the support of at least three Conservative MPs – assuming for a moment that all of the opposition parties and groupings were able to remain united. Three is already a bit of a struggle (Dominic Grieve, Ken Clarke….and then a list of pro-European Conservatives who have publicly and/or privately said that they will never vote no confidence in their own government) but considering the votes of the likes of Labour-turned-independent MP Ian Austin (who voted to allow Boris Johnson to prorogue parliament to pursue no deal on 18 July) or retiring committed Eurosceptics like Kate Hoey and you actually need five – frankly an incredibly high, perhaps impossibly so, bar to clear.

Then you turn to the opposition groupings that would have to make it work. To even have a fighting chance, you’d need Labour on board – the party has made it clear that the price of its support is that it is a government led by their prime minister designate, the leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn. But to take office, this government would require the support of a variety of groups. These include: Sylvia Hermon, the independent unionist Northern Irish MP who has vowed never to vote in a way that could lead to Corbyn becoming prime minister, the ten Independent MPs who have left Labour in part because they do not regard Corbyn as an acceptable prime minister, and the 14 card-carrying Liberal Democrats, who have vowed not to make Corbyn prime minister and whose votes would have to be ratified by the party’s membership, which is highly unlikely to sign off a Corbyn-led government with Liberal Democrat participation even assuming the parliamentary party wanted to.

The Labour leadership isn’t going to break the taboo over the idea that a politician other than the leader of the largest governing party could become prime minister because, bluntly, they might need to hold that particular line sooner, rather than later, in the event of another hung parliament. Nor are they going to concede the point that having doubts about Corbyn’s fitness to be in Downing Street is reasonable enough to take a bow on this occasion. And it further risks blunting the sense that Corbyn is a different type of politician if his last act before Brexit is to form a government with the support of regular politicians.

But assuming for a moment that Team Corbyn’s sense of the political risk changes – could someone else lead that government? One name that many readers of the NS like to float is that of Caroline Lucas, the Green Party’s sole MP. The problem there is that Lucas has many of the problems that Corbyn has – a critical mass of Conservative MPs aren’t going to make someone with her politics prime minister even temporarily – with the added problem that Lucas is one of the most effective operators and long-term threats in Labour’s own space. That party isn’t going to elevate her by letting her become prime minister either.

A similar dynamic is at work for Hermon, not least because while she is not a direct political threat, you have the double whammy for Labour of “concede the point that there are doubts about your guy as PM” and “elevate to a national position someone who thinks you shouldn’t under any circumstances be PM”.

Which leaves you with increasingly implausible notions about Heidi Allen or Ken Clarke, all of which have the same starting problem – that it is far from clear that there are enough Conservative MPs willing to support a government led by either even before the splits in the opposition are considered. Parliament, in any case, could achieve the same effect simply by passing a Cooper-style piece of legislation nominating a backbench MP to act as chief negotiator or whatever to seek an extension, bypassing Downing Street entirely and avoiding the whole issue. 

It also feels a bit like saying my plan to get a flat stomach is to become a body builder – it will certainly solve the problem, but by the time I’ve done it, I will have met my aim twice over. If a majority in parliament can be found for a government of national unity, then a majority will certainly already exist for the legislative action to stop no deal by other means.  

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