Heidi Allen to Defect to the Lib Dems Tomorrow

Guido hears from a reliable source, who has previously provided accurate information on similar defections, that the Liberal Democrats are to announce former-Tory, former-Tigger, former-Change UK, former-Independent who promised to respect the referendum and deliver Brexit, Heidi Allen, will be joining their growing ranks at their party conference. Not a big jump for her after campaigning for the Lib Dems in July..,

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The Lib Dems are right – revoking Article 50 is a winning proposition

phil syrpisThe Lib Dems are right to have promised to revoke Article 50, writes Phil Syrpis (University of Bristol). Revocation would ‘make it stop’ – an appealing proposition for those weary of Brexit and who want to focus on domestic politics. Labour should follow suit.

It now looks as though the UK will be heading towards a pre-Brexit general election. Notwithstanding the damage which Boris Johnson seems to be inflicting on the Conservative party and on the UK’s creaking constitution, opinion polls indicate that he might well win. If his plan really is to establish a narrative for a pre-Brexit general election, in which he could cast himself as the man of the people, sticking up for the UK in the face of the intransigent EU and the remain establishment (as I argued here in July), it may be that – contrary to appearances – all is going well for him.

Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson. Photo: Liberal Democrats via a CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence

The political debate has focused on the timing of the general election (and in particular on the benefits for the opposition of forcing Johnson to break his 31 October ‘do or die’ promise), and on the possibility of electoral pacts and/or understandings between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party, and between the various political groupings opposed to Johnson. This post concentrates instead on the policy pledges, or manifesto commitments, which each of the main parties might make in relation to Brexit. I argue that Labour’s current position plays into Johnson’s hands. As the Liberal Democrats have just proposed to do, moving from support for a people’s vote to support for revoking the Article 50 notification might inject much needed dynamism into the remain campaign.

The positions of the main parties

It is safe to assume that Johnson will campaign to ‘get Brexit done’. He will claim that he is able to get a good Brexit deal from the EU. If that fails, he is prepared to leave with no deal. A notable feature of this plan is that his Brexit will remain stubbornly undefined. He will, much as he has done to date, attempt to portray himself as the candidate who will meet the aspirations of both those who want to leave with a deal, and those who want to leave with no deal.

One part of the opposition strategy will involve shooting down the Johnson campaign. That should not prove unduly difficult. There is very little evidence to suggest that he is close to getting the sort of deal he says he wants. There seem to be no negotiations of substance with the EU. There is no indication that he has understood the difficulties inherent in leaving the single market and customs union, while at the same time avoiding a border either in Ireland or across the Irish Sea. The EU’s negotiating position will not shift just because the UK is serious about no deal. One of the most pervasive myths is that we can leave the EU without a deal on October 31, or whenever the next iconic date happens to be, and that it will then all be over. Of course, it won’t be over. It will just be the start. Our trade and other relationships with the EU and the rest of the world will need to be worked out.

The other, more difficult, part of the opposition strategy involves making an alternative policy pitch to the people. As things stand, Labour’s position is not an irrational one. It is, though, rather difficult to explain to the public. If elected, Labour will negotiate its own ‘better’ Brexit deal. It will then put the resulting deal to the people in a people’s vote. At that stage, it is not clear whether it would back its own deal or remain, although many in the party have already indicated that they are likely to favour the latter.

So were Labour to win power, it would ask the EU for a further extension, and spend a considerable amount of time negotiating with the EU and formulating a referendum question to be put to the people.

The contrast with Johnson’s position could hardly be starker. He will present himself as the man who will get it done, and cast Labour as the party of delay and obfuscation, of ‘yet more Brexit’. He will be on the side of the people. Labour will be said to be trying to manufacture a new referendum to frustrate the will of the people and engineer it to deliver the result they want.

A shift to revoke?

It is easy to see how an electoral campaign based on a long delay and a people’s vote might play into Johnson’s hands. Those who are fed up with Brexit, and who want this all to be over, may be enticed by Johnson’s promise to get it done.

That is why Labour should follow the Lib Dems in campaigning not for a people’s vote, but instead for revocation of the Article 50 notice (as I first argued here in December 2018).
It is a message which, in its urgency and decisiveness, more than matches that of Johnson. He will say that he will get it done. The opposition can say that, within days, Brexit will be over.

Revoke has grassroots appeal. Over six million people signed the revoke petition. Polls suggest that over 50% of the people now support remain. It is almost unthinkable that we might be heading towards a general election which will be dominated by Brexit and that we will not be afforded the option to vote to ‘make it stop’ and enable politics to move beyond Brexit.

Let me try to deal with the arguments against revocation. The first, and most common, criticism is that revocation lacks a democratic mandate. If the case for revoke is made in the context of a general election, in which the various parties campaign on the basis of their preferred Brexit outcomes, that criticism loses its force. A general election affords parties the opportunity to set out what they want to achieve. Just as it is now possible for Johnson and others to argue for no deal (a huge jump from the referendum and the Conservative position in the 2017 general election), it is also possible for opposition parties to argue for revoke.

Second, it is said that only a people’s vote can provide finality, that without a second referendum there will be ‘unfinished business’, and that what started with a referendum can only be ended with a referendum. This strand of criticism overstates what a second referendum can achieve. Let us say that there was a people’s vote, in which either Labour’s ‘better Brexit’ or the Withdrawal Agreement was pitted against remain; and that remain won. Is the contention that Brexiters would accept that Brexit had been settled? Even though their preferred version of Brexit was not on the ballot paper? The reality is that any decision to revoke Article 50, whether or not it is preceded by a people’s vote, would be contested. Revocation would bring the Article 50 process to an end. But there is nothing to stop a future government with a new mandate making a new argument for Brexit. Scottish politics shows us that it is difficult, if not impossible, to put an issue like this to bed for a generation.

If there is a pre-Brexit general election, it will be because there is no majority within the existing Parliament for any of the rival substantive outcomes of the Brexit process (leaving with a deal, leaving with no deal, and not leaving at all). A general election provides an opportunity to elect a new Parliament, in which the arithmetic will likely be different, and in which the policy positions of the various parties may also be different. The stakes could not be higher. It is time for Remainers to have the courage of their convictions. They should use the general election to obtain a mandate for revoking the Article 50 notification.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.

Phil Syrpis is Professor of EU Law at the University of Bristol Law School.

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Brexit talks: Jeremy Corbyn calls meeting of opposition leaders to prevent ‘damaging’ exit

Jeremy Corbyn has invited senior MPs from opposition parties to an “urgent” meeting to discuss the options available to Parliament to stop a no-deal Brexit.

The Labour leader called on opponents of a disorderly exit to meet next week to look at “all tactics available to prevent a no-deal Brexit”.

In a letter, Mr Corbyn said: “The country is heading into a constitutional and political storm, so it is vital that we meet urgently, before Parliament returns. “The chaos and dislocation of Boris Johnson’s no-deal Brexit is real and threatening, as the Government’s leaked Operation Yellowhammer dossier makes crystal clear. That’s why we must do everything we can to stop it.”

The meeting is scheduled to take place on 27 August at midday. A Labour spokesman said that Mr Corbyn has decided to postpone a visit to Ghana next week to help try and stop a “damaging” no-deal Brexit.

Government of national unity

Leader of the Liberal Democrats Jo Swinson said she does not think Labour has the numbers to form an emergency government (Photo: Gett)

The letter is addressed to SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, Commons Plaid Cymru leader Liz Saville Roberts, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, Change UK leader Anna Soubry.

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Angela Merkel gives Boris Johnson a 30-day deadline to dodge no-deal and solve Irish backstop

Remain-backing Tory MPs Guto Bebb, Dominic Grieve, Oliver Letwin and Caroline Spelman are also copied in, as is former Conservative minister Nick Boles, who resigned the whip in opposition to the Government’s approach to Brexit.

The Lib Dems said they will attend the meeting in support of preventing the UK leaving the EU without a deal. But the party made clear that they believe Mr Corbyn will not have the backing of MPs in the Commons to head a government of national unity should Boris Johnson’s government be toppled in a vote of no confidence.

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Analysis: Alarm in Downing Street as all sides for no-deal Brexit begin organising

Harriet Harman and Ken Clarke had both long harboured ambitions to be Prime Minister, and yet, for these two veterans of British politics, those ambitions had, until this summer, looked set to be unrealised.

Yet the Mother and Father of the House have suddenly become principal candidates to lead a caretaker administration if Boris Johnson loses a confidence vote in a little over two weeks’ time. While the two were – separately – on holiday this summer, new Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson was contacting them to see if they would be open to heading up a government of national unity as a way of stopping a no-deal Brexit.

As with the appeal by Jeremy Corbyn for cross-party support for his bid to lead an interim government, the Swinson plan has been ridiculed by Conservative ministers and others in Westminster. And yet the positive response by Mr Clarke and Ms Harman – and that of hardened Tory rebels – will be causing alarm in Downing Street.

The Labour leader’s letter to fellow leaders and senior rebel Tories, and the fact that, save for Ms Swinson, it has not been rejected out of hand, is significant because it sketches, albeit roughly, a road map to stopping both Mr Johnson and a no-deal Brexit in their tracks.

Majority of one

Could Harriet Harman unite a coalition (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The Prime Minister, in his first three weeks in Downing Street, has behaved like he has a majority of 101 rather than one, supported by the DUP. He has appointed an all-powerful adviser in Dominic Cummings, and treated European leaders, with whom he says he wants to strike a deal, with lofty disdain.

Just as his victory in the Conservative leadership contest had carried a relentless inevitability, so too had a no-deal Brexit carried over the finishing line by Mr Johnson. Until this week.

Mr Corbyn remains a divisive figure in Westminster among even his own backbenchers. And yet what those who have engaged with his letter can see is an alternative to no-deal Brexit.

Just because there is disagreement among the opposition and rebel Tories about the means to get there – and who will lead the way – they do all agree on the ends: a government of national unity headed by someone who isn’t Mr Johnson. For them, engaging with Mr Corbyn is a staging post to get to a unity government, not necessarily the end product.

Since the 2016 referendum result, so much has been said for Brexit realigning party politics. We have had the breakaway Change UK and independents since February, and, in the Commons, MPs voting along Brexit, rather than tribal party, lines.

Yet this bid for a government of national unity, in whatever form it takes, is the first time MPs are putting an issue over party unity in order to change government itself.

It is a framework for a genuine and lasting realignment of British politics. There is alarm in Downing Street because the opposition and rebels are getting organised, and, for the first time, everything is in play.

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Cross party support developing for a Government of National Unity – but no unity over its leader

Jeremy Corbyn should be given the first chance to try to form an interim government to stop a no-deal Brexit before an alternative caretaker prime minister is found, Harriet Harman believes.

The former Labour deputy leader’s name has been proposed by Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson as the head of a government of national unity if Boris Johnson is defeated in a confidence vote next month.

Ken Clarke, who has also been suggested by Ms Swinson, said he would be willing to head an interim government.

Both veteran MPs are willing to step forward if they can command enough cross-party support to wrest control of Mr Johnson’s Government and extend Article 50 to prevent no deal.

Yet Ms Harman believes that, as leader of the opposition, Mr Corbyn has the right to go first to try to form an interim government, the i understands.

Blow to Swinson

Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson has suggested Conservative veteran Ken Clarke as the leader all sides can rally around (Photo: Peter Nicholls/Reuters/File)
Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson has suggested Conservative veteran Ken Clarke as the leader all sides can rally around (Photo: Peter Nicholls/Reuters/File)

If he cannot command the confidence of the House, then it is for whoever can do so, and that the most important thing is to stop a no-deal Brexit, her allies say.

This position is a further blow to Ms Swinson, who initially rejected the Labour leader’s cross-party appeal on Thursday to open talks about a caretaker government as “nonsense” before backtracking on Friday and agreeing to have talks with Mr Corbyn.

The Labour leader took a swipe at his Lib Dem counterpart’s rejection of his caretaker bid, saying: “It’s not up to Jo Swinson to choose candidates, it’s not up to Jo Swinson to decide who the next prime minister is going to be.

“Surely she must recognise she is a leader of one of the opposition parties who are apparently opposed to this Government, and apparently prepared to support a motion of no confidence.”

He said Ms Swinson and other politicians should allow “normal precedent” to take place and give him the first opportunity to form a new government.

It’s ‘not inconceivable’

But former Tory Cabinet Minister Mr Clarke said he would be happy to take on the role.

He told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “If it was the only way in which majority of Commons opposed to no-deal could find a way forward, I wouldn’t object.

“Government of national unity is not inconceivable. We are in a similar situation to 1931 and the two World Wars.”

He later told the BBC he was “happy to follow Harriet, happy to follow Yvette [Cooper, another senior Labour backbencher]”.

The Labour leader is considering using legislation to extend Article 50 to prevent no deal Brexit, if a no confidence bid fails. Mr Corbyn also had talks with the SNP over how to pull together legislation to delay the UK’s departure from the EU.

The Labour leader is also preparing to hold talks with a handful of rebel Conservative MPs who want to stop no-deal Brexit. They believe Mr Corbyn remains a divisive figure but are willing to open up talks as start of a process.

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Nicola Sturgeon: I’d back Jeremy Corbyn to stop no deal – but I don’t really trust him

Nicola Sturgeon said she would be prepared to help install Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of an emergency government to avert the “catastrophe” of a no-deal Brexit.

Labour leader Mr Corbyn has urged other opposition parties to oust Boris Johnson in a vote of no confidence and make him a caretaker Prime Minister until a general election is held.

His surprise plan was rejected out of hand by the Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, who argued that he was the wrong person to unite a deeply divided Commons.

But some pro-Remain Conservatives said they would meet Mr Corbyn to discuss tactics.

‘Explore any opportunity’

Ms Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, also refused to exclude the strategy if it was needed to prevent Mr Johnson leading Britain out of the European Union on 31 October without agreement.

The SNP leader admitted she did not “particularly trust” Mr Corbyn, but said: “We will work with anyone and we will explore any opportunity to stop Brexit. It’s no secret that I’m not the greatest fan of Jeremy Corbyn but we won’t rule out any option if it helps avert what is a looming catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit.”

Jeremy Corbyn made the surprise offer on Thursday (Photo/Matt Dunham, AP)
Jeremy Corbyn made the surprise offer on Thursday (Photo: Matt Dunham, AP)

She also took a swipe at Ms Swinson for rejecting the Labour leader’s plan, saying: “I think that’s daft, frankly, for somebody who professes to be so against Brexit.”

The Green MP Caroline Lucas has also urged Ms Swinson to reconsider her hostility to the proposal.

The Liberal Democrat leader has floated an alternative blueprint in which either Kenneth Clarke or Harriet Harman serves as temporary Prime Minister in an “emergency government” to find a way out of the “national crisis” over Brexit.

She argued that there was “no way” the Labour leader could unite the Commons – not least because of hostility to him on his own backbenches.

First speech

Making her first major speech since succeeding Vince Cable, Ms Swinson instead recommended placing either the Father or Mother of the Commons – titles given to the longest-serving sitting male and female MPs – to lead a time-limited government.

“They are hugely experienced and, unlike Jeremy Corbyn, or indeed myself, they are not seeking to lead a government in the long term,” she said.

She disclosed that she had been in contact with both Mr Clarke and Ms Harman and believed that either would be happy to take on the role.

“I’m confident that if that’s what the House of Commons resolves then– those individuals will be happy to take on that role to try to steer our country through these difficult waters.”

Ms Swinson was speaking after welcoming the former Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, who has been sitting as an independent, to the party, bringing the total number of Lib Dem MPs to 14.

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