Peter Bone: Why the next Speaker must be biased – not impartial

Peter Bone is MP for Wellingborough.

We need a biased Speaker in the Commons.  I can almost hear the howls of protest now – for that sounds like an indefensible proposition. For everyone says that the Speaker must be neutral and not favour one side or the other in Parliament – and that is of course correct.

Unfortunately, however, the current Speaker has not to turned out to be an impartial umpire, but has instead been a player for one of the teams. His decisions over recent months have not just bent the rules in favour of the Remainers, but broken the rules. He has created a situation in which Parliament cannot function properly.

His recent decision to allow a Standing Order 24 motion (emergency debate) to be a substantive rather than a general debate clearly breaks our Standing Orders. These are our Bible as to how our procedures are governed in Parliament. If we can’t rely on our Standing Orders, then Parliament cannot function properly.

The breaking of those Standing Orders led to a major constitutional Bill being rushed through the Commons in about five hours. This is outrageous – and just plain wrong. If the Speaker had not announced his retirement, I have no doubt that he would have faced a motion of censure.

One of the clearest indications of the Speaker’s bias was when he announced his retirement and the opposition side of the Commons stood, cheered and clapped him, while the government benches largely sat stony faced. Any Speaker that receives that sort of response on his retirement must know that he has failed Parliament.

For the first half of the Speaker’s tenure, he implemented wide spread and welcome reforms supporting backbenchers and Parliament against the Executive, but his desire to oppose Brexit and break Parliamentary rules has, in my opinion, greatly sullied his legacy.

Having said all of the above, all Speakers have to be biased in a certain sense. Their judgement on important issues of procedure must be based on a bias towards Parliament and away from the Executive.

It is fundamental to our constitution that the person who umpires the Commons is not batting for one side or the other, therefore, where there is a convention or Standing Orders are clear, the Speaker must make the decision in accordance with them.

However, we do not have a written constitution and many of the decisions the Speaker makes are based on their own judgement. For instance, whether to allow a motion to be put on the Order Paper or not. Let me give you a specific example – Standing Orders say that in any one session of Parliament the question on the same proposition cannot be put more than once. Equally, there is a convention and practice which is widely used that a proposition can be moved “notwithstanding the provision of standing orders”.

Therefore, Standing Orders say that something can’t happen, but there is a regularly used convention to overcome that. In such circumstances, the Speaker can rule that a subject can be voted on again or equally that the motion cannot be put. Now I would hope that a Speaker, where there isn’t clear guidance from convention or standing orders, would rule in favour of Parliament rather than the Executive.

In this regard, the Speaker is rather like an umpire in a cricket match when an appeal is made. Sometimes a batsman is clearly out, and sometimes he is clearly in, on other occasions it is not clear and the umpire must make a judgement call. In the case of cricket, the benefit of doubt will always be given to the batsman. Normally, in those types of cases where a judgement is required in the Commons, the Speaker should always give the benefit of doubt to Parliament and not to the Executive. There is however a gigantic, big but to that general rule – and that is Brexit.

Our sovereign Parliament delegated to the British people the decision of whether we should be in or out of the European Union. Unbelievably, 1,179 days have passed since that referendum and Parliament has not delivered what the people instructed it to do.

So, I would argue, in the case of Brexit, that wherever the question of Brexit arises in the Commons, and the Speaker is required to make a judgement call relating to it, that they should always give the benefit of the doubt toward Brexit and the British people. In these circumstances, the Speaker should be totally biased in favour of Brexit, since that was the decision of the British people, and it should overrule the priority to put Parliament before the Executive.  A biased Brexit speaker is essential.

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The plan to force a second referendum, and the prospect of party realignment

Oliver Letwin’s intervention in favour of a second referendum may turn out to be of real political significance.  To understand why, let’s start by returning to Boris Johnson’s options, assuming that he isn’t able to agree a deal with the EU before October 31.

They are, first, to extend, which would mean breaking his word.  Second, not to apply for an extension, which would mean breaking the law.  Third, to resign.  It may be that there is a fourth option unclear at present – for example, a legal appeal against some defect in the Benn Bill.  But at any rate, such appear to be the Prime Minister’s choices, regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision next week on progogation, and other action in the courts.

ConservativeHome concluded earlier this week that, faced with these choices, Johnson might do best to resign.  We added that this anti-No Deal Commons might then tolerate Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister for as long as it took him to apply for the extension.  After which he would be no confidenced, and a general election would take place.

We added that there was a danger such a scheme might work too well.  In other words, that Corbyn might be kept in place by MPs as Prime Minister for months, not weeks.  Or that it might not work at all, because he would be unacceptable to the Commons, which would insist on putting someone else into Number Ten.

The Letwin intervention has further complicated these already mind-bending possibilites.  It should be viewed alongside Tom Watson’s almost identical proposal as a kind of pincer movement on Johnson, intended or unintended.  Both now support a referendum before an election.  Which suggests the following.

To date, the so-called rebel alliance has been unable to resolve a simple question about extension, namely: “what is it for?”  The referendum plan answers it by breathing new life into a familiar proposal.  “It is for allowing the Commons the chance to put Brexit back to the people,” comes the response.

Now there is still a majority, as far as can be seen, in the Commons against another public vote.  Motions supporting a second referendum have twice failed, though not by all that much: one fell short by 13 votes second time round, back in April; another by 27, the week before.

So there would almost certainly be a further struggle in Parliament over a second plebiscite.  But one can see how, were Johnson still Prime Minister in the event of extension, his premiership would slowly be bled to death while MPs debated a second referendum and other plans – with his Government still unable to obtain a majority for an election.

And were not still Prime Minister? At this point, further complexities kick in.

As we say, the Commons would be unlikely to settle on a second referendum quickly, if at all.  Were it to do so, a Bill to enact it would take time.  David Cameron’s original EU referendum bill took over six months to pass through Parliament, gaining first reading in May 2015 and royal assent in December of that year.

While it is possible to imagine MPs putting Corbyn into Number Ten briefly to agree an extension, before pitching him out again to ensure an election, it is very hard to picture them doing so for several months.  For even if a second referendum bill passed through Parliament faster than the first did, its passage would surely take many weeks.

It is here that the Letwin/Watson plan begins to run into problems.  One can see why most Labour MPs, perhaps the SNP and some of the minor parties would support a Corbyn-led, John McDonnell-driven government that would hold office for several months.

But Jo Swinson presumably would not, since propping up the Labour leader would run the risk of legitimising him among her party’s target voters.  Nor, it appears, would Letwin, and most of the 21 Tory dissidents who so recently lost the whip.

Instead, the rebel alliance would cast around for an alternative Prime Minister.  Let us call this person Ken Clarke.  Or Hillary Benn.  Or Letwin himself.  Or even Watson.  One can see that how such a premiership would suit all of these, and those who think like them.

For a Clarke premiership lasting several months, with all the above in place in Cabinet, would raise the prospect of realignment.  If they could all work together so smoothly, after all, wouldn’t the old party allegiances look a bit out of date?  Why should not this “moderate centre” coalesce permanently, and isolate “the extremes?”

Nick Boles would come on board.  So would Anna Soubry.  Philip Hammond would already be in place.  The Speaker would provide procedural aid.  This new force of “progressives”, cheered on inter alia by George Osborne’s Evening Standard, would begin to work as an alliance with the Liberal Democrats, who would already be well represented in this new coalition.  But you will already have spotted the red fly in this pinkish ointment.

For if we can work all this out, so can Jeremy Corbyn.  He would fight with as much of the Labour Party as he can command to stifle such a centrist infant at birth.  And would work in strange alliance with someone who has a mutual interest in doing so too: Boris Johnson, or whoever was Conservative leader at this point in time.  Seumas Milne, meet your new best friend: Dominic Cummings.

We apologise for burdening our readers with yet more speculation, all of which could be rendered out of date tomorrow by some new twist in the tale.  But the current floating of electoral reform – as by Amber Rudd in her recent speech which we carry today – isn’t coming from nowhere.

Behind the scenes, conversations are being had; possibilities are being broached; understandings half-reached.  Perhaps Johnson will get his deal after all.  Or the EU suddenly veto extension, and put us all out of our uncertainty.  In the meantime, though, watch Letwin, the man with a claim to the title of: our Real Prime Minister.

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The shocking truth about Commons disorder. MPs during Brexit “have been almost shamefully well behaved”

Whenever the Speaker, John Bercow, rebukes rowdy MPs for setting a bad example, it is hard to avoid the thought that the representatives of a free people ought sometimes, when they think the Government is doing something intolerable, to behave very badly.

Bercow himself used to behave atrociously in the days when he was one of the handful of backbenchers who kept the Chamber alive. He has throughout his life displayed a “gift for giving unnecessary offence”, as the ConHome profile of him put it, and has himself said that during his first five years as an MP – he entered the House in 1997 – “my behaviour was spectacularly bad – I mean not just sort of bad but bad on an industrial scale.”

If MPs did not behave badly, they would fail in their duty to reflect public opinion, and our democracy would die of boredom. As Lord Lexden, official historian to the Conservative Party and to the Carlton Club, told ConHome yesterday:

“It would almost be a breach of the constitution if the Commons failed to exhibit its historic practices of disorder at a time of great national crisis.  MPs have been almost shamefully well behaved during the Brexit debates. Churchill in his Liberal days wore with pride the scar inflicted on his forehead by the bound copy of Commons Standing Orders hurled at him by an enraged Tory in 1912. Where are the free fights and  suspended sittings of yore? The verbal pugnacity of Speaker Bercow is a poor substitute for the ancient traditions of the House.”

The disturbances by Opposition MPs early yesterday morning during the prorogation ceremonies, condemned as “mob rule” by some Conservatives (for example James Cleverly, the Party Chairman, on Twitter), were of a relatively minor order.

In the present Commons, we see a battle between those who received their political education at the Oxford Union, and those who got it from the National Union of Students. On both sides, a degree of bogusness is apparent, underlain by deep feeling.

Chips Channon, Conservative MP for Southend since 1935, relates in his diary for 4 April 1938 the reaction of Manny Shinwell, a fiery Labour MP and son of a Polish Jew, who reckoned, almost certainly correctly, that another Conservative MP, Robert Bower, had directed an anti-semitic remark at him:

“An incident in the House of Commons. Mr Shinwell made himself highly objectionable, and unfortunately, Commander Bower, the member for the Cleveland Division of Yorks, shouted ‘Go back to Poland’ – a foolish and provocative jibe, though no ruder than many that the Opposition indulge in every day. Shinwell, shaking with fury, got up, crossed the House and smacked him very hard across the face! The crack resounded in the Chamber – there was consternation, but the Speaker, acting from either cowardice or tact, seemed to ignore the incident and when pressed, refused to rebuke Shinwell, who made an apology, as did Bower, who had taken the blow with apparent unconcern. He is a big fellow and could have retaliated effectively. The incident passed; but everyone was shocked. Bower is a pompous ass, self-opinionated, and narrow, who walks like a pregnant turkey. I have always disliked him, and feel justified in so doing since he once remarked in my hearing ‘Everyone who even spoke to the Duke of Windsor should be banished – kicked out of the country’. But the incident does not raise Parliamentary prestige, especially now, when it is at a discount throughout the world.”

Luciana Berger MP, great-niece of Shinwell and this month a recruit to the Liberal Democrats, referred last year to this incident in a speech in the House about the monstrous anti-semitic abuse to which she has been subjected.

The Speaker, Edward Fitzroy, reckoned Shinwell and Bower were as bad as each other, and once they had apologised, decided to take no further action.

In the age of photography, this prudent decision would be harder to make. But the Speaker quite often has to deal with such problems, and not just in the period before the First World War when the country trembled on the brink of civil war.

Wikipedia provides a rather dull list of “incidents of major disorder in the British House of Commons” – dull because a bare summary does not convey the drama of these occasions.

But the list does have the merit of reminding one that the House had to be suspended in 1976, when Michael Heseltine brandished the mace, and in 1988, when Nigel Lawson cut the top rate of tax from 60 to 40 per cent, as well as on many other occasions.

There is an admirable tradition in British public life of respectability. For most of the time, our public figures know how to behave, and for most of the time we like it that way. This code of manners is one reason why parliamentary government has endured.

But good manners are not enough. They cannot convey the strength of feeling when great issues are at stake.

Great parliamentarians have to be capable, for good or ill, of expressing and channelling popular passion. It is better, generally speaking, for such emotions to be vented on stormy days and nights in the Commons, than for the Chamber to preserve a dry remoteness from the issues of the day.

Brexit is a profoundly emotional question which is taking years to work out. The protesters come to Parliament to make their noise and wave their banners, and this is a very good thing.

We are having the necessary argument in the right place, the Commons Chamber, a process which Bercow, for all his faults, has facilitated.

The storm of protest raised by prorogation was a healthy sign. Only in the Commons can the great decisions which are impending be scrutinised and then endorsed or rejected.

The EU referendum, though instituted by Parliament, was also a direct challenge to representative democracy.

But it is our sometimes ill-behaved Parliament – whether the present House of Commons or a newly elected one – which now has to interpret and deal with the consequences of the referendum.

And in this sense, the acknowledged primacy of Parliament, one might say that Brexit has already happened.

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The next Speaker. Will MPs be guided by party or by prejudice?

The election of the Commons Speaker in 2009 saw party loyalty win out.  In simple terms, most of John Bercow’s 221 votes in the penultimate round came from Labour, who had won 355 seats in the 2005 general election.  Margaret Beckett, the other Labour MP in that round, won 70 votes.

George Young, who came second in the round, won 174 votes: the Conservatives had won 198 seats in 2005.  The figures for the final round also help to spotlight the position.  They were: Bercow 322, Young 271.  (In retrospect, the latter did very well in gaining what was evidently at least 50 or so non-Tory votes.)

So an important question about the election of Bercow’s successor is: will it also break down on Party lines?  After all, Labour MPs have propped him up in office, while most Tory MPs voted, in effect, to oust him in 2015.

As in 2009, that doesn’t necessarily suggest Tories voting for another Tory – the leading contenders from the blue corner perhaps being Eleanor Laing, a Deputy Speaker now, and Charles Walker.  Some Conservatives might plump for another of the deputy speakers, Lindsay Hoyle.

Labour MPs, though, are more likely to plump for another “one of their own” – be that Rosie Winterton, the party’s former Chief Whip, or Harriet Harman, “the mother of the House”.

All in all, party is less likely to win out than prejudice, to use the word in its broadest sense.  If MPs want a Continuity Bercow, they won’t vote for Hoyle, who would be more of an old-fashioned figure in the George Thomas mould.  If they do, Harman seems to be the most likely beneficiary.

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The former Conservative MPs who have lost the Whip all abstain on the Tory attempt to force an election

Charlie Elphicke is registered as an independent, and voted with the Government yesterday evening.

It’s worth noting that two other independents did, too: Ian Austin and Ivan Lewis, former Labour MPs, both of whom tore into Jeremy Corbyn during the debate.

– – –

Meanwhile, three independents voted with Corbyn: Heidi Allen, Sylvia Hermon and Stephen Lloyd, formerly a Liberal Democrat.

Don’t confuse the independents with the Independent Group for Change (please try to keep up).  Of the latter, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie and, yes, Anna Soubry voted with the Opposition.

– –

Health warning: people abstain for many reasons.  An MP who doesn’t vote may be ill; or abroad; or have some urgent constituency or personal business.

None the less, it’s a matter of record than none of the 22 whipless former Tories voted yesterday evening.

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MPs praising the Speaker’s record ought to read the Cox Report on the bullying of Commons staff

As the Commons – or at least some parts of the Commons – dissolve into an unrestrained John Bercow love-in, allow me to remind even those who might agree with him politically of an inconvenient truth:

My original analysis of the Cox report – including the severity of the problems it exposed and the failure of Commons authorities to get to grips with them – from 2018 can be found on Twitter here. Politicians lauding the Speaker today should perhaps give more thought to how their words come across to the staff they will walk past in the corridor once they have finished speaking.

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Why the best course open to Johnson may be for him to resign as Prime Minister

It wasn’t the failure to deliver Brexit that did for Theresa May.  It was something even bigger: breaking her word.  She pledged over a hundred times that Britain would leave the EU on March 29, and it didn’t.  She then said that she was not prepared to delay Brexit later than the end of June, but did.  She declared that it would be “unacceptable” for European elections to take place, but they happened.  She denounced Jeremy Corbyn as a threat to the country, but then sough to deliver the Withdrawal Agreement by making a deal with him.

The most elemental trope about politicians, as Lord Ashcroft’s latest focus groups confirm, is that they are all liars.  So it came about that May dragged the Conservatives down to nine per cent and four MEPs in those Euro-elections.  Tory poll ratings slumped to 20 per cent.

It is Boris Johnson’s promises to take Britain out of the EU by October 31, “do or die”, that has dragged the Conservatives up the polls by their bootstraps.  If he backtracks on it, there can be no doubt that, once again, the Tory ratings will slide into the abyss, and drag him down with them.

By the time the Party crawls out, it would not only find a Marxist Labour Party in its place as the government but, in all likelihood, that the Brexit Party has supplanted it as the county’s main right-of-centre electoral force.  And the Conservative Party’s century-and-a-half run as the most enduring governing party in the world would end.

So it comes about this morning that the Prime Minister writhes amidst the grandmother of all pincer movements.  One the one hand, he cannot implement an extension.  On the other, he cannot (or rather, must not) break the law.  He must choose between the unspeakable and the unthinkable.

Now it may be that he can somehow slip out of the pinch.  Some ingenious means of doing so are being floated.  One is use of the Civil Contingencies Act.  The latest is that Johnson send a letter with the letter of extension contradicting the letter of extension.  Some are reduced to hoping that an EU state simply deploys a veto.

One suggestion put to this site by a reader, apparently in all seriousness, is that he send the first by carrier pigeon, so that it arrives after the deadline.  It may be that the Prime Minister and Dominic Cummings have a plan instead that will really fly.  But when matters reach this pass, you know that the game is up.

A Cabinet Minister this morning is reported quoting Sherlock Holmes: “how often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”  Quite so, though not perhaps in the context that the Minister intended.

If Johnson cannot deliver Brexit by October 31, and is barred from doing so by law, there is only one practicable course left open to him: to resign as Prime Minister.  “I won’t break the law,” he must tell the British people.  “But I won’t break my word either.  If Corbyn wants to sign this surrender document, so be it: I won’t.”

Johnson’s hope would be that the Labour leader requests and obtains an extension; that the Commons keeps him in place only for as long as it takes Corbyn to do so; and that it then brings him down in a no confidence vote, paving the way for an election in which Johnson marginalises the Brexit Party and sweeps the board.

There are problems with this course.  The first is that the plan might not work at all.  The anti-No Deal majority in the Commons might of course not let Corbyn become Prime Minister – even briefly, to request and obtain an extension.  It might settle on someone else instead (Ken Clarke?), with unforeseeable consequences.

The second is that it might work too well.  Corbyn indeed becomes Prime Minister, requests an extension and get it.  But the anti-No Deal majority in the Commons, fearing a Johnson victory at the polls, does not then no confidence Corbyn.  Instead, it props him up and keeps him in place, at least for the time being.

And as the weeks drag on, Johnson himself is subjected to a leadership challenge – in which the voluntary party, which backs him, would have no say.  It might well not be successful.  But even so, the consequences for the Party are necessarily unknowable.

It will also be asked: what’s the point of seeking to avoid a Corbyn Government by trying to put in a Corbyn Government?  The question is a good one.  But as so often in politics, we must find the least bad answer rather than search for the perfect one, which doesn’t exist in any case.

The choice may come down to the possibility of Johnson resigning as Prime Minister, Corbyn succeeding him briefly to agree an extension, and Johnson then sweeping a general election…or the certainty of Johnson, were he to agree an extension, consigning himself to the disposal dump of history, and perhaps the Conservative Party too.  Some will say that instead of disdaining the Brexit Party as a competitor, the Tories should embrace it as a colleague instead, and merge the two into an electoral alliance.

We will probe the matter later this week.  But one thing’s for sure: such a pact would have no bearing on the choice that now Johnson seems to face: request an extension, and you destroy yourself (and perhaps your Party too).  Don’t request it, and you break the law (and it doubtless happens anyway).   If there is an escape from this trap other than resignation, we would love to know what it is.

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Jonathan Clark: Brexit. Is democracy at risk?

Jonathan Clark was a Fellow of Peterhouse; at Oxford, he was a Fellow of All Souls College; latterly he has been Visiting Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago, and Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas. His latest book is a study of Thomas Paine.

Observers agree that this is the most impassioned episode in British politics for over a century. But it has been so under David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson alike. The last alone is not to blame. Why, then, is it so bitter? We ought to be able to debate whether GDP will be slightly higher or slightly lower in 15 years if we leave or if we remain in the EU without expulsions, mutual denunciations, threats, and lawfare. Other things are at stake, far beyond economists’ guesswork. At least two are at issue, for the Brexit crisis is at its heart a proxy war.

The first is democracy itself, for two conceptions of it are widely held in the UK, representative and direct. In 2019 they collide. What are they?

Representative democracy assumes that Parliament once seized sovereignty from the King, and the Commons then seized it from the Lords; or, alternatively, that if the People once had sovereignty, they surrendered it completely and for all time to members of the Commons, who, collectively, now have absolute authority. Being wise and restrained patricians, MPs rule in the national interest. This theory looks more unpersuasive the more one explores it.

Direct democracy assumes that sovereignty resides with autonomous individuals thanks to God’s gift or to Nature – thoughtful individuals who know all they need to know in order to govern, and who exercise their authority just as they please via universal suffrage. Again, this theory is not wholly plausible. Which of the two predominates is likely to depend on practice more than on theoretical argument.

Practice depends on logistics, and these continually develop. Representative democracy seemed obvious in days when communication was slow and expensive. Members of the Commons might visit their constituencies seldom. The franchise was restricted, newspapers reported little, the actions of most MPs at Westminster were seldom in the public eye. Members were unpaid, so normally had to be rich: they were seldom inclined to defer to the poor. But all that was long ago.

From the mid-1990s, and increasingly every year, the internet has transformed everything. For the first time, it is possible to conduct opinion polls in a shorter time than it takes MPs to file through the division lobbies. For the first time, I can watch my MP speak live in the Commons, or in a recording. I can monitor her every vote. I can email her almost instantaneously (I have even exchanged brief emails with one distinguished MP while he was in a debate). Thankfully, my MP is admirable, in her labours both in Parliament and in her constituency. But for voters who differ from their MPs, the potential for active involvement is far greater than ever before.

Kenneth Clarke speaks for the old school of Parliamentarians in insisting that the referendum of 2016 was merely advisory. But he is out of date. The European Union Referendum Act 2015, which made the arrangements, nowhere said that. Nor did the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. No legislation has ever provided that votes cast in general elections are merely advisory either. On the contrary, the electorate decides things.

We can only deduce the advisory status of referendums by implication, from the premise ‘Parliament is sovereign’. But no Act of Parliament can establish parliamentary sovereignty, any more than Kenneth Clarke can rise into the air by pulling on his shoelaces. Since the People elect members of the Commons directly, by binding votes, and of the Lords indirectly (via elected members of the Commons), it might plausibly be argued that the People are sovereign.

Yet representative democracy is widely championed, and here lies the second great point at issue: a culture war, over what might be called the recent hegemony of social democratic values. It was not so in 1962 when Anthony Sampson published his famous Anatomy of Britain; it shaped the subsequent understandings of ‘The Establishment’ as a closed social circle of the public school and Oxbridge educated who staffed the boardrooms, Parliament, the judiciary and the church.

But a wind of change has swept over Britain as well as over Sampson’s beloved South Africa. The public schools and Oxbridge are still there, but captured for other purposes. Rank derived from birth and class now derives from style and political correctness. The old boy networks are replaced by the luvvie networks. Sampson himself (Westminster and Christ Church) became a Social Democrat during the 1980s.

Set aside the party label; its opponents perceive a state of mind shared by larger numbers of people. They are the commentariat. They allegedly run the media, the universities, the civil service, the judiciary. They are not, indeed, socialist: that would be too uncool an ideology for the twenty-first century. But they are not democrats either, and instinctively reject the outcome of the largest democratic exercise in British history, the referendum of 2016. To them this is ‘populism’, the opposite of themselves.

In this sense, say their opponents with ever clearer definition, social democrats are ‘anywheres’ rather than ‘somewheres’: they have no particular loyalty to a country, let alone Bolsover or Sunderland. They encourage mass migration and multiculturalism. They have places in the sun. They countenance divorce, sex change, and gay marriage. They are secularists who favour religions that are loud against religious establishments. The EU suits them perfectly. Its Roman Law tradition fits their world view, since it works down from grand statements of principle; England’s common law tradition worked up, from specific concrete entitlements. In their eyes, social democrats champion correct, modern, enlightened values. These entail membership of the EU.

Against this perceived social democratic hegemony have developed two great protests: Momentum, and the Brexit movement. To simplify, Momentum wants real socialism; Brexit wants real democracy. They can only achieve either by championing an old ideal that now becomes a new one: the People are sovereign.

Both these conceptions of democracy are plausible, but flawed. They have historic force, but they are contradictory. A collision was inevitable sooner or later. What better ground on which to fight than the UK’s membership of the EU?

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Bobby Friedman: Enough is enough. The Conservatives must put up a candidate against Bercow in Buckingham.

Bobby Friedman is a barrister, broadcaster, and the biographer of John Bercow.

Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. And it’s not in the interests of a political biographer to see the downfall of his subject of choice: where would Boswell have been without Johnson (Samuel, not Boris, of course)?

It might, therefore, come as something of a surprise that, as John Bercow’s biographer, I’ve reached the conclusion that the Conservatives should run a candidate against him in his Buckingham constituency at the – surely inevitable – general election in the coming months. It’s a view I’ve come to reluctantly, not least because, for much of his Speakership, Bercow was highly effective, bringing some much-needed zest to the role, standing up for backbenchers and enabling effective scrutiny of the government – all with a suitable degree of rhetorical panache.

But – at least in this turkey’s view – Bercow’s chickens need to come home to roost. As he clings on to the Speaker’s chair, after ten years in the job and a further five in the offing, the time has come for voters in the ultra-safe Conservative seat of Buckingham to have their say, after three elections in which they’ve been denied a genuine choice of MP.

The most powerful factor against such a dramatic step is that there’s a convention that the Speaker be allowed to run unopposed at a general election. However, contrary to popular belief, the apparent convention is broken almost as much as it’s respected. Throughout the 20th century, Speakers regularly faced full-throttle opposition from a candidate put up by one of the main parties – Bernard Weatherill being the most recent example, in 1987. Even now, the convention is routinely ignored by parties such as UKIP and the Greens, who’ve both contested Bercow’s seat in recent years.

There are good reasons why the Speaker should, in most cases, be given a free run. When the Speaker does his job properly, he or she stays above party politics and remains impartial, which naturally makes it impossible to run a proper, political re-election campaign.

But Bercow has torn up the rules of the Speakership in so many ways – usually to benefit either himself or the causes he espouses – that he can hardly say that the usual rules must continue to apply.

While there has never been a Speaker who’s had to face an opponent from his former party, there’s also never been a Speaker who has taken such a nakedly political stance, so clearly contrary to the interests of the leadership of the party of which he used to be a member.

Bercow has made it a personal challenge to lead the Remain cause from the front. He has become the most fervent (and most effective) opponent to the Government’s policy on Brexit in the Commons, as one ruling after another from the Chair (and the casual glances to the opposition benches for support) can attest. The Speaker has cast off any pretence of impartiality, and so, in an election that’s all about Brexit, his constituents should be given the chance to back him or sack him based on his publicly-expressed views, as with any other MP.

Nor does it lie in Bercow’s mouth to complain about changing a convention as circumstances move on. After all, it was Bercow who tore up precedent to allow amendments to be made to a government business motion earlier this year – a step that was of substantial assistance to Remain MPs, funnily enough.

This is not, however, only about Brexit. He is already the longest-serving Speaker since the war, having shown a remarkable ability to see off each and every threat to his position over the years. When he was elected, he wrote to MPs stating that a Speaker should only be in post for “reasonable period of time” and promising that he would serve for a maximum of nine years. His time was up in June 2018, but he’s carried on regardless.

Bercow may wish to pretend that he didn’t make this promise, but the prospect of him outstaying his self-imposed time limit by no less than six years is every reason to allow his constituents to make a genuine choice. Buckingham consistently sees the highest number of spoiled ballot papers of any constituency in the country, and he himself admitted on election night 2017 that these were “expressions of discontent”. If Bercow has his way, there will be Buckingham constituents who might reach close to the age of 40 without having had the chance to cast a vote between the major parties at a General Election; this is, simply, undemocratic.

More pressingly still, Bercow was the subject of numerous bullying allegations (which he denies) in 2018, at which time his “friends” let it be known that he’d stand down in summer 2019 – with predictable consequences once the furore died down. As Jess Phillips put it, “A fish rots from the head…The fish is parliament and the head is the Speaker, John Bercow.” Why should Buckingham voters be denied the chance to give their verdict on allegations that could have led to the whip being withdrawn if Bercow were still a Tory MP?

Most fundamentally of all, however, our politics are at a crossroads. Whichever side you are on, Leave or Remain, it’s near impossible not to be concerned by the poisoning of our political culture. As I watched Bercow in the Commons after the vote on Tuesday night, face contorted as he tore into Michael Gove (and bringing Gove’s kids into it, for good measure), it was obvious that, at a time when we want to be healing political divisions, Bercow is entrenching them.

His partisanship, and his hectoring, now feed into the nastiness that is destroying our political discourse. His replacement, whether it be Lindsay Hoyle, Harriet Harman, Eleanor Laing, or anyone else for that matter, would surely help to dampen the fire, whereas Bercow serves only to stoke it.

Of course, it’s not for me to decide. That privilege goes to the people of Buckingham, who may well choose to re-elect a man who is, by all accounts, a hard-working constituency MP. But they should be given the meaningful chance to decide. Buckingham Tories need to run a candidate, and then let the voters have their say for the first time in 14 years.

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The Commons votes for an early general election by 298 to 56. Not enough.

The House of Commons has voted in favour of the Prime Minister’s motion for an early General Election. 298 MPs voted in favour, with 56 against.

However under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act the requirement is for two-thirds of all MPs to support the motion for it to be effective. That would have required backing from at least 434 MPs. Labour and Lib Dem MPs were whipped to abstain.

Responding to the vote, Boris Johnson declared:

“The Opposition has opted to show confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.”

Speaking earlier, the Prime Minister said:

“It is completely impossible for Government to function if the House of Commons refuses to pass anything that the Government propose. In my view, and in the view of this Government, there must be an election on Tuesday 15 October—I invite the Leader of the Opposition to respond—to decide which of us which goes as Prime Minister to that crucial Council on Thursday 17 October. I think it is very sad that MPs have voted like this—[Interruption.] I do; I think it is a great dereliction of their democratic duty. But if I am still Prime Minister after Tuesday 15 October, we will leave on 31 October with, I hope, a much better deal.”

Conservative MPs Caroline Spelman and Keith Simpson abstained, along with the 21 suspended rebels.

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It’s a Third Reading for the Bill by 327 to 299. But an amendment has been added…

The Government doesn’t seem to have succeeded in the aim that Watt describes – though it did pull off a tactical coup, as he reports.

For unless the amendment is removed from the Bill, Parliament may get to debate the Withdrawal Agreement, plus the changes to it, that Labour wanted – not what the party’s leadership wants at all.

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Spelman joins yesterdays rebels as the Benn Bill gains Second Reading by 329 to 300

It’s the same Conservative, or former Conservative, list as yesterday, as follows –


Alistair Burt

Anne Milton

Antoinette Sandbach

David Gauke

Dominic Grieve

Edward Vaizey

Greg Clark

Guto Bebb

Justine Greening

Kenneth Clarke

Margot James

Nicholas Soames

Oliver Letwin

Philip Hammond

Richard Benyon

Richard Harrington

Rory Stewart

Sam Gyimah

Stephen Hammond

Steve Brine

– minus Caroline Nokes, who abstained, and plus Caroline Spelman, from whom the whip will apparently not be withdrawn.  The Government’s rationale for the decision is that, unlike yesterday, this vote had not been declared one of confidence.

Kate Hoey and John Mann voted against Second Reading from the Labour benches.

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Mark Harper: Yeah but no but yeah but. When it comes to making up their minds about an election, Labour is Vicky Pollard.

Mark Harper is a former Chief Whip, and is MP for the Forest of Dean.

We find ourselves in the middle of one of the most momentous weeks in our political lifetimes. A constitutional tug of war like no other – between Government and Opposition, between Parliament and the people.

Clarity in modern politics is important, and it is clear what we want to do. We want to deliver Brexit as soon as we can – deal or no deal, no ifs or buts. Then we will be able to get on and govern to deliver on the people’s priorities such as levelling up education funding, boosting the NHS and tackling crime.

However, on the face of it, it is not immediately clear what our opponents in the Commons, led by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party actually want. Let’s see if we can find out.

Deliver Brexit?

Let’s start with a (supposedly) easy one. Do they want to deliver Brexit?

It is obvious that the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists don’t want to abide by the 2016 referendum result, but what about Labour?

Well, their 2017 general election manifesto was clear that Labour “accepts the referendum result”. Great, but have they made efforts to respect that promise? No.

When they had the opportunity to vote for a deal, they didn’t. Even when the previous Prime Minister and her Cabinet, mistakenly in my view, reached out to Labour to try and meet their demands, they still did nothing.

While some, like Gareth Snell, Sarah Champion and Lisa Nandy, have expressed regret at not voting for a deal to deliver Brexit when they had the chance, behind closed doors, senior members of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet are unrepentant and clearly have no intention of delivering Brexit at all.

Dawn Butler, with a straight face, said that “if anyone doesn’t hate Brexit, even if you voted for it, there’s something wrong with you”. Meanwhile, Keir Starmer thinks that “whatever the outcome…deal or no deal, there’s got to be a referendum” with Emily Thornberry saying that Labour should “campaign, unequivocally, for Remain”.

It’s clear, then, that Labour really does not want to deliver Brexit.

Stop No Deal?

Labour’s position on preventing us leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement, something they regard as “the worst possible deal”, is at least clear. However, if they really think this, why didn’t they vote for a deal when they had the chance?

Instead, their stance of ruling out no deal not only fatally weakens the Prime Minister’s negotiating hand and increases the risk of longer delays to Brexit, but it also increases damaging levels of uncertainty.

Uncertainty is business’s worst enemy – just ask Aston Martin’s CEO, Andy Palmer, who says he would “rather leave with No Deal than drag negotiations on”. It’s clear that Labour want to force more damaging on uncertainty business, leaving them unable to plan for the long term.

General election?

When it comes to whether Labour want a general election, the answer we have got has depended on which hour you ask the question.

While Corbyn has said that he is “absolutely ready to fight” a general election, he was then almost immediately contradicted by a member of his Shadow Cabinet.

In wanting an election but not wanting one that they fear they will lose, Labour are once again doing a very uncanny impression of Vicky Pollard.

Stop Brexit?

After all of the above, we are left with one final question – do our opponents actually want to stop Brexit altogether?

We don’t need to look very far to discover the real answer. Section 3(2) of the Bill on today’s Order Paper, if passed, compels the Prime Minister to accept whatever extension he is offered by the EU – be it 3 months, 6 months or 10 years, with whatever conditions are attached by the EU, unless Parliament opts for a no deal Brexit.

I’m afraid the mask has slipped and the plans of our opponents in Parliament are clear. They wish to open the door to indefinite delay – leading to the halt of Brexit altogether.

Conclusion – “constitutional outrage” and stop Brexit

The real aim of our Parliamentary opponents is, as it turns out, hiding in plain sight. Their decision to wrestle the Order Paper out of the control of the Government – for the second time this year – thanks to the gross misuse of the conventions of the Commons is not only a “constitutional outrage”, but it is simply the first step of their plans to stop Brexit.

Brexit has the largest democratic mandate in British political history – it cannot, and must not, be ignored, but that is exactly what Labour and our other opponents in Parliament want to do.

It is clear that only the Conservatives will respect the result of that mandate, end the uncertainty and then set out a sound platform on which to govern and deliver the people’s priorities. If we soon have to prove that to the country at the ballot box, then prove it we shall.

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What will happen in the Commons this week? Here are 15 possibilites. They are not exhaustive…

  • The alliance of Opposition MPs and Conservative rebels fails to gain control of the Commons timetable.  Boris Johnson’s Government sails on into prorogation early next week.
  • The alliance of Opposition MPs and Conservative rebels gains control of the Commons timetable, but fails before prorogation to pass a Bill seeking to prevent a No Deal Brexit.  Johnson’s Government carries on.
  • The alliance of Opposition MPs and Conservative rebels gains control of the Commons timetable, and succeeds before prorogation in passing a Bill seeking to prevent a No Deal Brexit.  The Government advises the Queen to refuse Royal Assent to the Bill. She accepts the advice. Legal challenges follow.
  • The alliance of Opposition MPs and Conservative rebels gains control of the Commons timetable, and succeeds before prorogation in passing a Bill seeking to prevent a No Deal Brexit.  The Government advises the Queen to refuse Royal Assent to the Bill. She rejects the advice. Johnson seeks and then gains a general election under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act.
  • The alliance of Opposition MPs and Conservative rebels gains control of the Commons timetable, and succeeds before prorogation in passing a Bill seeking to prevent a No Deal Brexit.  The Government advises the Queen to refuse Royal Assent to the Bill. She rejects the advice. Johnson seeks a general election under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, but fails to do so.  He resigns.  A Government is formed under another Prime Minister.  Or this doesn’t happen – and an election then takes place.
  • The alliance of Opposition MPs and Conservative rebels gains control of the Commons timetable, and succeeds before prorogation in passing a Bill seeking to prevent a No Deal Brexit.   Johnson believes that the Bill isn’t legally watertight, and attempts to subvert it – for example, by adding, if the Bill requires a further Brexit extension, conditions to it that he knows the EU will refuse.
  • The courts rule against Johnson’s prorogation decision. He seeks a general election under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Act, and gains one.
  • The courts rule against Johnson’s prorogation decision. He seeks a general election under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Act, but fails to gain one. He resigns.  A Government is formed under another Prime Minister.  Or this doesn’t happen – and an election then takes place.
  • Regardless of or in addition to any of the above, Johnson seeks a general election under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Act, and gains one.
  • Regardless of or in addition to any of the above, Johnson seeks a general election under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Act, and fails to gain one – largely because Labour actually votes against the election it is calling for, arguing that it is unwilling to do so if such an election takes place after Brexit Day, thus ushering in a No Deal Brexit.  Johnson then resigns.  A Government is formed under another Prime Minister.  Or this doesn’t happen – and an election then takes place anyway.
  • Or a no confidence vote is moved in Johnson’s Government by Jeremy Corbyn under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Act, and fails.
  • Or a no confidence vote is moved in Johnson’s Government by Corbyn under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Act, and succeeds.  But Johnson stays on as Prime Minister under the 14 day provision, and wins an eventual confidence vote.
  • Or a no confidence vote is moved in Johnson’s Government by Jeremy Corbyn under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Act, and succeeds.  But Johnson stays on as Prime Minister under the 14 day provision, and loses an eventual confidence vote.  At which point Corbyn or another MP becomes Prime Minister, and wins a confidence vote.
  • Or a no confidence vote is moved in Johnson’s Government by Jeremy Corbyn under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Act, and succeeds.  But Johnson stays on as Prime Minister under the 14 day provision, and loses an eventual confidence vote.  At which point Corbyn or another MP becomes Prime Minister, and loses a confidence vote. An election follows.
  • Or a no confidence vote is moved in Johnson’s Government by Jeremy Corbyn under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Act, and succeeds.  At which point the Queen sacks Johnson, and appoints Corbyn or another MP as Prime Minister. Cue a confidence vote – which that Prime Minister either wins or loses. In the latter event, an election follows.
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David Gauke: Why I believe that Parliament must stop a No Deal Brexit this week

David Gauke is a former Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, and is MP for South West Hertfordshire.

Following Nicky Morgan’s return to the Cabinet, the Editor of this website (and my esteemed former colleague in George Osborne’s Shadow Treasury team) asked if I would like to be a regular columnist. My role, as I understood it, would be to demonstrate that all strands of Conservative Party thinking was represented on this site and, in doing so, I should therefore stir it up a bit. I gladly accepted.

It hasn’t passed my notice that my views are not entirely in harmony with the majority of ConservativeHome readers when it comes to Brexit. And, given that this article is being published at the beginning of one of the most contentious and important weeks in the Brexit saga – and I have found myself somewhat in the thick of it – this is not likely to be a gentle introduction.

Before turning to the events of the week ahead, I should say a little about the evolution of my thinking. Like most Conservatives of my generation, I came to political age in the era of Margaret Thatcher. I admired her determination to transform the British economy, her willingness to take on vested interests, her belief in the free market, free trade, sound public finances, low inflation and the need for a pro-business tax and regulatory environment.

I also shared her instincts on Europe. I was opposed to our membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, feared that the Delors European Commission was trying to reverse her supply-side reforms and always believed that the UK should stay outside the single currency. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, I feared that, in the end, we would have a choice as to whether to become part of a United States of Europe or leave the EU altogether. If it came down to that choice, I would be a Leaver.

When I entered Parliament in 2005, I joined a small group of Eurosceptics who chipped in a contribution from their Parliamentary Staffing Allowances to pay for a researcher to ensure we were ever vigilant against the advance in Euro-federalism. I even had a spell as Treasurer of this organisation, called – accurately enough – the European Research Group.

It would be fair to say that the ERG and I drifted in different directions over the years. I came to the view that the UK could be part of the EU without being destined to be part of an EU superstate.

I also came to accept that it is only possible to bring down trade barriers on the basis of co-operation with other countries. There is a trade-off between regulatory autonomy and the openness of markets and I am a free trader.
By the time we got to the 2016 referendum, I was firmly in the Remain side. Not a starry-eyed, Ode to Joy-singing Europhile, still concerned about EU overreach but, nonetheless, a believer that, on balance, our interests were best served by continued EU membership.

I was on the losing side. Having provided a referendum, we had a duty to implement it. Failure to do so would ensure our politics would be scarred by the politics of betrayal.

The only responsible way to do so was with a deal, ensuring that we entered into a deep and special partnership and that we would have a smooth and orderly departure from the EU. But the problem with this is that leaving the EU was always going to be complex. It was never possible to maintain exactly the same benefits of EU membership whilst walking away from the institutions and the rules. Leaving in the abstract was one thing; the specifics of leaving – where detailed trade-offs have to be made – is another.

The Leave campaign made big promises in terms of our independence from EU institutions. It also reassured the public as to the minimal impact on businesses and sectors trading with the EU. The problem is that it is impossible to deliver on both sets of promises at the same time.

Theresa May tried and, in my view, got a good deal – a compromise that struck a pragmatic balance. But, as measured by the absolutist hopes of some Brexiteers, it fell short of delivering the dreamed for ‘independence’. Any deal will. But the cost of failing to reach a deal – in terms of our prosperity, security and the integrity of the UK – is far too high.

Leaving with a deal remains much the best outcome. But, given that Parliament has three times rejected a deal, this is not going to be easy. The Prime Minister clearly wants a deal but he has set out one big red line – the replacement of the Northern Irish backstop.

Will the EU change their position? The purpose of the backstop is to ensure that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This is an important and legitimate objective, and it is unrealistic to think they will abandon the backstop unless there is an alternative that works.

The Prime Minister has accepted that it is for the UK to propose a workable replacement to the backstop. To succeed, it must have the confidence of the people and businesses on both sides of the Irish border. If we engage positively in that endeavour, the EU has always said they would work constructively with us. But if we fail to come up with credible plans, threats of a no deal departure (which will obviously impact the UK more than the EU) will not force the EU to abandon its long-held position.

Assuming a deal is reached (and that is a very big assumption), the deal then needs to get through Parliament. It may well face opposition from a significant number of Conservative MPs who want wider changes to the Withdrawal Agreement. The more my colleagues say they want wider changes, the more remote it appears any kind of deal could be delivered.

Even with the numbers, there is the question of time. The European Council is on 17 October and the Queens Speech debates will conclude on 22 October. Is anyone seriously suggesting that a Withdrawal Agreement Bill can be concluded in nine days? All stages in both the Commons and the Lords in just over a week? Those of us who served in the previous Cabinet will recall that those responsible for managing House business would advise us that the Withdrawal Agreement Bill would take two to three months to complete.

The conclusion is clear. If the Prime Minister is sincere that we leave on 31 October ‘do or die’ (and I believe he is sincere) the overwhelming likelihood is that, unless Parliament intervenes this week, we will leave without a deal. Some may welcome that. But for those of us who believe that this would be a tragic mistake, Parliament will have to step in.

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Having abandoned plans for an ’emergency government’, Corbyn seeks refuge in Cooper-Letwin

According to today’s Times, Labour have abandoned plans to stage a vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson’s ministry when the Commons returns from recess.

The reason for this is fairy clear: although Ken Clarke is apparently willing to put Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street, not enough MPs are prepared to do so for the Labour leader to be the viable head of an alternative government.

Without another government waiting in the wings, all that no-confidencing Johnson would achieve would be two weeks of paralysis followed by a general election, the timing of which would be in the hands of… the Prime Minister.

Instead, Labour are apparently reviving proposals to have the legislature attempt to impose legislation on the Government forcing it to seek – and accept – an extension of Article 50.

This news has broken alongside reporting that Brussels might be about to offer the Government a unilateral extension, in hope of robbing the Prime Minister of his ticking clock and forcing him to acquiesce.

Whether or not this will work remains to be seen. On the numbers level, the so-called ‘Cooper-Letwin’ bill barely passed last time, thanks in part to inexcusable complacency on the part of certain loyalist MPs. If the Government can hold together nearly all of its Commons coalition of Tory and Democratic Unionist MPs the other side would need to turn out almost every other MP in the House to win.

This time the Daily Telegraph reports that up to 17 Tory MPs might back the Opposition’s bill, although the scale of such rebellions has usually been overstated in the past.

Meanwhile the odds of Johnson being pressured into an accepting an extension by Brussels seem slim. Ever since taking office he has given every impression of believing that finally delivering Britain’s departure from the EU is central to the survival of his ministry.

If his Commons opponents do prevail, that will present its own problems. We have previously explored how having legislation imposed on the Government via fly-by-night accretions of backbench and opposition MPs undermines political accountability.

This Government shows every sign of being better prepared to resist such efforts than was Theresa May’s, but should it pass it seems plausible that Johnson would use the passage of such legislation to justify seeking the election he is obviously teeing up for.

And if Corbyn, Clarke et al fail to muster the votes? Then prorogation takes effect and the Prime Minister’s gamble delivers its first payoff, laying the groundwork for a final climactic showdown over his Queen’s Speech once the House returns from conference season.

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Chris White: The Government has pitched Remainer MPs into a race against time

Chris White was Special Adviser to Patrick McLoughlin, when the latter served as Chief Whip, as well as to Andrew Lansley and William Hague when each served as Leader of the House. He is now Managing Director of Newington Communications.

Ultimately, it all comes down to time. The clock is ticking down, day by day, until 31st October when the UK will leave without a deal.

Those MPs wanting to stop that need time to either pass legislation requiring the Government to seek an extension, or to trigger a vote of no confidence and prove that there is a majority for an alternative PM to be appointed by the Queen.

The Prime Minister’s decision to prorogue Parliament, ostensibly to have a new Queen’s Speech and set out his new domestic agenda, took a huge chunk out of what little time there is left. There were 22 days when the Commons was sitting between 3rd September and 31st October – now there will be a maximum of 15. The prorogation also stymies the rebel’s plans to defeat a motion to approve the conference recess, so they will now be unable to gain an extra three weeks to debate and pass legislation to stop no deal.

Government action

The plan is remarkable in its ingenuity, and coupled with other measures set out below means we are into proper parliamentary trench warfare. Number 10 may well argue that the new Prime Minister should have the right to set out his new domestic agenda – and in any normal year that would be true.

The timing now, however, is controversial. MPs will not be sitting between at least Wednesday 11th, possibly even as early as 9th September according to the Order in Council approving the prorogation signed by the Queen yesterday, to 14th October. That’s 35 days that MPs won’t be sitting.  For context, since 1979 no prorogation has been longer than 20 days.

Number 10 have spent the summer months diligently working through the mathematics of how to eat up as much time as possible in the Parliamentary timetable and deny MPs that time to change course. Prorogation is simply the first of a range of actions we can expect to see, where the Government will use its control of the Order Paper to maximum effect, including several set piece debates to prevent anti No Deal MPs debating their own legislation:

  • Queen’s Speech debate – there is by convention four days of debate on the Queen’s Speech from 14th October;
  • Budget – by convention there are another four days of debate – no date is set for this, but it could be in October;
  • Emergency Spending Review – scheduled for Wednesday 4th September, this would be another day used up.

Other measures are also being considered, ranging from creating a public bank holiday to filibustering any legislation brought forward by rebel MPs in the Lords, where every amendment must be debated and voted on.

What will anti No Deal MPs try and do?

The key moment is now sharply brought forward to next week when the Commons returns for three days, and early the following week. Opposition MPs agreed earlier this week to focus on legislation instead of a vote of no confidence, essentially because no-one could agree on an alternative candidate for Prime Minister to replace Boris Johnson.

Yet with the announcement of prorogation, and the Queen’s Speech debate on 14th October, anti No Deal MPs could have as little as three or four days to get legislation through both Houses of Parliament ahead of the EU Council on 17th and 18th October. The Cooper-Letwin Bill in March, which is the model for MPs’ attempts this time, took five days.

The legislation binding the Government’s hands in March also only sought to bind the May Government’s hands to request an extension. This time, MPs may have to consider legislation that binds the Government’s hands not only to request, but also to accept, any extension on offer.

Finally, we come to the nuclear option. Earlier this year I wrote in The Times about whether the Government could issue Ministerial direction to the Queen to refuse Royal Assent.  Some commentators, such as Sir Stephen Laws, the former First Parliamentary Counsel, have argued that this can be done but I still strongly believe, along with numerous constitutional academics, that the Queen has a constitutional duty to give Royal Assent to a Bill passed by Parliament. Parliamentary sovereignty is not subject to a Government veto.

That said, the window open to MPs seeking to stop a No Deal Brexit is vanishingly small. A slight miscalculation, or the inability to prevent Brexiteer peers from filibustering the Bill in the Lords, could see prorogation come on Monday 9th September with the Bill still stuck mid-passage.

With Parliament not sitting until 14th October, and MPs unable to debate anything other than the Queen’s Speech until around 21st October, there will be just ten days left before the deadline. Next week is shaping up to be a formidable battle.

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Brexit, Johnson, Merkel, Macron – and 30 days in the wilderness

“We were also over-reliant on Angela Merkel, even after she showed us that she wasn’t as dependable a supporter as we might have wished,” wrote Daniel Korski, in his account of how David Cameron lost the EU referendum.  “She certainly seemed to take much more of a back seat during the final, crucial weeks of negotiations, giving advice, offering support and laying out red lines, but not getting too involved.”

An entire library could be assembled of stories claiming that Merkel would, at one time or another, come to the aid of a British Government during its to-and-fros with the European Union.  The claim is that Germany – as another pro-free trade, pro-American, pro-market economy country – is a natural UK ally.  But when push comes to shove, Merkel has stuck with France and the EU Commission.

Korski reminds his readers that she deserted Cameron over the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as the Commission’s President, to which she was originally opposed.   As with Cameron, so with Theresa May: as recently as February, the German Chancellor called for “creative” thinking on…yes, the Northern Ireland backstop.  “We can still use the time to perhaps reach an agreement if everyone shows good will,” she said.

And as with May so, now, with Boris Johnson.  Once again, Merkel has said that there is time to agree a deal – 30 days, to be precise.  “The backstop has always been a fall-back option until this issue is solved,” she said on Wednesday, during a join press conference with the Prime Minister.  “It was said we will probably find a solution in two years. But we could also find one in the next 30 days, why not?”

Some have put that remark alongside Emmanuel Macron’s declaration that “the framework that has been negotiated by Michel Barnier that can be adapted,” and concluded that the EU is preparing to blink at the last moment, climb down on the backstop, and present Johnson with an amended Withdrawal Agreement – which will then at last pass through Parliament, thus bringing this chapter of the Brexit story to a close.

According to one version of events, the Prime Minister himself believes that such an outcome is still possible, while others in his top team don’t.  If so, the balance of the argument strongly suggests that they are right, for four main reasons.  First, the EU collectively takes its ideology seriously, and this demands sticking with the Withdrawal Agreement, or an agreement so like it as to make no difference.

Second, it must show Donald Trump, and the rest of the world, that if it takes a position on a major strategic issue, such as Brexit, it will hold to it.  Third, Germany and France must ultimately be sensitive to the concerns of smaller EU countries, of which one is in the Brexit front line: Ireland.  Fourth, they have reason to wait, along with the rest of the EU, to see if the Commons, when it returns in September, blocks Brexit yet again.

Finally, it is worth remembering that Merkel’s position is not as dominant as it was during the Cameron years; and even then, to quote Korski once again, she was prone to “not getting too involved”.  Seen in this light, Merkel and Macron’s words – which in any event must be considered in the context of everything else they said – look more like more gambits in a blame game than a genuine change of heart.

Johnson wants to signal that he’s up for a deal: that was the point of his visits before this weekend’s G7 summit in Biarritz.  Macron and Merkel do, too: hence their hints of flexibility.  But the sum of the evidence is that “nothing has changed”.  In any event, it is far from certain that even a revised Withdrawal Agreement would get through Parliament.  That would require a Bill, which would of course be amendable, and time is very short.

If the EU had prized mutual gain over protecting its project, it wouldn’t have insisted that the Withdrawal Agreement precede trade talks.  Perhaps there will be a last minute shift after all, if Johnson can demonstrate that Parliament cannot stop the No Deal Brexit that his Government is actively preparing for: the European Council will meet on October 17.  But it appears that all concerned are now bracing for No Deal.

Some in Number Ten are hopeful that, if it happens, the EU will go for mass mini-deals – and so oil the wheels of economic co-operation.  That would be a rational response to the threat of recession in Germany and elsewhere, and the hard border in Ireland that a No Deal Brexit would bring.  But the EU’s clinging to the backstop, despite its commitment to seek alternative arrangements by December next year, suggests that rationality is in short supply.

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I’m a GNU. How do you do?

Let’s start by returning to the Fixed Terms Parliament Act.  Under its terms, a general election will not automatically follow if Boris Johnson’s Government is defeated in a vote of no confidence,   Instead, there will be a 14 days window in which to form a new administration.  If during these a putative one emerges, it will be subject to a vote of confidence.  Only if that fails will an election take place.

Now let’s look at the current Commons in that light.

It is by no means certain that the Prime Minister would lose a no confidence vote as matters stand.  This is because his opponents cannot be sure that enough Conservative backbenchers and opposition MPs would combine to force him out.  ConservativeHome will look more closely at the numbers later this week.

But if he did, the odds of him then losing a second Commons vote are longer.  To understand why, imagine the following.  Johnson loses a no confidence vote.  The Queen permits him to have a go at forming another government within the 14 day window.  Johnson’s defeat in the vote of confidence that follows would bring about an election, under the terms of the Fixed Terms Act, as described above.  Some MPs willing to oppose Johnson in the original vote of no confidence might therefore be willing to support him in the vote of confidence.  Why?  Because they don’t want to face the voters in a general election.

Of course, the Queen might not allow Johnson to have another go.  But that possibility makes our point in a different way.  The only other plausible Prime Ministerial candidate is Jeremy Corbyn.  And some MPs willing to oppose Johnson in that original vote of no confidence would be unlikely to support Corbyn in a vote of confidence.

In short, they might be willing to turn Johnson out, but not to put Corbyn in.  Again, this site will probe the numbers in detail later this week.

And Corbyn is the only other feasible Prime Ministerial candidate.  Take the talk of Ken Clarke or Harriet Harman as Prime Minister with not so much a pinch as a spoonful of salt.  The J.Alfred Prufrock MPs of the Tory benches aren’t going to back Harman.  And their Labour equivalents won’t support Clarke.  And since Conservative and Labour MPs together form a large majority in the Commons, either outcome lies at the very edge of possibility.

The so-called Government of National Unity or GNU – actually, a Government of National Disunity, since it would exclude all those who want Brexit now – looks like a wildebeest, in the manner of its namesake in the old Flanders and Swann song.  I’m a GNU.  How do you do?

For all these reasons, a no confidence vote will surely be a weapon of the last rather than the first resort for the Prime Minister’s opponents.  They would get a better return by seeking to pass a Bill compelling him to seek a further extension, aided and abetted by the Speaker.  Could anti-No Deal MPs draw up a legally watertight text?  Would Johnson seek an election if such a Bill looked likely to pass?  Would the Commons grant him one?  We may be about to find out.

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“To literally feel terror”

Boris Johnson wants, specifically, to frighten Labour off a no confidence vote and, more broadly, to intimidate the anti-No Deal Brexit Commons coalition MPs return in September.  That means demonstrating that voters are backing him.  That requires improving opinion poll ratings.  And that, in turn, means an August blizzard – yes, such a thing is possible – of policy announcements to prove that his new government “is on your side”.

So to Dominic Cummings’s trinity of an Australian-style points-based immigration system, more NHS spending and tax cuts for lower paid workers we must now add action on law and order.  The new Prime Minister promised 20,000 more police during his Conservative leadership election campaign.  To that we must now add 10,000 new prison places and greater use of stop and search powers, both of which are announced today.

Or rather we would do, if Johnson had a durable majority, and were the future more clear.  The money to fund those new prison places may not be available in the event of No Deal: it could be needed for other measures.  And sweeping changes to sentencing would require legislation, which the Government is in no position to present to Parliament.

None the less, the Downing Street bully pulpit has its uses, and if the Prime Minister wants wider stop and search powers to be available, he is in a position to get his way – for as long as he’s in place, anyway.  Today’s push should help.  As Matt Singh writes, there has already been “a substantial Boris bounce”.  It has largely come off the back of Brexit Party supporters, and this latest initiative is aimed at them (as well as Labour working class voters).

So too was the appointment of Priti Patel as Home Secretary.  ConservativeHome is told that there was a collective intake of breath in Downing Street when she said recently that she wants criminals “to literally feel terror”.  Number Ten need not have worried about how that view would go down.  There is “overwhelming support” for it among the public, according to YouGov.

If Johnson somehow survives the autumn without a general election, or wins one with a majority, a further question will arises about all these spending plans – namely, whether or not they’re consistent with the traditional centre-right commitment to fiscal stability.  The Prime Minister could be forgiven for thinking, given the probability of an autumn poll and the uncertainty of any result, that this would be a nice problem to have.

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Dominic Walsh: What would No Deal mean for trade beyond the EU?

Dominic Walsh is a policy analyst for Open Europe.

At present, the UK and the EU are on course for a No Deal Brexit. Yesterday morning, EU negotiators said there was no basis for any “meaningful discussions” about a potential deal. Meanwhile, in Westminster, it is far from clear that Parliament will be able to stop No Deal, which remains the legal default on October 31.

There has rightly been a lot of focus on what No Deal would mean for the UK’s trade with the EU. However, No Deal also has significant implications for the UK’s trade with the rest of the world – bringing both threats (some trade deals the UK enjoys through the EU will be lost and haven’t been replaced), and potential opportunities (the UK will be able to exercise an independent trade policy from day one).

The UK will set its own tariffs on all imports

In the immediate event of a No Deal exit, the UK’s ability to unilaterally set its own tariff regime on imports is likely to be a more significant plank of UK trade policy than trade deals. The Government’s current approach, which removes tariffs on 87 per cent of goods imports to the UK, has advantages and disadvantages, but correctly errs towards the interests of the UK consumer, while protecting some sensitive producers such as in the farming sector. At present, this regime is only due to last for a year – with uncertainty over what comes next.

The Government has several options for the long-term and, as ever with Brexit, there are trade-offs to confront. Continuing with a liberal approach to tariffs could have benefits for consumers and would increase competition in the UK economy.

However, there is an argument that unilateral liberalisation undermines the UK’s leverage with potential trade partners (who may think there is little point in doing a deal if they are already getting zero-tariff access for free). Raising tariffs, on the other hand, could restore some of this leverage, but at the cost of increasing trade barriers and imposing a regressive tax on consumers. The Government will need to decide swiftly after No Deal which approach is the best way forward.

Preserving EU trade deals 

As an EU member, the UK benefits from around 40 trade deals the EU has negotiated with around 70 third countries. The importance of these deals to the UK economy varies considerably. While trade with these 70 countries makes up approximately 15 per cent of the UK’s total trade, two thirds of this is with just six countries – Canada, South Korea, Japan, Turkey, Switzerland, and Norway. Many of the other countries covered by EU agreements make up less than 0.05 per cent of UK trade. When it comes to rolling over trade deals, quality beats quantity.

Under Liam Fox, the Department of International Trade made better progress in “rolling over” existing EU agreements than some have given it credit, though significant gaps remain. Of the six major partners above, it has secured continuity agreements with Switzerland, Norway, and South Korea.

However, Japan has refused to roll over its existing deal with the EU, as it thinks it can get better terms through a bespoke bilateral deal. The UK’s current trading arrangements with Turkey rely on the latter’s customs union with the EU, and therefore cannot be preserved in a No Deal context. And negotiations with Canada have stalled because the UK’s low No Deal tariffs give competitor countries without a trade deal the same levels of access as Canada (known as “preference erosion”).

In addition, the “rollovers” that the UK has secured do not all provide full trade continuity. For example, the deals with Norway, Iceland and Switzerland provide for tariff-free trade in goods, but do not cover services or regulatory alignment in product standards.

The consequences of failing to preserve EU trade deals in a No Deal will affect exporters more than importers, thanks to the UK’s relatively liberal No Deal tariff regime. For example, businesses exporting cheese to Canada face eye-watering tariffs of 245 per cent, whereas Canadian pearls and precious stones (73 per cent of UK imports from Canada) would continue to enter the UK tariff-free.

New avenues for global trade

Whatever the outcome of Brexit, it makes sense for the UK to diversify its trade beyond the EU. Brexiteers are right to point out that the EU’s portion of the UK’s trade has already been gradually declining for the last 20 years; the question is how best to harness this. A No Deal outcome would be likely to accelerate this trend, and open up the UK to non-EU trade much more quickly.

However, a sharp change will not be an easy or painless transition for sectors highly integrated into EU supply chains. Geography still matters to many traders – particularly those involved in perishable or time-sensitive goods, such as fresh food.

Both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss are committed to pursuing new trade deals after Brexit. However, expectations of dozens of ‘quick wins’ in a No Deal scenario should be tempered. Some countries may adopt the “wait and see” strategy adopted by Canada and Japan – partly due to the ongoing lack of certainty over the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU, and partly because it is unclear that any deal negotiated by the UK would be ratified by this Parliament.

Just like the EU, potential trading partners have their own interests which will not always be aligned with those of the UK. The primary example is the US, which Truss has said she wants to deliver “as soon as possible.”

Yet there are a number of obstacles to a UK-US trade deal, which will take time to overcome – such as food standards (think chlorinated chicken), drug procurement, and digital services. There are also political obstacles to ratification on both sides. In the Commons, a deal with Trump’s US would be just as controversial as a deal with the EU, while the Democrat-controlled Congress cannot be relied upon either.

While trade deals have taken on an important political and symbolic value in the context of Brexit, their economic benefits are typically smaller and slower to materialise than many realise. As Fox found on the job, there are many ways to promote UK trade interests other than trade deals, such as exploiting soft power assets and prioritising services trade (where the UK is a world leader).

The trade debate in the UK is still beset by simplistic soundbites. While this might be expected after 40 years of outsourcing trade policy to Brussels, the UK needs to grapple with the realities of global trade quickly in order to make a success of Brexit.

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