6th November 2019
It is almost universally agreed that Winter is a bad time to call a General Election and that the run-up to Christmas is the worst possible of the options. That is why there has not been such a hustings since Hyde Park was a plant pot. Why, then, are we asking the electorate to trudge out to the polling stations in the freezing rain on 12th December? The answer, I fear, lies in an intransigent Parliament that has willed the ends of a Withdrawal Agreement without willing the means to get the measure through both Houses and to Royal Assent. Mr Johnson promised “Do or Die” to have the UK out of the EU by October 31st just as Mrs. May had hoped, without quite such a dramatic pledge, to extricate us by the end of March.
To be fair to the Prime Minister, as one must, he achieved a re-negotiated withdrawal deal that most, including me, said could not be done and he has eliminated the vote-blocking Irish Backstop from the equation. Whether Mr Johnson`s deal is better or worse than the one that Mrs May put to the House and that I voted for three times and that Mr Johnson himself voted for once is a moot point. It is certainly different. It removes the prospect of the UK being trapped in a Customs Union for eternity but it introduces a line down the Irish Sea that has hitherto been described as unthinkable and that could, ultimately, lead to the unification of the island of Ireland. Nevertheless, it is a deal that commanded, without the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, a majority of some forty votes which, in a hung parliament, is no mean feat.
Perversely, having set the House on track to take the first timid step – because the Withdrawal Agreement is the `end of the beginning` and not an end in itself – towards finally leaving the EU with an acceptable deal MPs then rejected the timetable by which the Withdrawal Bill could pass through both Houses and be implemented by the October 31st deadline.
It is arguable that to take getting on for two hundred clauses of a complex bill through all its Commons stages in three days is a big ask, particularly when you are dealing with a `snowflake` parliament that does not tolerate sitting to a late hour or even through the night. The guts of the measure, though, has been debated exhaustively for months and there are probably about only half a dozen clauses that are genuinely contentious. Would it have been possible to take the bill through both houses without the timetable motion that has generated such synthetic outrage? Well, probably yes. Before Christmas but not before the 31st October and therefore not before Mr Johnson would have had to write the `begging` letter asking the Commission to grant an extension to the time limit demanded of him by the `Benn Act` or `Suicide Bill` as it has become known. The object of this entire charade was not, as Mr. Corbyn has tried to claim, to guarantee that a No Deal Brexit was off the table but quite clearly to embarrass a Prime Minister locked into a deadline that he had so robustly wedded himself to when fighting for the Leadership of the Conservative Party.
`The Letter` had to be, and was, written. The Prime Minister then took the view that the UK was heading for yet further interminable and economically damaging delay and that a permanently hung parliament could lead to stalemate for many more months. In that, and in his decision to seek the unwanted Winter election to try to secure a working majority, he was almost certainly right. It is a high risk strategy but fortune sometimes does favour the brave and it may pay off. Alternatively, of course, it may lead to another minority Government and still further chaos!
The Fixed Term Parliament Act requires a two thirds majority of the whole House of Commons, not just of those voting, to support a call for a General Election to be held inside the five years `fixed term`. Mrs May secured such a majority to hold the 2017 General Election. Mr. Johnson had several shots at achieving the same result but incredibly the Leader of an Opposition that had purported to be clamouring for the opportunity to get the public to the polling stations rejected the chance to do so when the gauntlet was flung down. It was then left to the Scottish Nationalist Party and the Liberal Democrats to combine to offer to support a one-clause bill to repeal the Fixed Term Act and to call a General Election on a simple majority which, with the Tories, the SNP and the LDs would be achievable. This left Mr. Corbyn out on a limb and looking pretty silly. Ironically, at the very moment when the minor opposition parties were beginning to get cold feet Corbyn announced that the Labour Party – or at least that part of it still under his control – would back the measure. And so, notwithstanding the fact that a sizeable number of Members of the House of Commons did not want a General Election and that many voted against it the short bill went through all of its stages in both Houses in twenty-four hours. And that, my friends, is how you will come to be going to the polling stations on December 12th. Unless, of course, you are cute enough to organise a postal vote in order to have to avoid going out on a dark and cold winter’s night.