Minorities, miscalculations, and madness; Brexit in a nutshell

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I’ve said for a while now that there has never been a more fascinating time to be interested in politics. Unlike most of my other statements, this seems to age better with every passing day. In the space of just a week, the new Johnson government has seen its majority fall from one to -43, Winston Churchill’s grandson has been expelled from the party and the country may well be heading to the polls soon for yet another general election. If you’re lost or confused, don’t worry, you’re in a healthy majority there! But please, read on and I’ll try and break down exactly what has happened so far, why it has happened and what is likely to come next.

As usual, the best place to start is probably at the beginning. After losing a recent by-election in Brecon to the Liberal Democrats Boris Johnson came to Parliament this week with a working majority of one. That soon changed though. Because as soon as Johnson got up to speak Dr Phillip Lee MP crossed the floor of the House of Commons to sit with Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson in the side of the opposition. Johnson had just seen his entire majority get up and walk away from him right in front of his eyes. The government continued with no working majority and he seemed visibly rattled by the stunt.

Of course, there was a reason why this has all come to a head this week and that was due to the decision of Prime Minister Johnson to try and prorogue Parliament until after the October 31st deadline. In the simplest of terms Johnson wanted to shut down Parliament and run down the clock until Britain crashed out of the European Union without a deal. This was all about Parliament fighting back and asserting their right to scrutinize the practices of the government. Indeed, it’s not right for a government to scream of Parliamentary sovereignty, then just weeks later resolve to try and bypass Parliament altogether in what is undoubtedly the most pivotal moment in British politics since the ending of the World Wars.

So, Parliament fought back, and they won… At least temporarily. The idea was for Parliament to trigger an emergency debate – which Speaker Bercow allowed – and then to try and pass legislation that would block a disastrous no-deal Brexit. That way, even if Parliament was to be shut down it wouldn’t matter as the deadline would have been pushed back and there would be no immediate risk to worry about. The Bill that Parliament used to this end was authored by Hillary Benn MP, and it sought to push the deadline back from October 31st, 2019, to January 31st, 2020. And just to be clear here, the Bill also specified that any other date suggested by the European Council would have to be first approved in the House of Commons before it could be legislated, it was certainly no form of “surrender” Bill, as it was branded by Johnson and co.

So far so straightforward. But this is around where things started to descend into madness. Because, in a bid to block the Benn Bill and maintain the October 31st deadline, Johnson decided to treat the vote as if it was a vote of no confidence against his government. This meant that any Conservative MPs who sought to block a no-deal Brexit and side with the opposition would have their whip withdrawn. In essence, this meant that they would be expelled from the party. As it turned out, 21 MPs resolved to put country before party and vote against the government. All 21 of them now sit in the House of Commons as Independents.

Amongst that number was Kenneth Clarke, a Conservative MP of 49 years; Phillip Hammond, former Chancellor of the Exchequer; Rory Stewart, who stood against Johnson in the recent Tory leadership election and Sir Nicolas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill. These MPs and 16 others have amassed 100s of years of combined membership of the Conservative Party, and countless government positions over the years. Yet they now all face de-selection in a future election. By doing this Johnson also saw his majority of zero plummet further to -43. This was as the government lost 21 votes, which the opposition subsequently gained.

By this point, Johnson seemed to be slowly backing into a corner. He was now working with a minority government, and the Benn Bill looked to be sailing through the House of Commons, thereby legislating away the possibility of a no-deal Brexit which he had so promised to deliver. Yet as always seems to happen in politics, a spanner was thrown into the works when all seemed to be running so smoothly. Indeed, inexplicably and to the surprise of just about everyone, an amendment to the Benn Bill – which was supported by neither the government nor the opposition – somehow passed.

The amendment was put forward by Stephen Kinnock and it would see Theresa May’s withdrawal bill brought back for yet another vote that no one really wanted. If I’m honest, I feel it would almost be fitting if May’s agreement provided an end to this nightmare. Indeed, it would do well to sum up the last three years if an amendment that no one wanted brought back a bill that no one wanted, which brought about a solution that no one wanted.

As it happened, the reason why the Kinnock amendment passed is because someone had forgotten to station any tellers for the “no” side when MPs went to vote on it. If I’m honest I truly have no idea how or why this was allowed to happen but the amendment passed by default because of this miscalculation. What can I say other than: “Welcome to British politics in 2019?”

Luckily, the Kinnock amendment didn’t prove to be a sticking point and the Benn Bill went on to pass it’s second and third readings by a healthy margin, thus passing on to the House of Lords for further scrutiny. But of course, the drama for the day was far from done. Because, seeing no other option available Johson decided to try and call a general election.

Make no mistake, this move was not about letting the general populous decide the future. This was the act of a desperate Prime Minister flailing about hopelessly, as he saw Parliament on the ascendancy. The move can be likened to Johnson dangling a shiny object in front of Jeremy Corbyn and the other opposition party leaders in the hope that they would take the bait. Fortunately, they all held out and Johnson fell 136 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to call a general election.

So now we are pretty much caught up with the present day. The Benn Bill passed through the House of Lords overnight and it looks to be well on its way to formal legislation. This would then force Johnson to seek an Article 50 extension from the European Council, which will likely be accepted and approved for the 31st of January, 2020.

Then and only then will Corbyn and the other opposition party leaders push for a general election, and they will do it on their terms, not Johnson’s. This move will ensure that the government can’t pull any tricks to keep the October 31st deadline alive, and it will mean that a general election will only be held after the public is fully aware that Johnson has failed on his promise to take Britain out of the European Union by the above deadline. Make no mistake, Corbyn is desperate for a general election, but triggering one now – before an extension is secured – would put Britain back at risk of crashing out of the European Union with no deal.

So, it does look like we are heading for a general election. Pretty much all parties are clear in their desire to have one, it is just a matter of timing. Johnson and the Tories would love nothing more than to secure a new majority before the October 31st deadline, and then take us out with no deal as their first act of business. But Corbyn and all other parties have to hold their ground. They are in control at the moment, and they hold the majority on Brexit. It is their job to secure an extension of Article 50 and then bring down the government on their terms. Of course, nothing is straightforward in politics but this seems to be the course we are heading along currently.

Further into the future, it will entirely depend on what the results of the upcoming general election are. Certainly, the Remain Alliance will be tested to its limit, and it will be very telling what role Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party plays. If they forge an alliance with Johnson’s Conservative Party they may well have a shot at governance, but if they stand against Tory candidates then a split Brexit vote would likely hand the seat to either Labour or the Remain Alliance.

Personally, I think the timer on agreeing a Brexit deal is done. I think that whoever wins the next general election will either crash us out with no deal or revoke Article 50 and forget the whole thing. It seems the middle ground of politics has been eroded to the point that nothing remains, but without a doubt, everything is still yet up for grabs from either side. So if you take away one thing from this article make it this: Register to vote here if you haven’t already. Because soon your vote could prove to be pivotal for the future of Britain, please make it count.

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Matthew Hemmins

Second year History/Economics student with a passion for politics and plenty of opinions on a variety of topics!