Boris Johnson will need more than a positive attitude to persuade MPs to back his Brexit strategy
If he becomes prime minister, Boris Johnson will have a narrow window to negotiate with the EU and gain MPs’ support for a new Brexit deal. Should he fail, he may require an unpopular plan B, writes Tony Grew
Dominic Grieve and Dame Margaret Beckett have joined forces in an attempt this week to try to stop the government taking the UK out of the EU without a deal. They have laid a series of amendments to this week’s estimates, mandating that the sums outlined will not be authorised unless a Withdrawal Agreement has been ratified or the Commons has agreed to a resolution that approves the UK leaving the UK without a Withdrawal Agreement.
Targeting the estimates process is a novel way of attempting to stop no deal. If these amendments pass, they could block funding to schools, pensions and international development. That’s a serious proposition. The consideration and authorisation of government spending plans, and requiring the government to obtain parliamentary consent before spending public money, is one of the Commons’ longest standing functions. These amendments would require a deal or a no deal, both of which have been voted against – Mr Grieve and Dame Margaret both voted three times against the prime minister’s agreement.
In March, when a series of indicative votes were brought before the House, John Baron’s motion on no deal was rejected by 400 votes to 160. The Commons does not want no deal, or at least it did not in March. The Commons also rejected “Common Market 2.0”, EFTA and EEA, a customs union, and revocation of Article 50 to avoid a no deal. MPs also rejected a confirmatory public vote. It’s worth repeating that MPs have been very clear what they don’t want but haven’t produced anything they can unite around.
Those votes in March do seem like an age ago. Perhaps Boris Johnson is correct in his analysis that the political weather has changed so much that the Commons will be more willing to vote for a deal. Last week the frontrunner to be the next prime minister told ConHome: “The parliamentary mood has changed and continues to change, and I think that actually, listening carefully to colleagues, and I will, and I’ll try to understand exactly where everybody is, and you know I will make myself totally available and try to work very, very hard to get this thing through.”
His pledge to work “very, very hard” is of course welcome, but nobody ever accused Theresa May of slacking. Hard work and a positive attitude may not be enough to persuade sufficient numbers of MPs to back him. It is also not entirely clear how he envisages involving MPs in his process.
This lack of clarity may concern some Conservative MPs, but it is unlikely to concern them enough that they interfere in the estimates process this week. While he is seen as almost certain to become prime minister, Mr Johnson does not have the keys to No 10 yet. His plans for removing us from the EU remain theoretical. Mr Grieve and Dame Margaret are highly respected MPs, and their desire for action on no deal is understandable, but for many Tories it is far too soon to say with certainty that Mr Johnson’s approach is the wrong one.
When the Commons returns in September, MPs should have a better idea of Mr Johnson’s plan of action, and how it is being received in Brussels. He has framed his argument as “the choice that colleagues face”. One option is “a sensible Brexit deal that protracts the existing arrangements, that allows us to get on and deliver on the mandate of the people, that allows us to build a new partnership with our friends across the Channel”. The other is “voting it down, and then enraging the electorate”.
Mr Johnson is hopeful that the mood has changed in parliament, that the threat to both Labour and Conservatives core vote from the Brexit party, the LibDems and Greens, will lead to MPs backing his “sensible Brexit deal”, and no deal, therefore, becomes a vanishingly small possibility. His task in uniting his party around his plan is unenviable. Significant numbers of his colleagues have serious doubts about his suitability for office. Others are delighted that he is injecting a sense of self-belief and fun into his run for the top job after years of Mrs May’s secretive and ultimately doomed approach. If he wins, Mr Johnson will have a strong party mandate to govern as he sees fit, to do it his way. It would be churlish for his detractors to try to block him from doing so.
This government will see off the Grieve-Beckett amendments this week. A new Johnson government should secure victory if a confidence vote is called on the last day before recess. However, Mr Johnson will have a narrow window in which to negotiate with the EU and secure Commons approval for his sensible Brexit deal. Should he fail to do so, then no deal looms into view again, and he may require an unpopular plan B.
Stuart Andrew is a chipper fellow. Winding up a debate on Armed Forces Day, he recalled that his MoD colleague Tobias Ellwood recently said at defence questions that three members on the government frontbench were reservists and “kindly pointed out” that he isn’t one. “I saw that one political sketch writer wrote the next day that I looked rather crestfallen at my right honourable friend’s comments and that he could not quite see me in a military tunic, but could well see me in a Butlin’s Redcoat. I have to say that was harsh, but it is probably fair.”
MP4 are so 2018 – nowadays everyone wants to see The Statutory Instruments, parliament’s decidedly classy string quartet, whose debut concert is this week. The foursome – MP Thangam Debonnaire, former Labour candidate Emily Benn, councillor Katherine Chibah and journalist Cathy Newman – have already posed for pictures in the Commons chamber. Doorkeepers report they were significantly better behaved than the women’s parliamentary football team, who were kicking balls all over the place during their photoshoot some months back. Tracey Crouch later apologised for their boisterous behaviour. We can hopefully expect more decorum from The SIs, as they are inevitably called by Westminster villagers.
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