Boris Johnson has galvanised opposition to a no-deal Brexit
London Letter: This may not be the time for Ireland to throw away a hard-won strategic advantage
Boris Johnson delivers a speech at the final Conservative Party leadership hustings, in London on Wednesday. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Boris Johnson was in the Commons chamber for Thursday’s votes, chatting and joking with supporters, admirers and ambitious MPs keen to bend the incoming prime minister’s ear. But he had already left by the time the speaker announced that a substantial majority had voted to prevent him from proroguing parliament to force through a no-deal Brexit.
The scale of the defeat, with almost 50 Conservatives defying a three-line whip to abstain or vote against the government, was a surprise. And its significance goes far beyond the narrow issue of preventing a suspension of parliament in September or October.
Johnson’s refusal during the Conservative leadership campaign to rule out proroguing parliament always sounded more like a rhetorical sop to hardline Eurosceptics than an actual policy. But it had the effect of galvanising opposition to a no-deal Brexit at Westminster and persuading Conservatives who had never rebelled to break ranks for the first time.
Broadland MP Keith Simpson said it was the first time in his 22 years in parliament that he had ever defied the whip.
“This is a huge national issue. I said months ago to my local paper and my association that I was totally against no deal. So this is the first time I have rebelled but you can get a taste for it,” he said after the vote.
As the Brexiteers in the European Research Group (ERG) learned long ago, the first act of rebellion is the most difficult but once an MP has been blooded in an act of defiance, rebelling in subsequent votes is much easier. The 17 Conservatives who voted in favour of the rebel amendment on Thursday and the almost 30 who abstained have been blooded just in time to form a powerful resistance to any attempt to leave the EU without a deal.
The rebels’ success will intensify the battle for Johnson’s ear between those of his advisers who wish to sue for peace with the EU and the hardliners for whom a no-deal Brexit is the preferred option. According to one source close to the ERG, Johnson hardened his language on the backstop this week following complaints from hardliners that he was sounding too emollient about the withdrawal agreement.
Others close to him believe that the EU could be persuaded to make concessions on the backstop that would allow Britain to accept the withdrawal agreement, perhaps with new language in the political declaration committing it to leaving the customs union. Thursday’s vote has strengthened the hand of the peace party by highlighting the formidable parliamentary arithmetic against a no-deal Brexit.
The vote came as the Alternative Arrangements Commission, a non-governmental initiative backed mostly by Brexiteers, published its final report on alternatives to the backstop for keeping the Border open. Many of its proposals are fanciful, such as a new, common food safety zone encompassing Britain and Ireland, which would require Ireland to leave part of the jurisdiction of the EU single market.
Others could form part of a complex of measures after Britain’s withdrawal to ensure that the backstop would never have to come into operation. But they are not an adequate alternative to the backstop as an insurance policy.
At the launch of the report, the arrangements were presented as the only alternative to a no-deal Brexit that would require a Border on the island of Ireland or a regulatory barrier between Ireland and the rest of the EU. Brexiteers in London have been encouraged by recent noises from Dublin, particularly in some of the reaction to the Government’s document outlining the consequences of a no-deal Brexit for Ireland.
They seized on Leo Varadkar’s interview with Sean O’Rourke on RTE Radio on Thursday when he said he was willing to compromise on the backstop if its objectives were achieved.
“I’m going to have to listen to the prime minister whenever he is elected and see if they have any meaningful or workable suggestions,” he said, feeding hopes that the long-waited climbdown on the backstop might be at hand.
But with other EU member states standing firm on the withdrawal agreement and a majority forming at Westminster against a no-deal Brexit, why would Ireland choose this moment to throw away such a hard-won strategic advantage?