Wednesday, October 30, 2019

UK election: myths & reality

Before campaigning starts, it is worth looking at some of the assertions that are frequently made, before they become established as accepted truth and the facts are forgotten.

First, that an election is necessary to resolve the 'deadlock' in parliament. For example, the BBC World Service, in its morning bulletin, 30 October, said that it was hoped that the election would 'break the deadlock over Brexit'. Far be it from me to question the 'authoritative version' put out by the BBC, but this is not true. We need a careful examination of the facts.

On 22 Oct., UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson got a comfortable majority on the 2nd reading of his Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB). This shows the remarkable unity of the Conservative Party: even MPs expelled in September (*) voted for the deal. All they wanted was more time to properly debate one of the most momentous pieces of legislation for the UK in decades. So, they voted against the 'programme motion', which would have restricted scrutiny of the bill to a few days, as they had voted for the 'Letwin amendment' on Saturday, 19 Oct.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn then offered to agree a reasonable timetable to examine the bill. Instead Johnson said he would call 'again and again' for an  election.

Conservatives argue, repeatedly, that MPs have been debating the issue of exiting the EU (so-called 'Brexit') for 3 1/2 years. But not this deal and not this bill. Then, they say the bill would have been amended out of all recognition before being passed. This too seems to me unlikely. Even without the DUP, the government was likely to get the support of enough Labour MPs in constituencies that voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum, to pass the WAB through parliament without major alteration.

So, Johnson passed up an opportunity to get his deal through parliament and exit the EU, probably by the end of November. Why did he do this? It is true there would have been a problem with timing: if MPs had not backed the WAB, this would have left the government seeking an election even later in December, or next year – if an election shortly before Christmas is unpopular, a campaign stretching over the Christmas would be unthinkable. So, it might not be possible  to exit the EU before even the new deadline of 31 January.

Then, hard though it is to imagine, there is more to UK politics than exiting the EU. The government could have had difficulty with its Budget (pulled, 25 Oct.) and legislative programme (the Queen's Speech, read on 14 Oct., which even at the time seemed unlikely to be started on). It should be noted, though, that the DUP did not rule out continuing with the 'confidence & supply' arrangement with the Conservatives on non-EU matters,

However, it seems to me that the most likely explanation of Johnson's actions is that, for all his repeated slogan of 'get Brexit done!', his priority was to get a general election and 5 years of majority government.

Second, that Labour were reluctant to agree to an election because they were scared of losing. In fact, their position has been consistent:  to agree to an election only when a no-deal exit from the EU had been clearly ruled out. This was what was achieved by the 'Benn Act', the 'Letwin amendment' and the rejection of the 'programme motion' between them.

All along, there was a suspicion that the PM would use any trick, from proroguing parliament, to manipulating the timing of an election, in order to take the UK out of the EU with no deal without parliament's approval. When, on 28 Oct., the EU offered an extension to 31 Jan. and the PM accepted this in a letter, signed this time, Labour's condition for agreeing to an election was met.

* In other words, they had the 'Whip removed'. This was because they supported the EU Withdrawal Bill (No. 2), also known as the 'Benn Act' and castigated by the Johnson government as the 'Surrender Act'. This sought to prevent the government leaving the EU before 31 October, unless a deal had been agreed. On 29 Oct, 10 of the 21 expelled had the 'Whip restored', but not those who voted against the 'programme motion'.

30 Oct 2019