Denis MacShane / Sep 2019
There is a faux debate about whether an extension after 1 November can, should or will be offered. The EU27 is as bored and irritated with Brexit as we are but will not seek the blame for finally kicking the UK over the Brexit cliff. If we want to jump and crash that will be our decision made here in our country. So here are five ways the extension can happen.
One: Mr Johnson has agreed a deal that meets EU conditions which so far he has rejected
Two: The House of Commons agrees to at least the core Withdrawal Agreement with its 3 pillars of money owed, fair treatment of EU citizens in UK and the Ireland backstop. It may be that the Irish backstop can be dressed up in a different manner such as the entire island of Ireland staying in the EU Customs Union and the Single Market. Most voters in mainland Britain would not care one way or another and nor would Northern Irish nationalist voters and moderate Unionists.
But this is a clear economic separation of the province of Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. The paradox is that there has always been political and legal separation of Northern Ireland from Britain as key British laws and values on women and gay rights are rejected by both protestant and catholic politicians in Northern Ireland. It seems odd therefore to reject slightly different economic rules and legal obligations. Most MPs are fed up with the DUP chokehold over the Brexit process. The DUP and even the pro-DUP English Tory MPs would be in a minority if Mr Johnson called their bluff.
But this does not guarantee a Commons majority for even an amended Withdrawal Agreement. There is so much distrust by all opposition MPs for the Prime Minister the chance of Labour, LibDem, SNP and other opposition MPs voting for anything that Mr Johnson can present as a triumph is zero.
Three: Something happens in the UK either via the Supreme Court or when the Commons returns 14th October that means a crash out No Deal should be put off
Four: The Prime Minister decides, as many senior Tory ex ministers are now saying, that the only way to cut the Gordian knot of Brexit is a new referendum. It may well confirm the June 2016 vote but at least there would be finality
Five: Opposition parties agree to a dissolution so a general election is held in November. The EU27 would not seek to expel UK if there was a clear decision to hold a general election.
But having twice shown they can prevent Mr Johnson calling an election, opposition parties will have to weigh carefully who benefits from a general election? Polling is all over the place but clearly the Conservatives believe that an election that happens before a referendum will be a Brexit election and a re-run of June 2016. Mr Johnson will be the champion of the people against the old stuck-in-the-mud Westminster gang who have refused to implement the decision taken by the people in June 2016.
Yet it is far from clear that a general election will produce a majority for any single party especially with Scotland likely to elect many SNP MPs. Even if there was a majority for Mr Johnson, for Mr Corbyn or maybe a majority for a Labour-LibDem post-election alliance created just to organize a referendum that does not alter the terms of trade for the EU27. Government leaders across the Channel will be unfazed by a re-elected Mr Johnson since they do not trust him nor can they change the legal and treaty obligations that they have to defend as part of the Brexit process.
Therefore as one eliminates all the possibilities as Sherlock Holmes might say, there is one option left. That is to hold a referendum before not after a general election. The country would take a final decision. If it maintains the Brexit vote of more than three years ago, well and good. Britain would know where it stood and have to make arrangements to be a very different country. An election after that existential decision was made could be fought on opposing visions of Britain from the main parties or even from new formations that might emerge.
But to hold an election first is to put the cart before the horse and solves nothing. If Johnson was smart he would dust down the old Tory slogan “Trust the People” and make a Conservative virtue of the political and constitutional necessity of solving Brexit once and for all.