Is Boris Johnson right to claim he could force through a no-deal Brexit?

Johnson’s argument is that, yes, parliament could prevent no deal, but in reality, wouldn’t have a majority to do so. 

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John Bercow has made what might be the most important intervention in the Conservative leadership race, saying that it is “simply unimaginable” that a no-deal exit could take place without parliament’s express permission.

That matters because the argument being made by various candidates, ranging from newly announced candidate James Cleverly through to Jeremy Hunt, is that whether or not Conservatives want no deal, parliament won’t let them, and to pursue it means going back to the country with Brexit unresolved.

Tory MPs don’t want an early election, particularly without having resolved Brexit, because they might well lose it, resulting in a Corbyn-led government – or even if the result is some kind of Conservative-led coalition there is no guarantee that every sitting MP will make it back.

This is a problem for the various no-deal candidates, whether they be the current frontrunner, Boris Johnson, who has vowed to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union on 31 October, with or without a deal, Dominic Raab, who is making essentially the same argument, and Esther McVey, who has gone one further, saying that the only way to honour the referendum result is to go for a no-deal exit.

The argument that Dominic Raab is making, both in public and in conversations with MPs, rests on an Institute for Government blog saying that it is “near impossible” for MPs to prevent a no-deal exit if the executive is sufficiently determined. But that IFG blog contains an important caveat – it is near impossible unless the Speaker of the House is willing to bend convention. And of course, Bercow regards his role as to frustrate the executive and to facilitate the will of the elected House and will find some method to allow MPs to express their will.

While, in public, the various challengers will join in the two minutes hate for the Speaker, what they will say to their fellow Conservative MPs is that it shows that, thanks to the hung parliament and the unorthodox Speaker, there is no route to a no-deal Brexit this side of an election, and that an election while Brexit is unresolved is the death of the Conservative party.

But Johnson’s argument is a little more complex. He is saying that, yes, parliament can prevent no deal, but in reality, there is no majority for anything radical enough to do so. Yvette Cooper’s bill to delay the reckoning barely passed by the skin of its teeth and MPs have shown they won’t go further, particularly as many Labour MPs will be spooked by the success of the Brexit Party in their patches.

Is he right? Well, what matters at the moment is that his argument has the ring of plausibility that Raab’s lacks, at least as far as Conservative MPs are concerned. But we can begin to see how, if his opponents play their cards right, the argument that Johnson means another election with the UK still in the EU might yet bring the runaway favourite back down to earth.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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