Hilary Benn publishes his Bill to delay Brexit again as Government threatens an election if MPs back it

Hilary Benn publishes his Bill to delay Brexit again as Government threatens an election if MPs back it

Today the House of Commons returns from its nearly six-week summer recess (where were the petitions, protests and howls of outrage about that?) and we can expect parliamentary fireworks later today as Remainer MPs embark on their latest attempt to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

Yesterday afternoon Hilary Benn published the text of his European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill, launched with the support of a cross-party group including former Cabinet ministers Philip Hammond and David Gauke. We expect Speaker Bercow to grant an emergency ‘Standing Order No. 24’ debate today and allow a vote on an amendment to a bland motion that, if passed, would allow MPs to seize control of the Commons Order Paper to provide time to try and ram the Bill through the Commons in a day later this week.

(A note on timing: these shenanigans won’t begin in the House of Commons until considerably later this afternoon – and it could even be early evening. The parliamentary day opens at 2.30pm with Dominic Raab making his Despatch Box debut as Foreign Secretary with an hour of Foreign Office questions. After that at 3.30pm – before we get into the emergency Standing Order No. 24 debate – there will be a statement from Boris Johnson on Brexit and the G7 summit, which will surely go on for a couple of hours, after which we then expect Michael Gove to make a statement on no-deal preparations.)

Benn’s Bill states that unless a deal is reached with the EU or Parliament approves a no-deal Brexit by October 19th, the Government would be required to write to the EU seeking an extension to the Article 50 period until January 31st 2020 – a further Brexit delay that would take us to a few months shy of four years since the referendum.

The Bill codifies the exact wording of the letter that the Prime Minister would need to send to the EU with the proviso that if the European Council agrees to an extension to 31st January 2020, the Prime Minister would immediately have to accept that extension. Extraordinarily, it goes on to state that if the European Council agreed an extension to any other unspecified date, at any point in the dim and distant future, the Prime Minister would have to accept it within two days (unless the House of Commons rejected it, and it’s unclear what would happen then).

As Zac Goldsmith – now a minister in the Johnson Government – tweeted last night: “This isn’t about creating a thoughtful delay; it is about stopping Brexit”. And lest we forget, most of those claiming to be against No Deal also opposed Theresa May’s horrific deal – because they don’t want a deal at all, because they don’t want Brexit.

There are several commentaries on the proposal I’ve seen that are worth a look: Open Europe’s Dominic Walsh notes here that the Bill would not actually take No Deal off the table (as some also erroneously claimed the Cooper-Letwin Bill did earlier in the year), but merely kick the can down the road a little further.

And Robert Craig, a lecturer in Public Law at the LSE, highlights here a potentially important but somewhat complicated issue relating to the exercise of prerogative power in respect of the procedure known as Queen’s Consent (totally separate from Royal Assent), which might provide an avenue for the Government to stop it in its tracks.

However, not long after details of the Bill began to emerge late yesterday afternoon, Boris Johnson emerged from Downing Street after a Cabinet meeting to deliver a message directly to the nation about his efforts to strike a new, better deal with the EU:

“If there is one thing that can hold us back in these talks it is the sense in Brussels that MPs may find some way to cancel the referendum – or that tomorrow MPs will vote, with Jeremy Corbyn, for yet another pointless delay… If they do, they will plainly chop the legs out from under the UK position and make any further negotiation absolutely impossible. And so I say, to show our friends in Brussels that we are united in our purpose, MPs should vote with the Government against Corbyn’s pointless delay. I want everybody to know – there are no circumstances in which I will ask Brussels to delay.

“We are leaving on 31st October, no ifs or buts. We will not accept any attempt to go back on our promises or scrub that referendum. Armed and fortified with that conviction I believe we will get a deal at that crucial summit in October: a deal that Parliament will certainly be able to scrutinise – and in the meantime let our negotiators get on with their work without that sword of Damocles over their necks. And without an election, which I don’t want and you don’t want.”

You can read the full text of his statement here or watch it on our YouTube channel here.

Yet for all Johnson’s insistence that he doesn’t want to go the polls, speculation about an imminent election reached fever pitch yesterday. And last night, a senior Government source said that if MPs do back today’s cross-party move to seize control of Commons business, he would seek a general election on October 14th – a move which would require the support of two-thirds of MPs under the provisions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA).

The Government source said MPs would face a “simple choice” today and that the vote would be treated as though it were a vote of no confidence, with any Conservative MP voting against the Government having the party whip removed from them. The source continued:

“If they vote tomorrow to wreck the negotiation process, to go against giving Britain the ability to negotiate a deal, then they’ll also have to reflect on what comes next… If MPs were to vote tomorrow to take control of the Order Paper, so destroying the Government’s negotiating position, to make it impossible for the UK to negotiate a deal with Brussels, then the vote would then move to an FTPA vote, which I would expect to bring about a general election.”

“I think if you were to have any chance of securing a deal, which the PM has been very clear that he wants… you would want to have that election on October 14th so that you can go to European Council [on October 17th] and secure a deal.”

Yet last night there was increasing confusion over whether Opposition MPs would actually vote for a motion to call a general election if one were put to the House of Commons. Having been bleating for yonks about wanting to “go back to the people” and after all that outrage about there being an “unelected Prime Minister” and a “coup”, senior Labour figures seriously appeared to be suggesting that they would not want an immediate general election after all. Extraordinary times.

Moreover, if an election takes place before Brexit has taken place, with Johnson’s Conservatives standing on a platform of still pursuing a deal with the EU, there is the not inconsiderable headache of the Brexit Party challenging them in every seat across the country, as a spokesman reminded us yesterday:

“Nigel Farage has made clear that the Brexit Party would put country before party if Boris Johnson commits to an unambiguous, no-deal Brexit. We can make Boris a hero in that situation. A non-aggression pact Leave Alliance would deliver a very significant majority for this position. If Johnson brings back a re-hashed version of May’s Non-Withdrawal Treaty, just without the dreaded backstop, it’s not Brexit and we will oppose his candidates in every seat, denying the Tories hope of victory. Partnership is the best way to deliver what 17.4 million voted for.”

We really are in high stakes territory. And if anyone claims they can predict exactly what’s going to happen next, I would caution against believing them.

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The above is an edited version of Jonathan Isaby’s BrexitCentral Daily Briefing, an email which is sent out every morning. To subscribe for free, click here.