On 29 October 2019 MPs voted overwhelmingly to end the Brexit impasse in Parliament by supporting a motion by 438 votes to 20 for a General Election on 12 December. A day earlier the European Union (EU) had granted Parliament its requested extension of Article 50 from 31 October 2019 to 31 January 2020. The Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn abandoned Labour’s opposition to an early poll on the grounds that ‘for the next three months, our condition of taking no deal off the table has now been met’. Before the vote ten of the 21 MPs thrown out of the Tory Party for joining a ‘rebel alliance’ to rule out a no deal Brexit were readmitted, allowing them to stand as candidates for the Conservative Party. 191 MPs did not vote or abstained, including 106 Labour, 34 SNP, 19 Liberal Democrat, 15 Independent and 7 Conservative MPs. A total of 127 Labour MPs including Jeremy Corbyn supported the motion for an election, with 11 voting against. Corbyn said that his party would ‘now launch the most ambitious and radical campaign for real change that this country has ever seen’. David Yaffe reports.

Prime Minister Johnson had failed three times to trigger a General Election under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA), requiring two-thirds of MPs, 434 out of 650, to vote in favour. After the third defeat Johnson decided to go down a different route to achieve this end. He tabled a short election bill, open to amendment, to set aside the FTPA and fix a date for a General Election on 12 December. Under this procedure only a simple majority was required to get his election bill agreed. Proposed amendments from opposition parties to reduce the voting age from 18 to 16 and to allow resident EU nationals to vote were ruled out as not within the ‘scope’ of the bill. The government had threatened to withdraw the bill if they were allowed. An amendment by the Labour Party, backed by other opposition parties, to change the date to Monday 9 December, due to concerns that students could be ‘disenfranchised’ if it were held outside term time, was rejected by 315 votes to 295. The election bill was passed unamended by the House of Lords on 30-31 October and became law the following day. Parliament was dissolved and the official election campaign started on 6 November, allowing the minimum 25 working days necessary for a 12 December election.

Johnson blusters for a deal

Boris Johnson has one overriding concern, that is, to remain Prime Minister and leader of the Tory Party. He is a self-promoting liar who will twist and turn and do whatever he feels necessary to achieve his goal. At the beginning of October he struck a secret deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that involved Northern Ireland remaining under EU single market regulations for agri-food and manufactured goods until at least 2025, after which the Northern Ireland Assembly (at present suspended after it collapsed in January 2017) would decide whether this arrangement should continue. Northern Ireland would not be in the EU customs union. The Irish ‘backstop’ which was designed to remove the risk of a physical border on the island of Ireland had gone.1 The proposal would see Ireland having ‘two borders’ for at least four years once the transition period ended in December 2020. Johnson made it clear to the EU in the run-up to the EU summit on 17 October that he would press ahead with a no deal Brexit if the EU failed to engage with his plans (The Guardian 2 October 2019).

His plan was welcomed by the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs and the DUP. It received a cool reception in EU capitals and was not acceptable to the Irish Republic. Jeremy Corbyn said it was ‘worse than Theresa May’s deal’. Northern Ireland business leaders rejected the plan as severely damaging to Northern Ireland’s economy, which is closely connected with the Irish Republic as part of the EU customs union. Around a third of its exports in goods and services go to the Irish Republic and a quarter of its imports come from there. Johnson’s ‘do or die’ pledge to deliver Brexit on 31 October in all circumstances, that he would rather be ‘dead in a ditch’ than seek a delay, soon began to unravel. On 4 October the government had to accept in an Edinburgh court that the Prime Minster would have to seek an exit delay if he did not agree a new withdrawal deal with the EU. This was a legal consequence of the Benn Act which forces the Prime Minister to seek an extension of Article 50 until 31 January 2020 if no exit deal were agreed by 19 October.2 This outcome was made increasingly likely after the EU 27 member states stated that Johnson’s plan did not ‘provide a basis for concluding an agreement’.

Barely a week later, after discussions with the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Johnson changed his stance. A ‘pathway to a deal’ was now said to be in sight, with Johnson willing to consider letting Northern Ireland stay in the EU customs union. EU diplomats gave a green light to expedite talks after Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, told them the Prime Minister had shifted sharply his position on a series of demands from the EU. He said that the UK accepted that there could be no ‘border across the island of Ireland’ (Financial Times 11, 12/13 October 2019).

Johnson still stood by the fiction that he could leave the EU with a deal on 31 October. The government even went ahead with the Queen’s Speech on 14 October, promising 26 Bills dominated by measures on Brexit and law and order.

On 17 October the Prime Minister secured a deal with the EU. It had much in common with earlier EU proposals dismissed by Johnson and other Eurosceptics as a constitutional outrage. Some of the important elements of his predecessor Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement remained unchanged, such as paying the more than £30bn divorce bill from the EU and protection for citizens’ rights.3  It was the plan for averting a hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit that was the product of fraught negotiations. The revised Northern Island protocol created a customs border between Northern Ireland and Britain, a position advanced by the EU in early 2018 and rejected outright by the DUP.

Johnson’s about-turn on this issue was done so he could break the deadlock with the EU in order to deliver his egoistical promise to exit the EU by his 31 October deadline. The previous nationwide ‘backstop’ arrangement to avoid a hard border in Ireland had been discarded for a regime which would see Northern Ireland covered by EU customs rules and closely aligned with the EU single market on goods regulations. The effect of this would be to put a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea. The UK including Northern Ireland would be free to sign trade deals. This arrangement would be in place for a mandated four years after the transition period ends in December 2020. Two months before the end of this four-year period the Northern Ireland Assembly would be able to vote on whether to continue with this deal or not.

Parliamentary impasse

A special House of Commons session on Saturday 19 October, Parliament’s first Saturday session in 37 years, was called to ask MPs to support the Brexit deal Johnson had secured with the EU. The motion to be debated was amendable. Following the debate, MPs first voted for an amendment tabled by Oliver Letwin, which said that approval for the Brexit deal should be withheld until the associated Brexit legislation laying out the terms of departure was also presented and passed. This amendment was passed by 322 votes to 306. Six Labour MPs voted against the amendment and three abstained. The DUP voted for the amendment. After the amendment was passed, the government and opposition decided together not to hold a vote on the amended motion. The Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg then announced that the government would attempt to hold another ‘meaningful vote’ on the motion on Monday 21 October.

Johnson was furious. He called on EU leaders to reject any extension of Britain’s membership of the EU. He was warned of further action in the courts if he did not comply with the Benn Act. The Prime Minister was bound by law to write to the EU by 11pm on 19 October asking for that extension. Petulantly he sent out three letters: an unsigned photocopy of the request he had to send under the Benn Act, an explanatory letter from the UK ambassador to the EU and a letter, signed by him, explaining why the government did not want a Brexit extension because it would be ‘deeply corrosive’ (The Observer 20 October 2019).

The attempt to put the Brexit deal before Parliament again on the following Monday was ruled out of order by Speaker John Bercow, as under House of Commons rules it was deemed to be ‘repetitive and disorderly’. Despite no vote being taken on the amended motion it was considered to have been passed without a vote.

The next day the government won the backing of Parliament in principle on the second reading of its Brexit deal by 329 votes to 299, a larger than expected majority. It then suffered an immediate setback when it lost a critical vote by 308 votes to 322 on the Brexit Bill ‘programme motion’, which set out an impossible three-day timetable for Parliament to scrutinise the 110-page Withdrawal Agreement Bill. This defeat made it almost certain that the Prime Minister would miss his ‘do or die’ 31 October deadline for Brexit. Johnson would not be able to get his Brexit Bill passed in time to hold a snap General Election before Christmas. His Brexit strategy was in disarray.

Johnson then challenged MPs to support a General Election on 12 December saying that a ‘broken Parliament’ was responsible for the deadlock. He threatened to freeze legislation and turn Westminster into a zombie Parliament. If a poll was agreed he offered to give MPs until 6 November to secure Brexit. The Labour Party, whose support he needed for an early poll, said it would only back an election if a no deal Brexit was ruled out.

On 28 October Johnson failed for a third time to get sufficient support for an early election under the FTPA with 299 votes in favour and 70 against. With the EU granting a three-month extension to Article 50 he was forced to change tack, bypass the FTPA and table a short election bill for a poll on 12 December, which the Labour Party was now able to support.

Whoever wins this General Election the ruling class will remain in power. As we have consistently argued throughout the Brexit saga, the British ruling class will be forced to make a choice between Europe and the United States. Its eventual resolution will have dramatic consequences for the rivalry between European and US imperialism, for the future role of the City of London, and ultimately for the working class in Britain. Our task as revolutionaries is to be prepared for any outcome.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 273, December 2019/January 2020

1. For a discussion of the Irish ‘backstop’ see David Yaffe ‘Brexit Chaos: No end in sight’ FRFI 267 December 2018/January 2019 on our website at https://tinyurl.com/y8jm7pgw

2. See David Yaffe ‘Brexit ruling class lays down the law’ FRFI 272 October/ November 2019 on our website at https://tinyurl.com/r9e7g3a for a discussion of the Benn Act.

3. See David Yaffe ‘Brexit chaos and Tory rifts as the City prepares’ FRFI 262 February/March 2018 at https://tinyurl.com/y89y2dpt for a discussion of May’s Withdrawal Agreement.