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Tue 20 August 2019
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David Hencke speculates on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s limited options as he tries to keep hold of power in the face of a disorderly Brexit and a rebellious Parliament.


Halloween, or 31 October, may be a more dramatic day this year than just the date set for a disorderly ‘no deal’ Brexit.

It could also be the day of the next general election – if the ruthless approach by Boris Johnson’s special advisor Dominic Cummings, to get Brexit done, is a top priority.

I have no inside information, but logic points to this possibility now the political scene in Whitehall has changed beyond all recognition and Boris Johnson as Prime Minister has surrounded himself with a Vote Leave Government.


Runes and Arithmetic

With a parliamentary majority of one it is quite clear that Johnson cannot hope to get anything through Parliament and continue as Prime Minister until 2022. But he needs to choose a general election date with considerable care.

Too early and he risks a more resurgent Remain Parliament since the Liberal Democrats, SNP and the Labour party will campaign against a ‘no deal’ and move to revoke Article 50. Too late and he could face a backlash if “Project Fear” turns into “Project Reality” and the experience of Brexit goes sour on the British people.

So, what better time to choose than Brexit day itself?

To do this, the Government would have to help engineer a defeat in the House of Commons so that the fixed-term Parliament can be broken. Since there are already many Conservatives determined to block a ‘no deal’, all the Government would have to do is to be a bit slipshod with whipping its own MPs.

This would be seen as a huge victory for the Remainers and a considerable embarrassment for Boris Johnson. But, it is very unlikely that Parliament would be able to get together and propose an alternative Prime Minister. Indeed, Labour has ruled this out.

So, it could be a Pyrrhic victory that leaves Johnson able to name the date and 31 October could be good for a number of reasons. 


Engineering the Crash-Out

Firstly, as the default position in Parliament is that the UK leaves the EU on 31 October, the Government needs to do nothing and – with Parliament not sitting – it will happen automatically.

Boris Johnson can leave the final placing of measures to support a new deal to Whitehall. Civil servants would say that this is controversial – Iain Duncan Smith has already argued that it is not, because Parliament approved it years ago.

Secondly, it would smash the Brexit Party. If the UK leaves the EU automatically, there would be no need to vote for the party at all – it would lose its role completely, unless it came up with a raft of new policies.

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Thirdly, Johnson could also argue that to vote for the remain parties would be a “wasted” vote, as an hour after the polls close, the UK would already have left the EU. This would not cut ice in Scotland where the SNP also has an independence agenda, but may have some impact elsewhere.

Fourthly, Johnson could make any promise he likes, saying that the sunlit uplands are upon us, once we leave – without the reality sinking in. He would thus run a positive, patriotic campaign.

Finally, the Prime Minister would have to deal with Jeremy Corbyn. Paradoxically, if the UK is leaving the EU anyway, this strategy might give Corbyn a small boost, particularly in the north and midlands – if the Brexit Party dies away. Corbyn would also be let off-the-hook over having to make a decision on Brexit, leaving him free to concentrate on domestic matters post-Brexit and what deal he might have with the EU.

What’s not to like if you are an ardent Brexiter and believe Britain can negotiate oodles of new trade deals? I am still stubbornly Remain, but I think Remainers will have to be as ruthless as Cummings and Johnson if they are to prevail. The pair should not be underestimated.

Meet David Hencke and other Byline Times writers at this year’s Byline Festival

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