JAMES BALL: The vandals are at the gates - but Brexit can still be stopped

PUBLISHED: 10:00 09 August 2019

Mother of Parliaments: The Palace of Westminster. Picture: Manuel Romano/NurPhoto via Getty Image

Mother of Parliaments: The Palace of Westminster. Picture: Manuel Romano/NurPhoto via Getty Image

Manuel Romano/NurPhoto

How to stop the "raging vandals" who will tear down everything they value to accomplish Brexit.

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If you believe Dominic Cummings, the battle over Brexit is already over - and he's won. But if you still believe everything Dominic Cummings says after the 2016 referendum campaign, then there's probably no hope for you.

It's certainly true that the new government has taken the intricate system of interlinked laws, precedents, Commons procedures and conventions that hold our political life together and put a hammer to them. But it's not yet at all clear where this will all end.

On the face of it, the government seem confident: they seem to think there's no mechanism to prevent Brexit with which they would have to abide. The reality is much more complex - and whatever Cummings might believe, he's not yet displaced the Queen as the UK's sovereign, even if we've now learned that when he picked 'Take Back Control' as the mantra of the Leave campaign, he meant for himself, rather than the UK parliament or even its people.

To look at how Brexit might still be stopped - and why the new government thinks it can't - we need to tackle each means of preventing it in turn.

The first is the standard procedure we have heard about through much of May's government: a vote of no confidence. The Fixed Term Parliament Act changed the normal mechanism of such votes to make them standalone processes with a set procedure afterwards. If a government loses a vote of no confidence, there will be an election called within two weeks unless someone successfully passes a vote saying "this house has confidence in the government of [X]".

This seems a straightforward way that even a tiny number of Conservative rebels could bring down the new PM - but the reality is more complicated. Marshalling enough votes to pass a no confidence vote is probably a fairly straightforward task, but then getting MPs across the Labour, Lib Dem, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Green parties and independents to vote for a unity government - even for just long enough to extend Article 50 and call an election - is a much more complex task.

If they fail in the second part of this task, Johnson would be within his power as prime minister to call an election on, for example, November 1, even if there were enough time to legally call an election before the no-deal deadline. Nothing strictly within the wording of the Act requires him to do so beforehand.

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It seems some within Number 10 are willing to go further, and note that only convention requires the PM to resign if he loses a no confidence vote. While there is no-one else who can demonstrate they have the confidence of a majority of the House, this largely holds true - this is why Gordon Brown stayed on in Number 10 for a few days after the 2010 election - but if someone else were to then win a confidence vote and Johnson tried to stay in Number 10, all hell would break loose.

Who is called on by the Queen to lead a government is a matter of convention in British political life - it is not codified into a constitution or into law. This means no judge would be able to challenge Johnson on this. It would, however, put unprecedented pressure on the Queen and Buckingham Palace to intervene in such a situation - and if she did not do so, would likely cause large-scale disruption on the streets, and massively dint public and market confidence in Britain as a functioning democracy.

Johnson and his team might want to think quite hard as to whether they wanted to throw out the rules of parliamentary convention so cavalierly, though. For one, it would be an extraordinarily bold act to destroy the country's constitutional laws just as an opposition leader most Conservatives view as a dangerous and radical Marxist could be on the cusp of power.

But more immediately, if the government wants to start ripping up longstanding constitutional conventions, others may feel emboldened to do the same. One of the key tricks the government is relying on to prevent MPs forcing a vote on no-deal, or on extending or revoking Article 50, is to try to put as little legislation in front of MPs as possible - so that they can't issue amendments, or try to take control of parliamentary business, as they did to Theresa May.

If they provoke him too much, it is entirely possible that Commons speaker John Bercow could decide to retaliate by also ripping up parliament's rules - there are many options not sealed in law, but merely in precedent and convention - and finding a way to allow votes to take place.

Given the difficulty of forcing a prime minister to do something he does not wish to - such as extend Article 50 - this could lead to some extreme options coming into play. If they were found with just days to spare before a no-deal Brexit, it is possible MPs might even pass an Act of Parliament revoking Article 50 rather than face that option. The government is not the only actor able to raise the
stakes.

The reality of this boorish and chaotic summer should horrify most Brexit voters, who were sold a package based on proud British traditionalism, in a campaign based on a nostalgic idea of Britain as the mother of parliaments and a country with a proud history of self-rule (if a much messier reality).

Instead they've handed the keys to the corridors of power to a group of raging vandals who have become so obsessed with achieving their symbolic victory that they'll tear down everything they supposedly valued to accomplish it.

The tragedy they would only realise too late is that their strategy might work, leaving them triumphantly standing among the rubble of everything they've torn down, with everyone else harmed around them looking to fix the mess - and realising only too late this would be an impossible task.

The danger of their plan is that it might work. Stopping it will take sustained, tactical, and selfless action from every other political party, and from any sane backbencher with a conscience. This has, so far, proven to be well beyond their capacities. We need them to get much better, and fast. If they fail, history will be as unkind to them as it will be to Johnson and Cummings.

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