Boris Johnson has already suffered his first defeat in Number 10 – The Independent


With a week or so to go before he even arrives at the steps of No 10,Boris Johnsonhas already suffered his first Commons defeat. It was not even close – a majority of 41 was assembled to back Hilary Benn and Alistair Burt’s amendment to the Northern Ireland bill.

The point of this particular piece of political guerrilla warfare was to stop parliament from being suspended by a Johnson government that wanted to force through a no-dealBrexit. The constitutional experts can put their history books back on the shelf. The scheduled constitutional crisis involving the Queen has, mercifully, been cancelled.

Mr Johnson wanted to use the threat ofprorogation, which would have allowed him to force through a no-deal Brexit, to make the European Union agree to rewrite the withdrawal agreement. But MPs have broken the lever before he even got his hands on it. A half dozen cabinet ministers, including the chancellor,Philip Hammond, decided to abstain on a three-line whip. Ordinarily, Hammond, David Gauke, Greg Clark et al would be sacked for doing so; these are not ordinary times.Theresa Mayprobably agrees with them.

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But it was not only those who oppose no deal or who wish to block Brexit who rebelled. Brexiteers did too. Andrea Leadsom, for example, is as adamantine a Leaver as it is possible to find, yet her sense of constitutional propriety as a former Leader of the House of Commons impelled her to vote for the Benn-Burt amendment.

There were many others on her side of the European argument who agreed about that. Jeremy Hunt has made the same point in his recent appearances; Michael Gove did the same during his candidature, as did Rory Stewart. 

By the same token, however, that group of Conservative pro-Brexiteers, joined by a small splinter group of “Lexiteers” (Labour no-dealers) led bySarah Champion, will return to the hard Brexit side of the ledger as the autumn drags on, the choices facing Britain growing ever starker. Who will prevail?

Despite Mr Johnson’s punchy talk about “positive energy”, he has about as much chance of securing the radical revision of the UK-EU withdrawal agreement as thekipper he brandished about at the Tory hustings does.

The parliamentary arithmetic remains more or less where May left it – with a majority opposing no deal. Johnsonian positive energy will not alter that. 

Within a few days of Mr Johnson becoming premier he will almost certainly see his party lose the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election. This will take the Government’s effective majority down to just three – and even that is with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party under the “confidence and supply” arrangement. That pact does not state that they have to support the Johnson government in every division, and they are perfectly able to put Northern Ireland’s interests – and their own – first. 

In other words, the chances are that parliament will, as before, find a way to block no-deal Brexit. It may not wish to do so on Mr Johnson’s very first day in the job (that really would be bad manners). But some opportunity, perhaps via arcane procedure, will present itself, especially now that the possibility of suspending the Commons for the duration has been ruled out by the Commons itself.

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With no deal looking an ever more distant possibility – as soon as it is talked up it sends a shiver down the spine of every MP in possession of one (not an automatic fitment) – the very prospect of it in practice renders it less likely, so the exact same choices that faced Ms May will face her successor.

Mr Johnson (or Mr Hunt, though that eventuality appears to be rapidly vanishing) will have to break the deadlock through some democratic means because parliament has prevented him, now, from doing so using undemocratic means.

A general election might tempt Mr Johnson. However, it is unthinkable that we should leave the EU in the middle of an election campaign, so that might well not solve anything at all.

Which leaves, as it has for many months, the option of aFinal Sayreferendum. That could offer a ballot paper pitting no deal against Remain, with as many of the facts and prospects and arguments about the future known as they can be. And Mr Johnson can take his case to the country.

Not only is it a democratic imperative, but Mr Johnson seems to take an almost childlike pleasure in winning popularity contests. He should go for it: do or die, Mr Johnson.

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