Johnson has put deliberate holes in withdrawal agreement to provoke MPs to reject or amend it – and passing it may be best chance for Labour to thwart his plans
Tory PM Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal bill is likely to pass tonight by around 30 votes – in spite of his best efforts to deter MPs by building in two major gaps into it.
Johnson last week promised MPs he would include worker protections in his bill – but these are conspicuous by their absence. The bill also contains a ‘trapdoor’ that would allow the Tories to drop the UK out of the EU at the end of the transition period if no trade deal has been agreed by then.
But – in line with the perversity of the last few years of UK politics – Labour’s best chance of defeating Johnson and stopping his drive to create a ‘bargain basement’ UK outside the EU may well be to pass the bill.
The Commons arithmetic means that the bill should pass tonight by around 330 votes to 300, even without DUP support. However, the vote on the timetable for the bill to be carried out will be extremely tight and may fail by as little as 314-316. Some Labour MPs ready to vote for the bill at this second reading are also happy to vote for a delay until mid-November, to allow for more parliamentary time to scrutinise the bill before it passes third reading.
In spite of Johnson’s bluster about ‘do or die’ and pulling the legislation if just a comma is changed, if his deal passes he has said he will pull it rather than tolerate a delay of ‘months’.
In other words, Johnson will seek a ‘technical extension’ of a handful of weeks as long as he can avoid having to extend until the end of January or beyond. This means that a general election would be off the table for the rest of this year and would be likely to take place in February.
Least worst option
Why might the passing of the bill be the best chance of stopping Johnson’s over-arching plan?
Amendments that remain MPs will try to impose on the bill include two main changes – and both will fail. An amendment to attach a new referendum to the bill will fail by as many as 60 votes, since both the DUP and Labour rebels oppose it, as do many ‘soft’ remainers and leavers – and MPs have consistently voted against any new referendum.
An amendment to include a customs union in the bill will fail by around 40 votes.
But when the EU offers an extension, it has two options – an extension of three months, or a short ‘technical extension’ to allow time for the bill to complete scrutiny and its passage through Parliament. Johnson will wear a technical extension but is likely to follow through on his threat to pull the bill to avoid an extension to 31 January.
Technical extension and a February GE
If the bill passes but Brexit is delayed by only a few weeks, the UK will leave the EU in November – and the earliest a general election can take place is February 2020.
This would mean the UK leaving on a ‘bad Tory deal’ – but with flaws that a Labour government could fix in as little as three weeks by converting what is essentially a ‘Canada plus’ agreement based on a free-trade deal into ‘Norway-minus’ of a customs union, single-market access and worker protections.
But a February general election offers Labour the best landscape it could realistically hope for to stop Johnson in his tracks.
Choosing a battlefield
A December election with the UK still in the EU and northern leave voters frustrated – and of course Johnson-Cummings blaming Labour – would give Johnson the best chance to win a general election and force through whatever plans he and Cummings wish.
But a February election with Brexit done would allow any ‘polling bounce’ for Johnson to subside – and his ‘crack-cocaine billionaires’ Brexit’ would look far less appetising once reality sets in and voters start to look at what kind of country they want to live in, instead of being constantly fed Brexit as the be-all and end-all by the complicit corporate media.
In that landscape, Labour’s ‘Norway minus’ Brexit would look far more attractive – and with ‘Brexit done’, Johnson’s attempts to claim Labour ‘blocked democracy’ would have far less traction.
Labour would have the opportunity, as one senior insider put it, to ‘do a 1945’ – making the general election all about how the UK will look after Brexit, looking forward while the Tories have to look back and drone on about the Brexit already past.
Labour in government could then not only fix Johnson’s bad deal and set the UK on a healthy course in its international relations, but to address all the enormous and worsening miseries that Tory government has inflicted on the UK.
Many inside Labour understand this. One senior insider told the SKWAWKBOX:
Johnson’s Brexit is a bad deal and we will bury it by Easter. But passing it now gives us a chance of Jeremy being PM after a February election.
The EU will then welcome us into a customs union and a strong single market deal. Johnson will seem to win this battle, but not the war.
Such a course is – like anything in politics – not without risk. But the risk in the long term is less than the danger of prolonging the toxic pre-Brexit atmosphere in the hope of preventing it altogether by pinning everything on a referendum that is not going to happen – and would intensify the toxicity if it did.
It may be counter-intuitive for many, but whether you are a leaver or a remainer, if you genuinely want an end to the Tory blight on the UK and a country that can go forward to a better future, you may want to cross your fingers tonight that the numbers work out as anticipated and tomorrow the UK is on a short path out of the EU.
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