Tuesday 17 September 2019

Gavin Barrett: 'Corbyn must play a cautious game on election timing'

Boris Johnson may be having a torrid time over Brexit but Jeremy Corbyn should be careful how he proceeds, writes Gavin Barrett

Political Antics: A British Conservative Party ad showing Jeremy Corbyn as a chicken. Boris Johnson branded the Labour leader a ‘gigantic chlorinated chicken’ last week
Political Antics: A British Conservative Party ad showing Jeremy Corbyn as a chicken. Boris Johnson branded the Labour leader a ‘gigantic chlorinated chicken’ last week

Gavin Barrett

"Watch how the Queen, with one false move, turns herself into a pawn again..."

It is difficult to avoid thinking of the warning in Suzanne Vega's stark lyrics every time Jeremy Corbyn rises to discuss Brexit in the House of Commons. Labour has had a good week: in a calamitous few days a luckless Boris Johnson, apparently following Dominic Cummings' ruthless game-plan, has managed to lose several parliamentary votes, obliterated his own Commons majority, destroyed Conservative Party unity and lost any certainty of implementing Brexit on October 31.

Should an election occur, however, everything changes. All last week's opposition gains risk evaporating in smoke. Johnson may well be Westminster poison but he remains a formidable campaigner, especially when confronting opponents split between remainers and soft Brexit advocates, and facing an electorate skittish about Jeremy Corbyn's hard-left agenda.

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From the moment Johnson entered 10 Downing Street, the greatest danger for Labour has been heeding the siren call of conceding an election too soon. Tony Blair has correctly dubbed the prospect of an election an 'elephant trap' which Labour should avoid. As he has observed "it is counter-intuitive for opposition parties to refuse an election…but in this exceptional case it is vital they do so as a matter of principle, until Brexit is resolved."

Johnson is down, but far from out. One remarkable success he continues to enjoy has been fooling many into thinking he seriously wishes to negotiate a deal with the EU. He does not.

As observers such as Rory Stewart, Pete North and Ken Clarke have pointed out, current UK-EU discussions are a sham. The UK negotiation team is a skeleton crew. It has proposed no alternatives to the backstop. The talks, in Michel Barnier's words, are in a 'state of paralysis'. Johnson is using negotiations merely to conceal his choice of no deal. His primary aim concerns an entirely different goal: winning an election.

In understanding Johnson's strategy, two factors are key. The first is that there is no evidence he is motivated by much more than advancing his own career (and now winning a second term as premier). Public welfare ranks a distant second behind this. Were it otherwise, Johnson would probably not have campaigned for Brexit. He would certainly not have deliberately misled the electorate about £350m-a-week Brexit-generated savings and would not previously have incurred dismissal for deliberately misleading his readership while a journalist.

The second facet of Johnson's character is his possession of a Trump-like indifference to distinguishing truth from fiction. Chris Patten previously described Johnson with astonishing bluntness as a "lying charlatan". Experience bears this out. His false £350m-a-week claim is by now infamous. Last week he claimed outside No 10 he did not want an election - then promptly attacked Corbyn in parliament for avoiding one. He falsely claims progress is being made in negotiations. More credible participants deny this flatly.

Comprehending Johnson's manoeuvring involves understanding both his personal ambition and mendacity. As Ken Clarke has pointed out, Johnson's obvious current strategy is simply this: create conditions which make no deal inevitable, ensure the blame attaches to the EU and moderate Westminster opponents, then fight a flag-waving general election before the disastrous consequences of no deal become obvious.

No matter what he says, Johnson cannot seek a deal at EU level at present, for two reasons. The first is that a vital constituency of his - right-wing Conservative MPs - do not want this. As John Redwood has made clear, their objections to Theresa May's deal go far beyond the backstop. If Johnson reaches a deal - any conceivable deal - this constituency of Brexiteer MPs will abandon him. Furthermore, in any future election, Johnson must also keep Brexit-favouring voters united behind him, rather than see Nigel Farage split away hardliners, jeopardising Conservative seats. Again, this requires pursuing no deal, while (at present) maintaining sufficient ambiguity to fool those who do not want to see what he intends.

The election goal also explains Johnson's prorogation of parliament. This unsuccessfully sought to make it as difficult as possible for a parliamentary compromise to emerge compelling Johnson to seek a Brexit deadline extension, and to make parliament channel its energies instead into the only other means of protest, a no-confidence vote.

Frustratingly for Johnson, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 deprives him of the right to call elections any time he wishes. Under the Act, Johnson can only get the early election he needs by one of two means: getting two-thirds of MPs to vote for it, which requires most of Labour to lend support; or losing a no-confidence vote without this being superseded in two weeks. Again, this requires opposition co-operation.

Johnson is now caught in a legislative no-man's-land unforeseen when the 2011 Act was drafted. He lacks sufficient support to get anything done and yet can't engineer either circumstance which would bring about an election.

The present opposition strategy of seeking to instruct Johnson by legislation to seek an extension is nevertheless not guaranteed to succeed. The EU might well refuse an extension of the Brexit deadline if Johnson manifests no real interest in reaching an agreement with them.

Moreover, Johnson may well choose to resign - his version of "dying in a ditch" - rather than trudge humiliatingly to Brussels to execute parliament's instruction to delay Brexit. If he resigns, it is unclear who would succeed him or what would then happen regarding Brexit.

Ideally, Jeremy Corbyn should leave Johnson in control for several months, until the full chaotic consequences of his hard Brexit have been experienced by the British electorate and the desire to drive its unscrupulous architect from power has taken firm root.

At present, Labour is resisting an election only until after October 31, Johnson's original promised Brexit day. If Brexit doesn't occur then, this may embarrass Johnson. But a delay as short as this may not be enough to stop Labour being reduced to pawns in the subsequent election.

  • Professor Gavin Barrett is head of teaching and learning, Sutherland School of Law, University College Dublin

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