Opinion: Johnson’s only chance of winning a public vote of any kind is through another referendum – The Independent

Not for the first time, Boris Johnson should be careful about what he wishes for, and what he threatens. He may well believe that, as he indicates, his MPs owe their loyalty to him, and that a general election would mean that the careers of the Tory rebels would be at an end, and that that would be entirely their own fault for frustrating the will of the people. Loyalists, prepared to countenance no deal, can be found to replace them. And yet, a general election is not in Mr Johnson’s gift, no matter how many tricks he pulls. The Fixed-term Parliament Act 2011 makes clear that he cannot simply resign and ask the Queen to dissolve parliament, as used to be the case. That is Nick Clegg’s revenge.

Mr Johnson must instead ask the Commons for a two-thirds majority in order to resign, and even start the process. If the Labour Party and others believe it is not in the national interest to hold an election at such a moment, then the threat falls. Mr Johnson is made to look as foolish as he did when he was caught on a zip wire.

It is a topsy-turvy world.

A few years ago, that mild-mannered, lawyerly, ultra-loyal David Gauke would be leading some sort of parliamentary guerrilla war would have been airily dismissed as about as likely as Mr Johnson and a girlfriend of his moving into No 10.

And yet, the former Treasury minister and justice secretary has now even lent his name to a democratic movement – the “Gaukeward Squad”. He is the man, or one of the people, of the hour. As they used to say at HM Treasury when they were in a particularly tight spot with the media, it is time to “uncork the Gauke”.

One of the many indignities heaped upon him by his political enemies – including a failed and misguided attempt to deselect him as a Conservative candidate and MP – is the constant depiction of him as a “Remainer”. Yet he, like Philip Hammond and many other prominent campaigners against no-deal Brexit, did in fact vote, on every available occasion, for Brexit and for Theresa May’s deal. Unlike Mr Johnson, Dominic Raab and Jacob Rees-Mogg, they did not defy the government whips, and their behaviour was usually more consistent than those now in the control of their party and the country (let it not be forgotten that the current prime minister did, at the third time of asking, vote for his predecessor’s withdrawal agreement, vassalage and all).

Dramatic as it is to watch the Commons determine its own timetable, it should come as no surprise. It should not prompt such a petulant reaction from Mr Johnson. It has long been clear that there is no majority in parliament for a no-deal Brexit, has never been, and probably never will be, even after a general election. That does not necessarily mean there is a positive majority for any other proposal. As the indicative votes in the summer revealed, the House of Commons has not quite acquiesced around away forward. Still, the House is within its rights to determine the order of its business, to legislate as it sees fit, and, in this case, to prevent no deal and extend the Article 50 process. 

The government is making threats that they will thwart such moves by delaying the royal assent. To say the least, that would be unwise. Dragging the Queen into this morass is not something that will command wide public support; and keeping the public’s elected representatives out of the process would be equally perverse. Like it or not, parliament is there to make and unmake laws. It finds its voice in legislation. It will do so to protect the interests of the people as a whole in the Brexit process, as its job. Whether that happens to mess up the government’s negotiating tactics and its political credibility is entirely secondary to that. The government is edging towards a general election, but that will not solve anything.

The UK does need time, above all, to think, and to consider the options as they stand now. The pressure of events and the games being played with the constitution are fracturing politics and bringing a resolution to the Brexit crisis no nearer. It is as well that there are some people in parliament – and a good majority at that – who are prepared to put the brakes on what is now an increasingly reckless gamble.

As for a general election – who says the Tories would win? As things stand, the Conservative vote is not robust enough to withstand the effects of splitting it between Conservative and Independent Conservative (rebel) factions, and still less if there is the intervention of a Brexit Party candidate as well, as Nigel Farage promises. Indeed, with a resurgent Liberal Democrat challenge in much of the country, and the loss of Ruth Davidson in Scotland, the prospects for Mr Johnson in such an election look distinctly uncertain, whatever his nominal lead over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Mr Johnson, in other words, could quite rapidly find himself, Carrie Symonds and the pet jack russell having to look for new lodgings.

If parliament remains deadlocked, if a no-deal Brexit is ruled out, if a general election would solve nothing… then the only option left is for the question to be put out back to the people, in a Final Say referendum. It might, though they’d hate to admit it, be the last best chance Mr Johnson has of winning any kind of vote in the short term, and of delivering Brexit in any form. 


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