That is, they will effectively be expelled from the Parliamentary party.
– Rebels going nowhere –
That’s more than an escalation, it’s an outright declaration of war.
Downing Street has fought back against accusations of hypocrisy – a large chunk of the Cabinet voted against Theresa May’s government – by arguing that the rebels are undermining any chance of getting a deal.
But with their numbers as high as 21, it seems unlikely that it will put off enough of the rebels for them to lose. David Gauke, the group’s figurehead, told Sky News: “Sometimes it’s between personal and national interests and the national interests have to come first.” Some are even reported to be considering standing as independent conservatives at the election.
What it would do, however, is obliterate the Government’s working majority. It’s currently just one (although three if you include Charlie Elphicke, who’s had the whip suspended over sexual assault charges).
– When electioneering –
If a dozen or more Tories lose the whip, Boris Johnson will lose the ability to govern. At that point, an election goes from a certainty to an inevitability. Might the podium be outside No10 as early as Thursday?
Which brings us back to the point I made last week – this is all about framing. Johnson will not want to repeat May’s mistake of calling a needless election, particularly if Britain has not left the EU.
But if he has a reason to blame Parliament and Remainers (in reality anti-no-dealers) then he can authentically make the claim May tried and failed to: “give me the majority I need to block the saboteurs.”
That’s why there is a suspicion in Westminster that the Government wants to lose. One Tory rebel tells Owen Bennett: “The whipping has been very light. They want to lose the vote… They aren’t negotiating, they have no idea what to replace the backstop with.”
Indeed, Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, wrote for The Telegraph at the weekend that the backstop is going nowhere. David Frost, No10’s EU sherpa, meanwhile, is believed to have made zero progress in Brussels.
Whether the Government does want to lose this vote or would prefer defeat in a vote of no confidence instead is up for debate. (Tony Blair has warned Jeremy Corbyn it is the latter.)
– Still a long shot –
What we do know is that the anti-no-deal legislation still faces a lot of hurdles. Not only will the votes be tight, but the Bill could face being “talked out” (aka filibustered) in the Lords. Although the rebels are confident they have ways of overcoming that and may sit through the weekend.
On top of that, no one yet knows how good the legislation is, or if it will work. Sir Keir Starmer, who is leading the effort from the Labour side, insists it is watertight, but the Bill isn’t yet public.
In matters of precedent even I struggle to understand, the rebels have had to wrestle hard over how to compel Johnson to actually accept an extension and not simply request and then reject one. The difficulty comes from the fact that, if the bill affects the royal prerogative, then it needs royal consent not just royal assent – something No10 could block.
– There’s always Plan B –
If the Bill were to become law despite all of the above, it might still fail. Michael Gove told the BBC yesterday that Johnson may simply ignore the law. If that happens, we would truly be in the thick of a constitutional crisis.
One thing that can be ruled out is the Brexiteer fantasy, reported in several Sunday papers, that Viktor Orbán will come to the rescue and veto any extension. That won’t happen for innumerable reasons, not least of which is that Mr Orban is pro-EU.
If, though, the legislative route does fail, then MPs will fall back on a vote of no confidence, probably in the next Parliament in October. That too is fraught with problems, the biggest being that No10 has said they would simply schedule the election for after October 31.
Strap in for the storm.
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