UK officials to withdraw from EU meetings from September 1

LONDON — U.K. officials will only attend EU meetings with a “significant national interest,” Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay announced Tuesday.

Attendance will be reduced by more than half, freeing up officials to work on Brexit preparations and post-Brexit trade opportunities, he said.

Officials will start to withdraw from meetings from September 1, unless the U.K. has an interest in the outcome of discussions, such as security, sovereignty, Brexit, international relations and finance.

“An incredible amount of time and effort goes into EU meetings with attendance just the tip of the iceberg,” Barclay said in a statement issued by the Department for Exiting the EU on Tuesday. “From now on we will only go to the meetings that really matter, reducing attendance by over half and saving hundreds of hours. This will free up time for Ministers and their officials to get on with preparing for our departure on October 31 and seizing the opportunities that lie ahead.”

The move comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to “unshackle” officials from EU meetings in the House of Commons in July. He will attend the October European Council meeting.

The Brexit department said the U.K.’s vote would be delegated in a way that “does not obstruct the ongoing business of the remaining 27 EU members, and a decision about which meetings to attend would be made on a “case by case” basis.

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UK government no-deal Brexit fears revealed in full

A leaked U.K. government report paints a grim picture of the fallout from a no-deal Brexit, from medicines shortages, multimonth slowdowns at ports and threats to clean drinking water.

Dubbed “Operation Yellowhammer,” the report prepared by the Cabinet Office and published by The Times imagines a “base scenario” on the Brexit crash-out date of October 31, marked by unprepared business, hostile EU member countries and impending cold weather that could exacerbate food and medical supply problems.

Further, the report notes the risk that “increasing EU Exit fatigue” could hamper contingency planning after the original March 29 Brexit date was postponed.

A person quoted in The Times as a “senior Whitehall source” said, “This is not Project Fear — this is the most realistic assessment of what the public face with no deal. These are likely, basic, reasonable scenarios — not the worst case.”

The government said while it did not expect such outcomes, they were being looked at as part of no-deal preparations, according to the BBC.

The release comes as U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson stands by his position that Britain will leave the EU on October 31 with or without a Brexit deal, ahead of meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron expected Wednesday and Thursday.

As MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit mull ways to stop the U.K. crashing out of the bloc, Johnson reportedly told conservative MPs such efforts risked undermining the U.K.’s negotiating strategy. “It is as plain as a pikestaff that Brussels — or the EU 27 — will simply not compromise as long as they believe there is the faintest possibility that Parliament can block Brexit on 31 October,” Johnson wrote in a letter, according to the Mail on Sunday.

The government’s no-deal plans, printed in full by The Times today, anticipate a chaotic situation emerging at the Irish border. While the U.K. will initially stick to its March promise to avoid most new checks, that’s “likely to prove unsustainable because of economic, legal and biosecurity risks.”

Job losses and disruption to some industries “are likely to result in protests and direct action with road blockades” around the Irish border.

On the first day of a no-deal Brexit, the flow of goods through French ports could be reduced by 40-60 percent of current levels, the plans warn, estimating that 50-85 percent of high-volume truck operators aren’t prepared for French customs checks. Even after three months, flow rates may only increase to 70 percent, “although disruption could continue much longer,” the plans state.

While the availability of drinking water is “likely to remain largely unaffected,” it remains a risk that disruptions in the availability of chemicals could affect the supply of clean water for “hundreds of thousands of people” on a localized basis.

Parts of the food supply chain — including the availability of fresh foods as well as ingredients and packaging — could also be impacted, leading to reduced choice and price rises, according to the no-deal plans.

More than 100 cross-party MPs wrote to Johnson on Saturday asking him to recall parliament from its summer break, arguing the country faces a “national emergency.”

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Nearly half of UK voters back no-deal Brexit and no PM Corbyn, poll finds

Almost half of British voters would prefer the country to leave the European Union without a Brexit deal and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn not to become prime minister, according to a YouGov poll.

When asked to choose between that scenario and one in which Corbyn becomes the country’s next leader and holds a second referendum on Brexit, just over a third backed the option that could see Britain remain in the EU.

Nearly one in five people said they remain undecided.

The poll represents a setback for Corbyn’s plan to create a cross-party coalition to fight the government’s plan to leave the EU with or without a deal on October 31.

The Labour leader is trying to convince others to call a no-confidence vote in Boris Johnson, the country’s current prime minister, and install Corbyn as the U.K.’s interim leader until a new general election can be called.

Corbyn on Saturday reiterated his intention to lead a caretaker government if Johnson is ousted. “I am the leader of the Labour Party, Labour is the largest opposition party by far. That is the process that must be followed,” he told ITV News.

“We will do everything we can to stop a no-deal Brexit,” Corbyn added, stating: “What we need is a government that is prepared to negotiate with the European Union so we don’t have a crash-out on the 31st [October].”

According to the YouGov poll, Brits are still against a no-deal Brexit, with 49 percent agreeing that would be an unacceptable final outcome, versus 38 percent of respondents that found it acceptable.

More people polled were in favor of accepting the deal negotiated with the EU than were against.

The YouGov poll also suggested Brexit-supporting voters were more united than those who would prefer the U.K. to remain in the 28-country bloc.

Four out of five Brexit supporters told the polling company they would support a no-deal Brexit with Corbyn not becoming the next prime minister, while only 64 percent of voters who wanted to remain in the EU want the Labour leader to take over as prime minister and call a second Brexit referendum.

Almost a quarter of voters who voted to remain in the EU during the 2016 referendum would prefer to see the U.K. leave the bloc instead of Corbyn taking over as the country’s next leader, according to YouGov.

The poll of 1,968 people was conducted on Thursday and Friday.

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Backbench UK MPs balk at plans to stop Brexit

Up to 15 Labour and independent British politicians may block attempts to delay or stop Brexit, making it tough to stop London from pushing ahead with leaving the European Union on October 31, according to analysis by The Sun.

The British newspaper said a number of Brexit-leaning lawmakers, including Labour MP Kate Hoey, would not support cross-party plans to take a no-deal Brexit off the table.

That could make it difficult for efforts by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, to create a coalition of like-minded politicians to topple the current government and call for a general election to postpone Brexit.

“Like all other Labour MP’s I fought on a manifesto in 2017 to respect the referendum vote,” Hoey wrote on Twitter. “Any action taken now to stop us Leaving on October 31st by Labour is a knife in the back of the majority of Labour constituencies who voted to Leave.”

The growing political uncertainty comes as Sadiq Khan, the London mayor and a senior Labour official, called on Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, to back Corbyn’s plan to halt a no-deal Brexit. Swinson had said she would not support a Corbyn-led plan to call a no-confidence vote in Boris Johnson, the U.K.’s prime minister, and install the Labour leader as interim prime minister until a new election could be called.

“The Liberal Democrats’ continued insistence that Jeremy Corbyn could not lead this potential unity government is now the single biggest obstacle to stopping no deal,” Khan wrote in a letter to Swinson, according to the Guardian.

As expectations mount that British voters will be called upon to resolve the political impasse through a general election, Sajid Javid, the country’s chancellor of the exchequer, said he would likely simplify the U.K.’s tax system when he announces his budget later this year.

Johnson, the U.K. leader, promised to lower people’s taxes during his prime ministerial campaign, and Javid reiterated that changes to the country’s tax system were likely on the cards.

“It wouldn’t be any surprise that I think taxes should be efficient,” the U.K. lawmaker told The Times. “We want to set them at a rate where we are trying to maximise revenue, and that doesn’t always mean that you have the highest tax rate possible.”

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Former Tory MP Sarah Wollaston joins Lib Dems

Sarah Wollaston, a former U.K. Tory MP who quit the party to fight against a no-deal Brexit, joined the Liberal Democrats Wednesday.

Wollaston, who became the Lib Dems’ 14th MP, said in a statement she believed joining the party was the best way to represent her constituency of Totnes, which narrowly voted to stay in the EU in the 2016 referendum.

The GP, who herself voted Remain but pledged to commit to delivering Brexit after the referendum, said her job had played a role in her decision.

“As a doctor for over twenty-four years, I try to base my decisions on evidence, and as that emerges, to be open to changing course,” Wollaston said. “As the economic facts unfolded, I found myself unable to support a version of Brexit with consequences that I know would hurt so many individuals, businesses, families and communities.”

Wollaston initially quit the Tories to join The Independent Group (now known as ChangeUK) in February, but left the group in June to become an independent. Wollaston said in her statement she would be more effective if she was a member of a party rather than continue on on her own.

“We are now entering the final weeks to prevent the dire consequences of the PM’s ‘do or die’ approach to Brexit,” she wrote. “Preventing that harm will take unprecedented cross-party working and my in-box has been full of messages urging me to be part of a Remain Alliance which I will be doing through joining the Liberal Democrats.”

Wollaston’s move came as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made a formal offer to MPs from across the political divide on Wednesday to back his bid to seize power from Prime Minister Boris Johnson and block a no-deal Brexit. In a letter to the SNP, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, Greens and four senior Tory backbenchers, Corbyn urged them to back a no-confidence vote in the PM and support his caretaker government. He promised to then secure an extension to the Article 50 Brexit process and call an election, in which Labour would campaign for a second referendum with an option of staying in the EU.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Brexit service for professionals: Brexit Pro. To test our our expert policy coverage of the implications and next steps per industry, email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.

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UK MPs rewarded for failure with post-election payouts

LONDON — British MPs worried — in some cases almost certain — that they will lose their seat in a general election have an incentive to stand anyway: lots of cash.

With the major parties on a war footing for an election that could come as soon as the day after October 31 — when Boris Johnson has promised the U.K. will leave the EU, “do or die” — a host of lawmakers face an uncertain future. But the humiliation of losing their seat could be soothed by a redundancy payment that’s double the statutory payout given to members of the public who lose their jobs.

While there’s no suggestion that any MPs are standing just to get the money, the choice facing them is clear: Quit before the election and get nothing; or stand, and if they fail to get reelected, get a check. It’s been called a “perverse incentive” to contest elections.

Frank Field, who resigned from the Labour Party last year after almost 40 years as the MP for Birkenhead in the northwest of England, announced earlier this month that he would stand at the next general election.

The 77-year-old chair of the work and pensions select committee has formed a new party, Birkenhead Social Justice, to fight a seat that had a Labour majority in 2017 of more than 25,000 votes.

“At a time when distrust in politics is running high, it seems odd that defeated MPs can get double the maximum redundancy available to ordinary voters” — Willie Sullivan, senior director at the Electoral Reform Society

If the people of Birkenhead choose the new Labour candidate over Field, he would get a £31,500 “loss of office” payment, plus up to two months of his MP salary (worth £13,244) for the time spent winding up his office and any other administrative tasks needed to be done.

With the political climate being so volatile, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (a House of Commons watchdog that makes the redundancy payments) could be writing a number of checks.

IPSA rules say that MPs who have served for at least two years and lose their seats get double the statutory redundancy pay that members of the public get, as well as the two-month salary allowance, plus winding-up expenses for staff or removal costs.

Statutory redundancy is calculated based on age and the number of years a person has held a job, up to a certain limit. Field’s payout would be the maximum possible for an MP.

Change UK leader Anna Soubry is one of several politicians who are in line for redundancy payments in the event that they fail to win reelection | Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Willie Sullivan, a senior director at the Electoral Reform Society, a pressure group, said it is right that MPs put out of a job are compensated like any other public servant, “particularly if we want to see more diversity in politics.”

He added: “However, while there is no evidence the current situation is being abused, clearly it will need to be reassessed if there is a perverse incentive for MPs to always re-stand even if they do not wish to win.”

“At a time when distrust in politics is running high, it seems odd that defeated MPs can get double the maximum redundancy available to ordinary voters. There are many reasons people feel disenchanted, including a feeling of ‘one rule for us, another for them.’”

Independents’ fears

Independent MPs might seem at risk — for having left a party and for being away from the election machines of the Tories and Labour — but they could still hold on.

Joe Twyman, co-founder and director at Datapoll, pointed to research showing that “old, tribal loyalties to parties are not what they once were thanks to Brexit,” with more people ready to vote along Leave/Remain lines.

“That could mean that in certain circumstances, MPs who have switched to become independents could hold on depending on the constituency profile and indeed their own position,” he said.

“In normal circumstances you would expect an independent candidate to get absolutely nowhere at a general election” — Joe Twyman, co-founder and director at Datapoll 

Twyman said that Field — a pro-Brexit candidate in a pro-Brexit constituency he has represented since 1979 — “stands a very good chance of holding on.”

“Frank Field is the obvious example because he’s been in so long and his margin of victory [in 2017] was so large,” he added. “For the other candidates it’s more difficult.”

Other new independents are yet to confirm whether they will stand again.

Ex-Labour MPs Ian Austin (Dudley North), Ivan Lewis (Bury South) and Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) are in line for redundancy payments worth £21,500, £26,800 and £23,000 respectively, plus the two months of salary, if an election comes before the end of the year.

Their former colleagues Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree), Gavin Shuker (Luton South) and John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) are all in line for £9,400.

Meanwhile, ex-Tory MP Heidi Allen (South Cambridgeshire) has racked up a £5,800 redundancy pot, while Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford) has amassed £14,200.

Former Change UK then independent MP Sarah Wollaston joined the Lib Dems this week, but is highly unlikely to win her Totnes seat back. She would be due £14,200 in redundancy payments if she stands in the seat and loses.

Elsewhere, the MPs that make up the Independent Group for Change — the successor to Change UK, which performed dismally at the European Parliament election in May — are also facing possible defeat.

Former Labour MPs Mike Gapes (Ilford South) and Ann Coffey (Stockport) are in line for the maximum £31,500 loss-of-office payment if they stand in their existing seats and lose.

Change leader and ex-Tory Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) has built up a £14,200 redundancy pot, while former Labour MPs Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) and Joan Ryan (Enfield) have £12,600 and £6,300 waiting in the IPSA bank.

“In normal circumstances you would expect an independent candidate to get absolutely nowhere at a general election,” Twyman said. “Independents usually get about 100 votes and nobody pays very much attention to them.”

But, he added: “Obviously this is a different case because in a lot of instances what we are looking at are sitting MPs who are then running as independents or indeed as groups of independents or as minority parties and all that sort of thing.

“Even then you would expect them to have very little chance in normal circumstances, but these are far from normal circumstances.”

This article has been updated to reflect Sarah Wollaston’s new party affiliation.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Brexit service for professionals: Brexit Pro. To test our our expert policy coverage of the implications and next steps per industry, email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.

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Former UK chancellor: There’s no mandate for no-deal Brexit

Pulling the U.K. out of the EU without a trade deal would be as much of a betrayal of British voters as not delivering Brexit at all, according to former U.K. Chancellor Philip Hammond.

“There is no mandate for leaving with no deal,” given the British public was told a divorce agreement with the EU “would be the easiest deal ever done,” Hammond told the BBC’s Today program.

“Leaving the EU without a deal would be just as much a betrayal of the referendum result as not leaving at all,” Hammond said. “It’s absurd to suggest the 52 percent who voted to leave the EU all voted to leave with no deal.”

The former chancellor, who resigned from the British government in protest at Boris Johnson’s stance on Brexit last month, said the PM had both privately and publicly said he could get a Brexit deal, “but I fear there are other people around him whose agenda is different.” The comments echoed an op-ed Hammond wrote for Wednesday’s Times, in which he lashed out at the “unelected people who pull the strings of this government.”

In the Today interview, Hammond took aim at the Johnson government’s decision to say the Irish backstop had to be cut from the Brexit deal.

“Pivoting to say that the backstop has to go in its entirety — a huge chunk of the Withdrawal Agreement, just scrapped — is effectively a wrecking tactic,” he said. “The people behind this know this means there will be no deal.”

Hammond reaffirmed his commitment to preventing no deal from being pushed through against the will of the parliament and warned against any move to suspend the House of Commons.

“Any idea of trying to bypass parliament by dissolving it for example and holing an election over the exit date would provoke a constitutional crisis,” Hammond said. Johnson has vowed to lead Britain out of the EU by October 31st, “do or die,” and refused to rule out suspending parliament in order to ram through a no-deal Brexit against the will of MPs.

Hammond also said the government’s no-deal preparation wouldn’t provide long-term solutions.

“Preparing doesn’t solve the longer term problems,” he said. Michael Gove, the minister in charge of no-deal preparations, “is talking about an intervention fund to buy lamb and dispose of it … now that’s probably a perfectly sensible thing to do in the first few months … but you can’t do it five years later, 10 years later.”

Gove is reportedly planning to buy up surplus lambs from farmers in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

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UK Commons speaker pledges to fight suspension of parliament with ‘every bone in my body’

U.K. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow vowed Tuesday to resist any attempt to shut down parliament in order to push through a no-deal Brexit.

“The one thing I feel strongly about is that the House of Commons must have its way,” he said at the Edinburgh festival, according to the Telegraph. “And if there is an attempt to circumvent, to bypass or — God forbid! — to close down parliament; that is anathema to me and I will fight it with every bone in my body to stop that happening.”

He added: “We cannot have a situation in which parliament is shut down — we are a democratic society. And parliament will be heard and nobody is going to get away as far as I am concerned with stopping that happening.”

A court is set to decide on September 6 whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson can prorogue — or suspend — parliament to prevent it from nixing a no-deal Brexit, after more than 70 peers and MPs launched a legal challenge seeking to prevent the move.

Johnson has vowed to take the U.K. out of the EU, deal or no deal, by the current Brexit deadline of October 31. He has refused to rule out suspending parliament to stop MPs using constitutional tactics to block his plans.

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Court case against Boris Johnson’s no-deal Brexit plans to begin September 6

A court is set to decide whether British Prime Minister Boris Johnson can suspend parliament to force through a no-deal Brexit just days before an expected showdown with MPs.

The case brought by more than 70 MPs and peers was scheduled by a judge this morning for September 6. Downing Street is poised for a House of Commons challenge to its Brexit plans just three days later, on September 9.

Boris Johnson has vowed to take the U.K. out of the EU, deal or no deal, by the current Brexit deadline of October 31. He has refused to rule out suspending parliament to stop MPs using constitutional tactics to block his plans.

An initial hearing for the case took place at the Court of Session in Edinburgh this morning. The judge, Lord Docherty, scheduled the “substantive hearing” for the first week of September.

Lawyer Jo Maugham from campaign group the Good Law Project, which coordinated the petition, branded Johnson “The Charlatan” as he confirmed the new date on Twitter.

Labour MP Ian Murray, who was one of the parliamentarians who signed the petition against Johnson, told POLITICO: “The courts are there to enhance our democracy by giving the public the ability to hold the government to account.

“It’s great progress to have a full hearing in September before the PM can consider closing down parliament to force through a no-deal Brexit.”

SNP MP Joanna Cherry, who also backed the petition, tweeted: “Litigation can’t stop Brexit or make [Scottish] independence happen but it can be used to make sure that right wing politicians like Johnson don’t try to subvert democracy. There’s no mandate for no-deal Brexit & in Scotland no mandate for any Brexit.”

Parliament is gearing up for a showdown on September 9 because the government must publish a report on the ongoing political stalemate in Northern Ireland on September 4 and hold a debate in the Commons five days later, which could be hijacked by anti-no deal MPs to try and force a Brexit extension.

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UK officials’ summer holidays canceled to prepare for no-deal Brexit

All U.K. government special advisers have had their summer holidays canceled as Downing Street ramps up preparations for a no-deal Brexit.

Eddie Lister, one of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s most senior aides, emailed the special advisers Thursday night to announce all annual leave is off until after October 31 — when Johnson has promised to quit the EU, “do or die.” Those with holidays already booked will be compensated for money already spent.

Most senior officials in government had already canceled leave plans, according to No. 10 sources.

“This is a serious time for the country,” one official said. “We are all incredibly privileged to have these jobs and we need to be getting on with it.”

The move, first reported in POLITICO’s London Playbook, appears to be a further ratcheting up of pressure on the special adviser class, who have been complaining about increasing pressure from Johnson’s other de-facto chief of staff, Dominic Cummings.

Separately, London Playbook reported that Johnson is planning to conduct regular Facebook Q&A sessions with the general public, answering questions in real time over a live video stream. The events, to be branded “People’s PMQs,” are expected to start within the next few weeks.

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The queen’s big Brexit moment?

LONDON — Brexit is so divisive there might be only one way to get it sorted — call the queen!

No, not to send politicians to the Tower of London, but to resolve a potential standoff with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Dominic Cummings, the most senior official in Johnson’s new-look Downing Street, has reportedly told aides that his boss — who is determined to deliver Brexit by October 31 — would be prepared to defy a vote of no confidence from the House of Commons (should one be called and should it succeed when MPs return to work in September). Johnson would refuse to resign and instead hang on long enough to use his power to set the date of the next election — after Brexit day, according to a Times report Tuesday.

That has led to speculation that Queen Elizabeth II, the 93-year-old head of state, may have to play a part in the Brexit process.

If Johnson won’t go, the queen could in theory dismiss him, according to David Howarth, professor of law and public policy at the University of Cambridge and a former Liberal Democrat MP. It would be the first time a monarch has taken such a step since 1834, although it is highly unlikely, according to Howarth and other historians and constitutional experts.

Johnson’s government currently has a majority of one, and there is a band of Conservative rebels determined to stop him taking the U.K. out of the EU without a deal.

However, if Johnson lost a vote of confidence, refused to go, and another group in parliament was able to command a majority in the House of Commons — for, say, delaying Brexit and holding a general election — then the queen would have to invite the leader of said faction to form a government. If Johnson still refused to go, then the U.K. would be, in the words of one parliamentary expert, in “full-blown constitutional crisis” territory.

Such a scenario, while hypothetical for now, would place the queen at the uncomfortable center of one of the greatest political dramas to unfold in her 67-year reign.

The queen’s horror

Events after any confidence vote would play out under terms set down in U.K. law, in the Fixed Terms Parliament Act of 2011.

Under that law, if a government loses a confidence vote in the House of Commons, there are 14 days in which an alternative government must win a fresh confidence vote, or else a general election has to be called.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II welcomes newly elected leader of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson during an audience in Buckingham Palace, London on July 24, 2019 | Victoria Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Johnson’s government currently has a majority of one, and there is a band of Conservative rebels determined to stop him taking the U.K. out of the EU without a deal. With negotiations on a new deal seemingly dead in the water, such a dramatic situation is being war-gamed by Downing Street.

However, as Cummings has pointed out, the law says that it is the prime minister who must advise the queen when to hold the election. If no alternative government can be formed in the 14 allotted days, Johnson could suggest a date after October 31 and the queen would be obliged to set it.

It all adds up to a situation the monarch would much rather avoid, according to Robert Lacey, a royal historian and historical consultant on Netflix series “The Crown.”

“The queen has a horror of being dragged into politics, partly because it is in her very nature to be neutral and retiring, and also because she deeply believes that the constitutional monarchy should do all it can to remain above the fray,” Lacey told POLITICO.

“Therefore, in the event of the 14-day rule becoming applicable, I think she is highly likely to follow the 14 days and stick by that rule, because that is the rule and there is no other law telling her what she should or could do otherwise. If some other conflicting rule or precedent can be produced — or if the 14-day limit is exceeded — then she and her advisers might see things differently.

“Her Majesty has an experienced and very highly qualified team of legal and constitutional advisers to guide her on such matters,” Lacey added. “So this question should not be seen in terms of the queen making a personal decision — beyond the fact that her personal inclination is not to take risks, and also to follow the advice she develops with her team.”

A nightmare scenario for Buckingham Palace would be that a new would-be government wins the confidence of parliament, but Johnson still refuses to go.

Prime minister who?

If Johnson does lose a confidence vote, the person who would, in ordinary circumstances, try to form a new government would be opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who would be the one to call the vote in the first place.

However, it would be deeply uncomfortable for Tory rebels to back Corbyn, even if he was prepared to be only a caretaker prime minister, in power long enough to request an Article 50 extension from the EU and to call a general election.

Some MPs speculate that a unity candidate would instead be sought, with the names of Conservative veteran Ken Clarke and Labour Brexit committee chairman Hilary Benn being floated. But it would be very difficult to find such a figure who could command sufficient support from rival factions in parliament — hence Cummings’ confidence.

Vernon Bogdanor, a constitutional expert and research professor at King’s College London, said the golden rule is that the queen is bound by the advice of her prime minister. “But, if he loses a vote of no confidence, the prime minister has lost the authority to offer advice,” he said.

“There are then two alternatives — either a general election or an alternative government which can win a vote of no confidence within 14 days. The Fixed Term Parliament Act is ambiguous, but it appears that there are a number of possibilities. The first is that Boris Johnson is able himself to form an alternative government able to gain the confidence of the Commons. The second — very unlikely — is that Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of the opposition … can do so.

“The third — almost as unlikely — is that a ‘Government of National Unity’ under some other named individual can be formed. For the queen to ask that named individual to form a government would require … cast-iron evidence in the form of a written agreement by a majority of MPs that they would support that individual.”

A protester wears a mask of the queen at a rally organised by the pro-European People’s Vote campaign for a second EU referendum in Parliament Square, central London on March 23, 2019 | Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images

A nightmare scenario for Buckingham Palace would be that a new would-be government wins the confidence of parliament, but Johnson still refuses to go.

Then, in the words of one expert on the constitution and parliamentary procedure, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the U.K. would be in “full-blown constitutional crisis … as it potentially drags the queen in.”

In this scenario, the queen and her advisers might indeed be forced to weigh up whether to dismiss a prime minister for the first time in nearly 200 years. But this would be an extreme path for Johnson to take and his political enemies don’t believe he will force the matter.

Dominic Grieve, the Conservative MP and former attorney general who has been at the forefront of parliamentary efforts to block a no-deal Brexit, told POLITICO: “The people who are suggesting that Boris Johnson can cling on to office in the 14 days of a no-confidence motion, if there is in practice an alternative administration capable of being formed that commands the confidence of the House of Commons, are deluding themselves.”

Her Majesty will be hoping that he is right.

Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Brexit service for professionals: Brexit Pro. To test our our expert policy coverage of the implications and next steps per industry, email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.

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Inside the mind of Boris Johnson’s right-hand man

LONDON — Want to know which direction the U.K. under Boris Johnson is headed? Then read the blog posts of the most powerful official on his team.

Dominic Cummings’ writings are a window into the world of the special adviser now shaping Johnson’s premiership, Brexit and the U.K.’s future.

They shed light on Cummings’ motivations for backing Brexit, his obsessions (Otto von Bismarck, the science of probability, chess), and his grudges (against David Cameron, George Osborne, most political pundits). They also point to a revolution in store for the civil service and a political system that, in Cummings’ view, has for too long let process and tradition stand in the way of clear goals, big and small — from fixing the office lifts (or elevators, if you will) to leaving the EU.

Fixing the lifts? Yes. “The [Department for Education’s] lifts were knackered from the start and still are,” Cummings wrote in 2014, reflecting on his first stint in government, from 2010 to 2014, as the right-hand man to then-Education Secretary Michael Gove.

“There were dozens of attempts to have them fixed. All failed. At one point the permanent secretary himself took on the task of fixing the lifts, so infuriated had he become. He retired licking his wounds.”

“I found him very impressive. But also slightly scary. He’s quite intimidating” — Government official on Dominic Cummings

The tale is one of many to be found on the blog. And it wasn’t really about the lifts.

“The insuperable problem of the lifts … gives a clue to what is really happening in Whitehall,” Cummings wrote. “Most of everybody’s day is spent just battling entropy — it is not pursuing priorities and building valuable things.”

Impressive and scary

As campaign director of Vote Leave, Cummings was the back-office mastermind to Johnson’s front-of-house showman during the EU referendum campaign.

Together they were instrumental in delivering the vote in favor of Brexit. Appointed as a senior adviser on Johnson’s first day at 10 Downing Street, the two men have now tasked Whitehall with delivering Brexit — by October 31, deal or no deal, “do or die.”

Together, Cummings and Boris Johnson were instrumental in delivering the vote in favor of Brexit | Pool photo by Ben Stansall/Getty Images

After three years away from frontline politics, during which the blog was his primary means of broadcasting to the world, Cummings has suddenly found himself with more power than ever.

He has taken the office next door to the prime minister’s, and officials say that despite the presence of Johnson’s former London City Hall chief of staff Eddie Lister in No. 10, Cummings is “the most powerful man in Downing Street” and “the one who gives the direction.”

“I found him very impressive. But also slightly scary. He’s quite intimidating,” said one government official.

Cummings himself claims on the blog — not all that convincingly — that his fearsome reputation is over-hyped.

“Contrary to the media story, I dislike confrontation and rows like most people but I am very strongly motivated by doing things in a certain way and am not motivated by people in [Westminster’s London postcode] SW1 liking me,” he wrote in 2017.

He has already won over some inside Downing Street. “I have had no issues with him whatsoever and it’s good to have that focus and determination at the top,” said a government figure who has seen Cummings at work.

His first days in government bear out some of the recurring themes of his copious online writings. He is a believer in the military principle of Auftragstaktik — the idea that leadership means giving subordinates a crystal-clear strategic goal. And the obsessive focus on the October 31 exit date has all the hallmarks of a Cummings campaign. He’s even had a countdown to Brexit clock installed in Downing Street.

Why Cummings wants Brexit

The blog gives some clues about Cummings’ animus toward the EU.

He is not a Brexit ideologue. In a May 2018 post, he said it is “unknowable to anybody” whether the U.K. could “make the most” of Brexit over a “10/20/30 year timescale.”

He describes himself as “not a Tory, libertarian, ‘populist’ or anything else” and in a January 2017 essay outlined his reasoning for joining the Brexit campaign. “I thought very strongly that 1) a return to 1930s protectionism would be disastrous, 2) the fastest route to this is continuing with no democratic control over immigration or human rights policies for terrorists and other serious criminals, therefore 3) the best practical policy is to reduce (for a while) unskilled immigration and increase high skills immigration … 4) this requires getting out of the EU, 5) hopefully it will prod the rest of Europe to limit immigration and therefore limit the extremist forces that otherwise will try to rip down free trade.”

On the day Johnson received the keys to Downing Street, Cummings was photographed inside the most important building in the country, wearing a T-shirt advertising the Elon Musk firm Open AI.

The quote suggests that far from the “dangerous” radical some of his critics see, Cummings sees himself as a counterextremist, seeking to restore public trust in the political system.

War and the historical errors that lead to it haunt his writings (“few realize how lucky we were to avoid nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis”). Another preoccupation is the idea of “branching histories” — the many possible paths that events can take at any given moment. If Bismarck had been assassinated in 1866, would World War I have happened, and therefore would Lenin have come to power, or Hitler?

The principle of branching histories, he wrote, “ought to, but does not, make us apply extreme intelligent focus to those areas that can go catastrophically wrong, like accidental nuclear war, to try to narrow the range of possible histories.”

Instead, “most people in politics spend almost all their time on trivia.”

The science of government

After freeing the U.K. from the EU at the end of October — easier said than done — the blog posts suggest that Cummings’ next target will be the Whitehall machine.

On the day Johnson received the keys to Downing Street, Cummings was photographed inside the most important building in the country, wearing a T-shirt advertising the Elon Musk firm Open AI. It may not have been a throwaway choice of garment.

On the blog, he never misses an opportunity to apply the lessons of science to political decision-making.

In a December 2014 post titled “The Hollow Men ii,” he complained that government institutions “operate to exclude from power scientists, mathematicians, and people from the start-up world — the Creators, in [American physicist Steve] Hsu’s term.”

If he and his boss can navigate the choppy Brexit waters ahead, Cummings now has the chance to make that all-or-nothing gamble | Niklas Halle’n/AFP via Getty Images

In the thousands and thousands of words he devotes to the ills of the Whitehall machine, he laments its inability to respond quickly to errors; the “slow, confused” and usually nonexistent feedback; the “priority movers” system that sees incompetent staff members (“dead souls”) moved into jobs elsewhere in the civil service rather than sacked; and the “flexi-time” working regimes that end up with key personnel missing in action when big announcements need to be planned.

All in all, Cummings decries that Whitehall views failure as “normal, not something to strive to avoid.”

And he suggests having parts of Whitehall “amputated” as one necessary measure, including “firing thousands of unnecessary people.”

To Cummings, quitting the EU will sweep away another roadblock on the path to his vision of the U.K.

While working with Gove, “we cut the department’s headcount by more than a third and halved running costs,” he wrote. “We more than halved the press office, and cut 95 percent of the communication budget. Performance improved rapidly. It would improve further if the [department] were halved again.

In a 2014 blog post, he laments that Margaret Thatcher did not go “for all-out civil service reform with a proper PM’s department,” adding: “If she had been much more revolutionary — then much more could have been done (though such a move would obviously be an all-or-nothing gamble for any prime minister who really tried it and one can see why she shied away).”

If he and his boss can navigate the choppy Brexit waters ahead, Cummings now has the chance to make that all-or-nothing gamble.

Cummings arrives at No. 10 carrying a Vote Leave tote bag | Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty Images

He’s floated the idea of bringing in Cabinet ministers from outside parliament. He’s also suggested setting up government agencies in the mold of DARPA, the U.S. Department of Defense’s tech development arm, originally founded in response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik; working on a new international lunar base to help world diplomacy; and revamping the Cabinet room and emergency COBRA committee room to look more like the NASA control center.

“Some old colleagues have said ‘don’t put this stuff on the internet, we don’t want the second referendum mob looking at it,’” he wrote in June. “Don’t worry! Ideas like this have to be forced down people’s throats practically at gunpoint.”

But one government figure said: “He knows he cannot do anything like that this side of a general election. Big Whitehall reforms require a strong majority and you cannot get one until you have delivered on Brexit.”

A new UK

Some of the viewpoints aired in the blog posts give clues as to the immediate direction of Johnson’s government. Anyone wondering whether the PM will enter into a pact with the Brexit Party and Nigel Farage will be asking themselves if Cummings still thinks Farage “put off millions of (middle class in particular) voters” during the referendum.

And those trying to guess whether Downing Street is war-gaming for a no-deal Brexit in October, a general election, or both, might look at the lessons Cummings takes from computer chess, and from his hero Bismarck.

“The very best computers seem to make moves [in chess] that preserve the widest possible choices in the future, just as the most effective person in politics for whom we have good sources, Bismarck, operated always on the principle of ‘keep two irons in the fire.’”

But the blog posts are also a blueprint for a wider outlook.

Cummings was not complimentary of Brexit Party chief Nigel Farage’s role in the referendum campaign | Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

In Cummings’ grand vision, the U.K. would take on “a central role in tackling humanity’s biggest problems and shaping the new institutions, displacing the EU and UN, that will emerge as the world makes painful transitions in coming decades.”

But first he must solve Brexit; a Gordian knot that has led to the demise of two prime ministers and may yet claim another, along with his right-hand man.

To Cummings, quitting the EU will sweep away another roadblock on the path to his vision of the U.K.

Whitehall’s failure to achieve it — just like fixing the “bloody lifts” in the Department for Education — highlights the inefficiencies he wants to remove, seemingly by any means necessary.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Brexit service for professionals: Brexit Pro. To test our our expert policy coverage of the implications and next steps per industry, email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.

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Nicola Sturgeon: We would join Labour in ‘progressive’ anti-Tory alliance

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn will be partly responsible if the U.K. crashes out of the EU without a deal.

But she won’t rule out siding with the opposition party to oust the Conservatives in a general election.

“I’m no great fan of Jeremy Corbyn,” she told the Guardian in an interview. “If we do crash out without a deal, he will bear almost as much responsibility as Theresa May or Boris Johnson. I can’t see the SNP [her Scottish National Party] going into formal coalition with Labour.”

Nevertheless, she said the SNP would be open to “some kind of progressive alliance that could lock the Tories out of government.”

Sturgeon clarified that any future arrangement would not be “a blank check type scenario.”

“We would want Jeremy Corbyn to take a very firm anti-Brexit position. We would look to do what was right for Scotland.”

Sturgeon’s comments come after her acrimonious meeting with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Scotland last week. While Johnson, a Brexiteer, has pledged to leave the EU with or without a deal on October 31, Sturgeon has been fiercely critical of Brexit, especially a no-deal scenario, saying it would be “catastrophic” for Scotland.

“I don’t think it will be surprising to anyone to hear me say that I wasn’t absolutely thrilled to be welcoming Boris Johnson as prime minister,” she said, adding she wants a second Scottish independence referendum by 2021.

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Scotland would vote for independence from UK, poll finds

Voters in Scotland would vote for independence from the United Kingdom, a new poll has suggested.

The survey by Michael Ashcroft for Holyrood magazine is the first since March 2017 showing support among Scots for breaking up the union.

Of the 1,019 voters polled, 46 percent said they would vote for independence and 43 percent said they would vote against. When those who said they did not know or would not vote are excluded, the result swings to 52 percent versus 48 percent in favour of secession.

The results serve a major boost to Scottish First Minister and Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon, but are a blow for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who visited Scotland last week, and Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson.

Sturgeon hailed the “phenomenal” poll, adding: “A broken Westminster system means Scotland is being dragged towards a no deal Brexit, regardless of the heavy price we’ll pay for lost jobs and lower living standards.

“That project is being led by Boris Johnson — a prime minister Scotland didn’t elect and who has no mandate to tear Scotland out of Europe with all the damage that will entail.”

She added: “It would be a democratic outrage for any Tory government to deny that, and this poll shows such an anti-democratic position is completely unsustainable.”

Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU at the 2016 referendum on Brexit, while a POLITICO-Hanbury poll last month found Johnson is toxic among Scottish voters.

Ashcroft, a former Conservative Party chairman who did not support Johnson for the leadership, said on the ConservativeHome website: “In the wake of [Prime Minister] Boris Johnson’s visit to Edinburgh last week I polled Scots to measure support for a second independence referendum and to gauge opinion on independence itself.”

He added: “I found a small majority in favor of a new vote — and the first lead for an independent Scotland for more than two years.”

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Theresa May’s big golden goodbyes bill

To see an interactive table about the payouts during Theresa May’s premiership, view this article in your browser

LONDON — British taxpayers paid out hundreds of thousands of pounds in golden goodbyes during the chaotic Theresa May premiership —including to Boris Johnson and many of his new top team.

Almost £850,000 was paid out to ministers who quit their jobs, were fired or who lost their seats at the 2017 snap general election, along with their numerous advisers.

According to POLITICO analysis of departmental figures, 40 ministers who departed government were paid at least £361,463 during the tumultuous three years May was in power.

That includes eight secretaries of state such as Boris Johnson (now the prime minister), Dominic Raab (now foreign secretary) and Esther McVey (now a minister of state), who all resigned in protest last year over Brexit.

In total, 18 ministers who were eligible for severance pay quit or were sacked over the government’s approach to Brexit, leading to payouts totalling £164,300. Meanwhile, four members of the House of Lords who served as ministers resigned, getting more than £71,000 between them.

The Cabinet Office paid out almost £310,000 to 14 special advisers in the 2017-2018 financial year alone.

Johnson and Raab got almost £17,000 each, a quarter of their annual salary, as did Damian Green, May’s de facto deputy, who was sacked in December 2017 over “inaccurate and misleading statements” about porn on his computer, and Amber Rudd, who resigned in April last year over the Windrush scandal.

Priti Patel, who was sacked in November 2017 after holding secret meetings with Israeli officials while on holiday, also took home the payout (Patel was made home secretary by Johnson), as did Justine Greening, who refused to be moved from the education brief in a Cabinet reshuffle in January 2018.

The overall number is likely to be higher, as Gavin Williamson, who was sacked as defense secretary over a security breach row in May, and Andrea Leadsom, who quit as Commons leader over Brexit the same month, are also entitled to the cash, but reports confirming whether or not they took it are yet to be published.

Many of those who departed during the past three years have now returned to government after Johnson became prime minister — and Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Jo Platt urged them to pay the cash back.

“Rarely has failure been so richly rewarded as it was in Theresa May’s government,” she told POLITICO. “In no other walk of life would people be rewarded for breaking the rules, resigning for personal ambition or getting sacked for incompetence and repeated failure.

“The fact that so many of these people are back in the Cabinet less than a year after receiving handsome payouts stinks. It’s one rule for the Tories and another for everyone else. Every one of these ministers should pay back every penny they took from the public purse.”

Other notable payouts include almost £5,500 for Andrew Griffiths, after he quit as a business minister in July last year over a sexting storm, as well as the same amount for Kris Hopkins and Rob Wilson, and almost £8,000 for Ben Gummer, after they lost their seats at the 2017 election.

May oversaw the highest number of ministerial resignations outside of a reshuffle since at least 1979, according to the Institute for Government.

She will have added to the bill with the first reshuffle after she took office in 2016, while many of her last appointments were eligible for payouts when they were sacked by Johnson when he took office last week. The Mirror estimates the severance bill for his reshuffle could be about £260,000.

Elsewhere, almost £500,000 was paid out to ministerial advisers who lost their jobs at the same time as their bosses during the May era.

Andrea Leadsom is entitled to the cash, but reports confirming whether or not she took it are yet to be published | Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

That includes a £30,000 payout to David Frost, who served as an aide to Johnson while he was foreign secretary and got a new job as chief EU negotiator after Johnson won the keys to No. 10.

The Cabinet Office paid out almost £310,000 to 14 special advisers in the 2017-2018 financial year alone.

Ministers over the age of 65 are entitled to a quarter of their annual salary tax free when they depart government, as long as they do not get another ministerial post within three weeks.

Advisers in their first year of service usually get three months of their pay, then another month for each year of service up to a maximum of six months — but they can be forced to pay some back if they are reappointed.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Severance payments for ministers are set out in law and for special advisers are a contractual entitlement.

“The special adviser contract sets out when they are payable, including when their minister leaves office and when there is a general election. If a special adviser is re-employed following either event their severance payment must be repaid.”

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Brexit service for professionals: Brexit Pro. To test our our expert policy coverage of the implications and next steps per industry, email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.

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Australia’s UK envoy sees hope of trade deal by end of 2020

Assuming Britain leaves the EU October 31, Australia is optimistic it can strike a trade pact with London “before the end of 2020” or even sooner, according to its U.K. envoy George Brandis.

“The reason I take that date is that it only took 15 months for Australia to complete our very, very ambitious FTA [free trade agreement] that is with the U.S. some 15 years ago,” the Australian high commissioner told POLITICO’s London Playbook. “The political will to do it is there.”

Whether the U.K. managed to strike a deal with the EU before leaving the bloc likely wouldn’t change things, Brandis said.

“I think myself that the shape of an FTA between the U.K. and Australia will be pretty much the same whether it is a no-deal Brexit or a Brexit with a deal, assuming that, as I think we may, that that deal doesn’t include a customs union or other trade restrictions on dealing with third-party nations,” he said.

Brandis urged the U.K. to take a positive view of its trade future after leaving the EU, telling pessimists to “look at the Australian experience.” Australia conducts 70 percent of its trade with countries with which it has trade agreements. “My advice to the U.K. government is to be bold and not be afraid of free trade agreements,” Brandis said.

Brandis pointed out that commodity trading between Australia and the U.K. is still “relatively modest” — though the biggest trade is wine. His favorite? “You can’t go wrong [with] a Penfolds — at whatever price point.” But what about British wine? “Some of it is very nice,” he conceded, but “I think the United Kingdom wine industry would have a way to go to match an Australian shiraz.”

Brandis, a former Australian Liberal Party senator who served in the conservative Howard, Abbott and Turnbull administrations, said he was a fan of the new British prime minister.

“What excites me about Boris Johnson is if anyone can rekindle that spirit of optimism in the British people, which I think has taken a bit of a hammering in recent years, it is him,” Brandis said. “If ever there was a nation which needed a good dose of optimism and encouragement not to be fearful of the future, but to embrace to restore that Carpe Diem spirit, it is the new prime minister.”

Brandis also defended the way British MPs have handled Brexit, saying that his own “shouty” parliament would not have coped as well.

“What has impressed me … is at a time when these profound and even existential issues are so acute, that the debate has been conducted with civility and maturity, and intelligence which bespeaks a very mature and sophisticated political system and a very mature political community,” Brandis said.

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Boris Johnson promises ‘impartiality’ in talks to restore Northern Ireland government

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted he can be an honest broker in talks to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland, despite the Conservative Party’s close ties to the Democratic Unionist Party.

The new prime minister said today there would be “complete impartiality” as he prepared to hold talks with the five main parties in the devolved nation, which has had no government for two and a half years.

He made the comments after he dined with senior DUP figures Arlene Foster, Nigel Dodds and Jeffrey Donaldson Tuesday night.

Johnson’s government in Westminster is propped up by the 10 Northern Irish unionist MPs in a confidence-and-supply arrangement. That means the Tory government, which has a majority of three in the House of Commons, depends on the DUP to ratify any Brexit deal Johnson manages to strike with the EU.

The Northern Irish party has insisted that the controversial backstop plan to avoid a hard Irish border — by keeping the U.K. bound to EU customs rules and Northern Ireland tied to some single market rules — must be scrapped, and has welcomed the PM’s similar hard-line stance on the issue.

Asked Wednesday morning if he could be impartial in the efforts to get Stormont back up and running, Johnson told journalists: “It’s all there in the Good Friday Agreement. We believe in complete impartiality and that is what we are going to observe.”

He added: “People in Northern Ireland have been without a government, without Stormont, for two years and six months. So my prime focus this morning is to do everything I can to help that get up and running again because I think that’s profoundly in the interests of the people here, all the citizens here, in Northern Ireland.”

Power sharing at Stormont broke down in January 2017 over disagreements about a botched green energy plan, giving official status to the Northern Irish language and equal rights for same sex couples, among other things.

Speaking to Sky News this morning, DUP leader Foster said the backstop is the “continuing and fundamental flaw” within the Withdrawal Agreement.

“We very much hope that our new prime minister will deal with the issue, he will get across to those in Europe, and particularly in Dublin, the fact that they cannot break up the U.K. because essentially that’s what the backstop was doing.”

Asked on the BBC about her meeting with Johnson last night, Foster said they talked about the need for a Brexit deal and that “Dublin and indeed Brussels needed to dial back on the rhetoric and be a willing partner to find a deal, not just for the United Kingdom but for Republic of Ireland and the whole of Europe.”

Brussels and Dublin have insisted the backstop mechanism is necessary and have refused to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement.

This has made a no-deal exit more likely, the DUP’s Chief Whip Donaldson told the BBC. “I think given the response of the Irish government in particular, who I believe are key to this issue of addressing U.K. concerns about the backstop, I think the prospect of a no deal is significant.”

Johnson is meeting the leaders of the DUP, Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionist Party, Alliance Party and Social Democratic and Labour Party on the last leg of his tour of the U.K. nations today.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Brexit service for professionals: Brexit Pro. To test our our expert policy coverage of the implications and next steps per industry, email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.

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Anti-Brexit parties test alliance in Welsh by-election

LONDON — U.K. campaigners who want a second referendum to stop Brexit think they have discovered a strategy to break through the Remain ceiling: helping each other win elections.

At the European Parliament vote in May, hardcore anti-Brexit parties won more support overall than those backing a no-deal Brexit. The Liberal Democrats, Greens, Scottish National Party, Change UK and Plaid Cymru (a Welsh pro-independence party) won 40.4 percent of the vote versus 34.9 percent for the Brexit Party and UKIP. The Brexit Party was the clear single winner, however, romping home with 29 seats.

Now the Remain parties have a cunning plan: stop fighting among themselves. They will test drive it at Thursday’s Welsh by-election in Brecon and Radnorshire, which was triggered when sitting Conservative MP Chris Davies was convicted for expenses fraud. Plaid Cymru, the Greens and the Independent Group for Change (formerly Change UK) all agreed not to stand to give the Lib Dems an unhindered shot at the seat.

They hope this “Remain Alliance” will change the political landscape by carving up seats across the U.K. to maximize the chances of the party best-placed to win and avoid fragmenting the Remain vote.

“This is a response to what we should have done in the European Parliament elections,” said Heidi Allen, a former Conservative MP, now an independent, who is trying to broker a wider pact. “Thank God we might have another opportunity in a general election.”

“In this particular time, in this particular contest, I think that the case in favor of standing down was pretty compelling” — Adam Price, Plaid Cymru leader

Welsh Lib Dem leader Jane Dodds, who is running in Brecon and Radnorshire, told POLITICO from the campaign trail in Llanwrtyd Wells that it is a “very courageous” move by the other parties. “But I guess the most important thing is the symbolism of it — that it’s about grown-up, adult politics.”

The “grown-up” approach appears to be paying off. A constituency poll by Number Cruncher Politics earlier this month put the Lib Dems on 43 percent, the Conservatives on 28 percent and the Brexit Party on 20 percent. If accurate, it would be an impressive result in a seat that voted by 51.9 percent to leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum, according to an analysis by Chris Hanretty, a politics professor at Royal Holloway University. In the by-election, the pro-Brexit vote is looking larger overall but the Remain parties are cutting through the middle.

Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price said it’s a tough decision not to stand because “the nature of party politics and party competition is that loyalty runs very deep among members and supporters.” But he added: “In this particular time, in this particular contest, I think that the case in favor of standing down was pretty compelling.”

Previous results in Brecon and Radnorshire — where the Lib Dems have scored previous wins and are the clear challengers to the Conservatives — made it a fairly obvious choice: At the general election in 2017, Plaid Cymru won 3.4 percent and the Greens didn’t even stand. The Tories’ decision to stand by Davies despite the scandal made their support, already split by the Brexit Party, even more vulnerable.

‘Prepared to lose my seat’

Allen, who launched the “Unite to Remain” group to coordinate a wider tie-up, said the Brecon model should be used “in as many seats as we can” at the next general election. The specter of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage forming a Brexit alliance, or of a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn, is “really focusing minds” among Remain supporters, she said.

“Those threats, and what it means about the kind of country we may become and the path we would set ourselves on, are so terrifying that it is making some of us prepared to behave in ways that we never would have considered before,” said Allen, who is writing to the smaller parties to drive discussion of a national strategy. She has also commissioned an analysis of seats to consider who should be stepping down where.

“It won’t be every seat,” she told POLITICO, “it will be somewhere between 100 and 200 seats where we can really make a difference and return more Remain, progressive, moderate MPs if we stand down and there is just one candidate.”

Analysis by political strategist James Kanagasooriam for Sky News show “Sophy Ridge on Sunday” found a “Remain Alliance” has the potential to win between 66 and 154 seats at a general election. Kanagasooriam told the show two-thirds of the 66-seat estimate is Conservative-held, but that much of the vote share would come from Labour voters in middle England.

There is a financial incentive, too: Small parties could save money, or spend it more effectively, by focusing on seats where they have a fighting chance, rather than fielding candidates across the country.

Allen, who argues that as “an independent who has no skin in the game” she can help broker such a deal, accepts that she could become a casualty of the process in her constituency of South Cambridgeshire.

Heidi Allen launched the “Unite to Remain” group to coordinate a wider tie-up | Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

“I am fully prepared to lose my seat,” she said. “I haven’t had a burning desire to be an MP all my life. I’ve ended up becoming an MP at an extraordinary time and I absolutely see myself as a tool. If I can help and be useful and create something that benefits the country then brilliant — that is all I’m focused on.”

As Plaid Cymru’s leader in Westminster, Liz Saville Roberts, put it: “If [a wider ‘Remain Alliance’] doesn’t happen in future I think history will look very unkindly upon us for having been divided in our own party interests as opposed to putting the political demands first.”

Time-limited option

New Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson is positive about the pact being extended, saying that while the campaign for a second referendum on Brexit has made progress, “arithmetic matters” in the House of Commons when it comes to actually stopping the U.K. withdrawal from the EU.

“We need to be very mature about the threat that we face with Boris Johnson coming in as prime minister, with the rise of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party … and that does mean some difficult decisions being taken by parties acting and cooperating in the national interest,” she told POLITICO.

To avoid bias toward the Lib Dems, the largest of the allied parties with the greatest nationwide clout, Swinson said a “degree of reciprocation” will be needed. Allen agreed: “It can’t be all about the Lib Dems.”

Jo Swinson, the new leader of the Lib Dems | Leon Neal/Getty Images

But the goodwill only goes so far: Saville Roberts was enthusiastic about the suggestion the Lib Dems could “donate” some of their questions in the Commons to other parties that helped win a particular seat, but Swinson poured cold water on the proposal, arguing that one MP does not necessarily mean “masses more questions.”

In Brecon and Radnorshire, meanwhile, Plaid Cymru’s Saville Roberts and Price — while agreeing not to contest the seat — have not actively campaigned for the Lib Dems’ Jane Dodds, though Plaid Cymru and Green members have been helping out on the ground.

And while Allen’s ambitions for the Remain Alliance extend to enabling “a government of national unity” after the next election, the parties themselves are more focused on securing a referendum. “You are talking about something which is very focused and very specific and probably quite time-limited,” said Swinson.

Breaking the grip

Not every anti-Brexit party is fully signed up to the Remain Alliance agenda. Change UK’s successor, the Independent Group for Change, agreed not to contest Brecon and Radnorshire but believes the priority should blocking a no-deal Brexit through the current parliamentary makeup, argues its MP, Chris Leslie.

“Superficially, I can see the attraction of having long conversations about the possibility of an immediate general election, but I just don’t think it’s the priority at the moment,” said Leslie, who has no time for Allen since she split off from Change UK alongside Sarah Wollaston, Chuka Umunna and other MPs.

A general election is unlikely and “might not actually be very desirable at all” in terms of stopping Brexit before October 31, said Leslie, whose group performed dismally at the European Parliament ballot and would likely suffer a fatal blow if a general election were held soon.

Liz Saville Roberts is Plaid Cymru’s leader in Westminster | Leon Neal/Getty Images

Umunna, who left Labour for the Independents before joining the Lib Dems, sees Brecon and Radnorshire as “a pilot” project, but draws lessons from the 1980s alliance between the Liberal Party and Social Democratic Party, saying: “If you aren’t focused and target ruthlessly where you seek to be successful, then you can end up in the situation that the Alliance there found themselves in, where they came second in over 300 seats.”

Still, Plaid Cymru’s Saville Roberts sees a chance that the Welsh by-election this week, if successful for the Remain Alliance, could help “break the grip” of two-party politics and allow U.K. voters to make choices based on issues rather than tribalism.

“This was specifically for Brecon and Radnorshire,” she said. “And it has opened doors that have opened corridors and to further doors in future and we shall see where they go.”

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Brexit service for professionals: Brexit Pro. To test our our expert policy coverage of the implications and next steps per industry, email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.

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