Thermopylae or Marathon?
For a moment I thought it was over. Johnson secured a deal that no one expected by agreeing to a Northern Ireland only ‘frontstop’. He came back to parliament deal in hand, hoping to gain parliamentary approval with lightning speed. The bet was clear, agree to a bad deal and then get it through parliament while the opposition was reeling. Then several chickens came home to roost on Saturday. Sir Oliver Letwin, a former Tory MP expelled by Johnson, put forward an amendment which withheld consent until the related legislation had been scrutinised and approved. This amendment passed in no small part due to the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party, who were incandescent at being stabbed in the back. Then the government decided not to oppose or pull the legislation, so the bill as amended passed with a nod. Consequently, per the Benn Act, the Prime Minister was compelled to send a letter requesting another extension to the EU. This is something he rather ostentatious said he would rather ‘die in a ditch’ than do. Yet the ditches around Westminsiter were remarkably free of Prime Ministers on Sunday. We are set up for bitter and consequential battles this week. For the opponents of Johnson’s deal it will be their last stand or a remarkable victory that stops what seemed unstoppable; Thermopylae or Marathon.
The government is apparently going to try to bring forward the unamended deal again on Monday. This will almost certainly be knocked back by John Bercow. As Theresa May discovered the Speaker can reject matters that parliamentarians have already decided. Indeed, because the government slunk away after Letwin, the amended act passed unanimously. They do not have a leg to stand on, indeed it brings questions of basic parliamentary competence into view. This means that there are going to be attempts to amend the deal in ways that the government cannot accept.
An amendment tying the deal to a confirmatory referendum seems inevitable. Labour is set to back it, but the maths are difficult. There could be as many as 25 Labour MPs willing to defy the leadership on this. If potential rebels are told they will lose the whip if they vote with the government this might reduce the numbers (though look what happened to Johnson when he tried such tactics). This leaves a lot hanging on Tory exiles and rebels, but, given the utterances of people like Soames and Letwin, there is not much support in this grouping. The DUP has also not keen on a second referendum, but they might decide that it is in their interest to remain as a single unified member state of the EU then accept a Brexit that hives off Northern Ireland. At the moment, however, I’m not overly optimistic.
The more likely amendment to pass is one that inserts a customs union into the deal. This would keep regulatory alignment and, depending on the legislation, prevent a no deal Brexit if a new trade agreement cannot be reached in the transition period. This failed by two votes during the torturous indicative votes earlier in the year. It has a good chance of attracting broader support than a second referendum. It would ‘get Brexit done’ but mitigate the economic damage. This ought to make it palatable to Labour leavers, the DUP, and Tory exiles. Of course, one might ask why not just remain as a member state rather than be tied to the EU without a say in trade arrangements?
I’m sure there will be other amendments brought forward this week, but let’s assume that either the second referendum or customs union amendments pass. What would happen then? Johnson perhaps could pivot to a second referendum and have a shot at winning. You might think it impossible given his position, but he also said there would be no customs border in the Irish Sea and that he would never ask for an extension. The gentleman is emphatically for turning. He would face manic opposition from his own party. The hardliners in his party, like Steve Baker and Mark Francois, will oppose him with the characteristic unthinking viciousness they brought against May’s deal earlier in the year. Yet, with the opposition he could pass it and still have a shot at his Brexit winning. The customs union is more difficult. It would change his deal completely and put blood in the water for the Brexit Party. It would be an impossible position. If either amendment succeeds. Then it is likely that the government will pull the legislation and a lengthy extension would result. That will be devastating for Johnson. He must try everything to prevent it if he wants to continue in Downing Street. The same is true for his opponents. For Remainers this week will either be their Thermopylae, where the Spartans were defiant but ultimately defeated by overwhelming numbers, or Marathon, where against the odds the Athenians turned back the Persians. There will be no second chances.