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Don’t let Boris Johnson’s puppeteers fool you – parliament can still stop no-deal Brexit

  • The prime minister wants to frame the coming months as a battle between parliament on one side, and his administration and the people on the other. This only works if he can credibly claim to speak for most of the country, which he clearly does not

  • Chuka Umunna MP

Speculation about the UK leaving the European Union without a deal has been at fever pitch ever since Boris Johnson’s election as Tory leader and installation in No 10. Today, Downing Street said that the UK will be leaving the EU on 31 October “whatever the circumstances”. Pursuing a no-deal Brexit is clearly the goal, a wholly irresponsible political choice of the new administration for which there is no mandate. 

More evidence has emerged of the challenge it poses for the economy. I have just managed to force the Treasury to disclose data which illustrates UK exporters to the EU are unprepared for a no-deal Brexit

In such a scenario, the 245,000 UK firms that currently only trade with EU countries will need to apply for an Economic Operator Registration and Identification number (EORI) to trade goods into and out of the UK. HMRC uses this number to identify businesses and collect duty on their goods. However, less than three in 10 of these firms have registered for an EORI and, if they did so at the current rate (up to 10,000 per month), all businesses exporting to the EU won’t be able to export properly until the beginning of 2021 at the earliest, massively hampering EU/UK trade. This puts hundreds of thousands of jobs and businesses at risk and is just one example of the chaos which awaits us all. 

In this context, there is much debate about whether Johnson can retain the confidence of the House of Commons and, if he loses it, whether a general election could take place before 31 October, allowing a new government to take office and steer the UK away from the cliff edge. If an election doesn’t take place for whatever reason before exit day, could parliament intervene to stop a “no deal” catastrophe? 

The two issues need to be separated out. With regard to a potential election, the answer to the question is not settled given we are in completely uncharted waters. It would certainly seem that if MPs have not voted on a motion of confidence in the week of 2 September, a general election before 31 October appears more difficult, though not impossible, given election timetable rules.

In any event, I cannot see how it can be avoided after crashing out without a deal because it is hard to see how Johnson can effectively govern and get anything through the House of Commons with a majority of one – he would surely have to precipitate a general election fairly swiftly after, if only to get some kind of majority. All the signs from the Johnson camp are that they are preparing to go to the polls fairly swiftly in the event that Brexit happens.

But, notwithstanding whether an election takes place, so long as parliament is sitting it has the ability to stop the UK leaving without a deal on 31 October. We are confident there are ways that backbenchers could seize control of the business of the House and pass a law obliging the government to seek an extension of Article 50. Alternatively, it could amend legislation that will need to pass through parliament before Brexit to do the same.

Johnson and the Vote Leave cabal headed by his senior adviser Dominic Cummings (Boris Johnson is very much the puppet in my view) wish away the fact that democracies are not static but dynamic. They continually assert that the 2016 referendum mandate must be respected but ignored the changed mandate the 2017 general election gave to parliament to stop a hard Brexit. Had Theresa Maysecured a majority at that 2017 election for a hard Brexit, we would have left the EU by now – she did not. Which is why there is an impasse.

There is a lot of other politics going on in the background too. It is being briefed that Johnson wants to frame the coming months as a battle between parliament on one side, and his administration and the people on the other side. This only works if he can credibly claim to speak for most of the country, which he clearly does not. 

The Tory Party and Brexit Party are increasingly interchangeable, and Johnson clearly seeks to speak to the 25-30 per cent of voters who subscribe to strong Brexiteer world views but he doesn’t speak for the rest. There is a danger that in all the focus on “no deal”, any deal suddenly becomes acceptable when the research shows that any form of Brexit will harm the economy. It is not inconceivable that Johnson will at some point pivot to leaving with a deal (though I doubt his Vote Leave minders will let him).

On the other side of the argument, there are important cross-party efforts afoot to work together and use all the tools at parliament’s disposal to stop no deal. We Liberal Democrats are very involved in all of this. However, anti no-deal efforts cannot hide real ongoing challenges in the two main parties. 

For all the claims that Labour is a Remain party and is committed to a people’s vote in certain prescribed circumstances, they are led by a Brexiteer – Jeremy Corbyn – and at least 25 Labour MPs refuse to back it. They have formed an alliance with most of the Tory benches that have stopped the people getting the final say on Brexit and this will not change.

Labour’s policy, if it were to take office in October, is still to negotiate an alternative deal to allow for the UK’s departure from the EU. It is good to see talk of Philip Hammond, the former Tory chancellor, joining efforts to stop no deal but he and other soft Brexiteers on his benches still favour facilitating Brexit with some kind of deal.

This is why if there is an election this autumn and there are to be Remain alliance arrangements – like that between my party, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru in Brecon and Radnorshire – it cannot include candidates from the two main parties because their parties are not unequivocally committed to a people’s vote and, most importantly, to remaining in the EU. My advice to them would be to join a proper Remain party – the Liberal Democrats are the one party that can get into government which is committed to stopping Brexit altogether.