Wednesday 18 September 2019

Colette Browne: 'With the Brexit bomb timer ticking down, UK opposition parties are struggling to join forces'

Brexit. Stock image: PA
Brexit. Stock image: PA
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

'Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win."

Boris Johnson's political opponents clearly forgot to add military strategist Sun Tzu to their summer reading lists before trying to cobble together a plan to stop a no-deal Brexit at a much-hyped meeting yesterday.

More than three years after the referendum, and politicians from various opposition parties, all of whom agree a no-deal Brexit would be a catastrophe, are just now attempting to coalesce to try to form something resembling a united front.

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It's unlikely that Mr Johnson will be quaking in his boots after hearing the vague agreement that has been brokered by those on the opposition benches.

The masterplan - endorsed by Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the Green Party - is to delay tabling a vote of no confidence in Johnson and to instead prioritise rebel MPs' attempts to use legislation to stop a no-deal Brexit.

Mr Johnson infamously vowed, after becoming prime minister: "Dude, we are going to energise the country."

So it is apt to use a quote from the original Dude, in the Coen Brothers' film 'The Big Lebowski', to summarise the plans of the Brexit rebels.

"This is a very complicated case. You know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous," is essentially what emerged from the meeting yesterday.

Sun Tzu is no doubt turning in his grave at the thought.

Having had some time off to regroup and plot a way to try to defeat Mr Johnson over the summer, opposition MPs preferred to spend their time sniping at each other, allowing the newly installed prime minister to engage in a protracted victory lap.

The Liberal Democrats elected a new leader, Jo Swinson, who has said she will do anything at all to stop Brexit. Except work with Jeremy Corbyn.

In fact, it's unclear what outcome Ms Swinson would despise more - a no-deal Brexit or a caretaker government led by Mr Corbyn.

Meanwhile, after three years of equivocation and ambiguity, Mr Corbyn has eventually been persuaded to clearly articulate Labour's intention to offer voters a second referendum with the option of Remain.

While his belated Damascene conversion is welcome, he has something of a credibility problem given the length of time it took to convince him of the merits of the bleedin' obvious.

The SNP, for its part, appears to be more focused on the renewed prospects of a Scottish independence referendum than Brexit, while the Green Party muscled into the debate with perhaps the most idiotic idea yet - an all-female emergency Cabinet to stop Brexit.

In short, we are not dealing with the greatest political minds of our generation. Or any generation, for that matter.

So, perhaps it was too optimistic to expect anything remotely resembling concrete ideas and detailed plans to emerge from yesterday's meeting.

In truth, it was a minor achievement to get them all in the same room, given their mutual loathing of each other.

However, that achievement didn't extend to Tory rebels, whose votes will be essential to any plan to use parliament as a bulwark against a no-deal Brexit, as they didn't bother turning up.

Ultimately, what the rebels have now endorsed is an attempt to wrest control of the parliamentary timetable from Mr Johnson's government with the aim of securing a further extension of Article 50 - resulting in a new Brexit deadline, God knows when.

The flaws in the plan are manifold. They may not be able to table an amendment that facilitates a vote and, even if they do, it may not pass.

Further, while the immediate threat of a no-deal Brexit would be taken off the table if they were to succeed, what are their long-term ambitions to finally deal with Brexit?

The Lib Dems are avowedly Remain, but Labour still seems to be trying to ride two horses at once - campaigning for its own Brexit deal, coupled with a Remain option, to be put to voters as choices in a confirmatory referendum.

It should also be noted that we have been here before. Parliament previously usurped Theresa May's government and voted in favour of a Brexit deadline extension. Some five months later and we are now back to square one with no one any the wiser about what the UK's intentions actually are.

The rebels' plan also assumes that EU member states, most of whom never want to hear the word 'Brexit' again, would be happy to offer yet another extension with no apparent progress having been made.

It is also highly likely that instead of meekly kowtowing to a rebellious parliament, Mr Johnson would simply use any such vote as the pretext he desperately needs to call an election to get a mandate for his 'do or die' Brexit.

As the opposition in the UK flails around, engaging in internecine warfare with each other rather than formulating coherent policies, Mr Johnson has been focused and determined in his approach.

Prior to his election, nobody was sure whether the new prime minister was bluffing when he threatened to crash out on October 31, but the consensus, after last weekend's G7 meeting, is that he is deadly serious.

For Mr Johnson, the uneasy détente that has broken out among opposition parties couldn't be more welcome.

He will delight at the prospect of parliament using arcane rules of procedure to stymie his plans, as it will animate his entire re-election campaign - an out-of- touch Westminster intent on obstructing the referendum result.

Having spent the entirety of his political career bluffing, it's not surprising his opponents doubted his resolve, but his first month in office is evidence that Mr Johnson possesses what they lack - an easily communicable and achievable plan.

Recent opinion polls suggest Brexit voters are responding positively to that plan.

At last count the Tories, under his stewardship, had gained 17 points and were up to 42pc. In contrast, the Labour Party is on 28pc, down six, while the Lib Dems are unchanged at 15pc and the Brexit Party is on 5pc, down five.

Given these results, it is clear that, in the wake of any election, Mr Johnson has a decent chance of securing a majority and, if he doesn't, Labour and the Lib Dems would have to work together to stop him forming a government.

What is unclear is whether the leaders of those parties could put their egos to one side, if that were required, and actually do so.

At this late stage, with the timer attached to the Brexit bomb rapidly approaching zero, opposition MPs are still more interested in gaining advantage over each other than rushing to defuse it.

Irish Independent

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