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Life is a Cabaret

October 23rd 2019

Boris Johnson recalled Parliament on a Saturday because, for all his faults and flaws, he is a talented political dramatist. Having secured a deal - remarkably, it has to be acknowledged - the Prime Minister wanted to pass it in grand style. Or to be thwarted in a glare of publicity. Either way, ‘super saturday’ was supposed to be a moment of narrative catharsis for Parliament and for the country. But, stage left, a villain waited in the wings. Sir Oliver Letwin chose a particularly cruel method by which to undermine Johnson. He didn’t vote against the deal (indeed, he has pledged to vote for it). Instead, he sucked the drama out of the show. The real impact of his amendment was simply to delay the meaningful vote - which will now happen on Tuesday - and thereby to put off for a few days the big reveal.

Why? There are two main motivations for Sir Oliver’s intervention. First, the Benn Act rather depended on there not being a deal for Parliament to approve. Now that there is a deal, had Parliament voted for it yesterday then Boris would not have had to write requesting an extension. If the deal had then fallen for some reason during the legislative stages then No Deal would have reared it’s head once more. The second factor in Letwin’s thinking related to that legislative process; Sir Oliver and his friends want delay - however short - to give colleagues a chance to really scrutinise the deal and to find any hidden horrors that it might contain. That is how opponents of the Prime Minister are spending their Sunday, poor dears.


So what will happen? Well it is clear what Number 10’s strategy now is. They will bring the legislation to pass this deal on Monday and ask Parliament to vote on it on Tuesday. Most observers believe that Johnson has complied with the Benn Act by sending the letter that requests an extension (all be it whilst making it clear, somewhat reasonably, that his personal view and government’s policy is unchanged). And so he will be free to continue seeking ratification of his deal. Can he win those votes? Yes - possibly. Having lost the DUP, Johnson will depend on support from the expelled ‘rebel alliance’ MPs (Letwin, Gauke, Hammond etc) and from some Labour backbenchers (Flint, Onn and others). But it looks like there is a slender majority to be had, in theory. Therefore it remains possible that. Britain may leave on or around the 31st October - and with a deal, too.

But as ever with Brexit there are spanners aplenty that might be thrown into the works. We won’t seek to cover all of them here for reasons both of space and of the limited usefulness of attempted prophecy. But here are a few. Bringing the legislation for the deal depends on the Speaker agreeing that it is proper for the government to do so. The precedent would be that they were permitted but - we all can surely agree - when it comes to John Bercow, precedent perhaps isn’t the ironclad thing it used to be. The Speaker may well come up with a cunning ruse to frustrate or derail the Government’s plans in the House. And if the Speaker does accede to the Government’s program then Letwin’s buying of time might still undo the Deal. Amendment after amendment may be put down - for a Customs Union, to bring back the old Backstop, to reinsert a community veto within NI. On and on the list may go until the Deal is no longer the Deal that Boris signed. And then you start to lose the ERG...

Equally, the wound licking, scorned and betrayed MPs of the DUP could cause Johnson more problems than he is banking on. He has accepted that they will not back his deal. But what if they go further in seeking to prevent a border in the Irish Sea? What if they threw their weight behind a second referendum as well - reasoning that the Union is more important and essential to them than Brexit and remembering that Northern Ireland voted Remain? Nigel Dodds seemed to hint that he might be prepared to lead his ten MPs in that direction. At the last time of asking, a second referendum failed to a majority of just twelve. Labour might upset the apple cart too. No Deal is now - in theory but not in practice, until the EU agrees to extension - ruled out at least until January. Jeremy Corbyn may be tempted to push a Vote of No Confidence now, putting Brexit on ice for a winter campaign. This is unlikely unless the EU write straight back in the next couple of days and it does not feel like the European Council or Commission is in such a hurry but still, it’s a live possibility. And finally, the EU could reply to Johnson’s letter but in the most unhelpful way for his plans. It could say, ‘yes Mr. Johnson you can have a twelve month extension actually, rather than the three you asked for. Aren’t we generous sorts?’. This would undermine completely the threat of No Deal, which Johnson needs to persuade his own rebel MPs and many Labourites too. It is very unlikely - the mood music from European officials and politicians alike is that Remain is over and they just want the deal. But it would cause Johnson a great deal of difficulty in holding together the rickety coalition he needs.

So there we are. Many potential hurdles stand between Mr. Johnson and steering Brexit through on 31st October, with a deal. But the fact is that he does have a roadmap for reaching his goal and a reasonable chance of doing so. That, in itself, is a surprise to many. In Andrew Gimson’s biography of the Prime Minister, Michael Gove talks about the power of Boris Johnson’s unusual style of speech-making by comparing his performances to those of a child in the school nativity play. He splutters, looks shifty and plays with his hair, mumbles apologetically and shrugs with mild embarrassment. ‘He’s forgotten his lines’ think the audience and they look upon him with sympathy and awkwardness - willing him to recover some how. And then he does! And everyone is so relieved and pleased that they are with him completely and cheering from the rafters. It’s a schtick, sure, but one that has worked for Boris Johnson over a lifetime of public speaking. And looking at the past couple of months - at the chaos and the confusion and the apparent ineptitude followed by a flurry of partial success - one can’t help but wonder if he hasn’t pulled off that old trick once more - on the biggest stage of all.