Going with the flow chart: Boris Johnson's Brexit mapped...again
With a couple of felt pens and a flow chart, FT's chief UK political commentator Robert Shrimsley and Miranda Green, deputy opinion editor, return to sketch the long drawn-out process of the UK leaving the EU and ask where UK politics might go next
You can enable subtitles (captions) in the video player
OK, here we go. We're going to try again. Boris's Brexit Map--
So Robert, two weeks ago we tried to map Boris Johnson's options to get us through the Brexit morass.
Model of clarity.
A model of clarity as our viewers can see here before us. Time's been ticking. It's now only 20 days to the October 31st Brexit deadline, but a lot has actually changed since we last spoke. So shall we have another go?
We'll do this again.
...and try to work out what happens next?
I don't think there's anything in here that has yet proved to be wrong, but that we have got more information. So let's have another go.
So let's move on. Let's move on. Let's move on. The things that we definitely do know, okay, the deadline... 31st October. And then before that, the 19th of October. So here we are, 11th, 12th. And then there's the summit on the 16th. The summit.
So it looks like here.... here we all are. We actually have more of a chance of a deal than no-deal, or certainly than last time we spoke. It's cheered up a bit because discussions between the UK and Ireland...
It's definitely cheered up this week. It looked really grim for most of the week, and then Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar met in The Wirral on Thursday. And to a lot of people's surprise, I think, the noises out of it were much more positive. Varadkar said he saw a pathway to a deal, which is obviously not the same as a deal. One analyst I saw raised the chances from 5 per cent to 10 per cent. So we should keep some sense of perspective. But we will know, I think, within the next 24 to 48 hours whether the European Union thinks there is enough movement for it to be worth starting to negotiate. So it's far too early at the moment to say there's going to be a deal, but it looks a little less unlikely than it did earlier this week. But no-deal is definitely still alive as a possibility.
So sticking to the deal for now, there's the question of whether Boris Johnson can strike a deal with the EU that satisfies both the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Ireland Unionists, the DUP, and his own right wing, and possibly tempt across 20 to 30 Labour MPs to support it in the House of Commons. How on earth do you get a deal that satisfies all those groups of people? Because their needs are mutually exclusive. Or do you think just the pressure of getting further along this timeline is making people more likely to compromise?
Well, I don't know the odds. Getting a deal that everybody can sign up to is really difficult, especially a deal that the Democratic Unionists and the Republic of Ireland can sign up to. And we know how hard that is, because we watched the Good Friday Agreement, and we know how long it took. And almost by definition, the moment one of those sides is happy, the other one's unhappy. So it is very tricky. We know Boris Johnson talked to Arlene Foster in the DUP before his meeting with Varadkar. So whatever concessions he has put forward, he must at least have talked to the DUP about them and felt able to go a bit further. So we shall see. The numbers remain absolutely horrible and incredibly tight.
And I think there are two dynamics here, one of which is that there are all these people just desperate not to leave without a deal, and don't really want an election where no-deal could become viable at the end of it.
And then the others who think, but if we sign up for this deal, it's Brexit, it's happened. And our hopes for a referendum, our hopes of getting this reversed are gone. So the numbers in parliament are horribly tight. The referendum's an interesting point, and I know you think this has got more likely.
I do. So one thing that we have left off are groups of people he has to satisfy actually - apart from the EU, which I'd definitely add - is also the sort of One Nation Tories, who are extremely concerned that if we get to a general election where Brexit has not been resolved either through an election, or referendum or some other means, that the Tory party manifesto will make it possible for them to claim after the election that they have a mandate for no-deal. So one of the things that's happened since we last spoke is that this group has become much more vocal in trying to put pressure on Number 10 on the subject of no-deal.
The other thing that I think is really interesting is that the chances of all of these groups in parliament who essentially don't agree on what should be in a Brexit deal might be persuaded to sign up to it and at least pass it on condition that it's then put to a referendum. And I think the chances of that have gone up.
Before we get to the referendum, can we just stick on this for a minute? Because I think there has been a lot of briefing and counter briefing in this. One of the really important things is the noises off. And you're completely right, the One Nation Tories, up to 50 of them said they couldn't support a Conservative manifesto in a general election, which essentially the party ran no no-deal. And the reason they said that is because if it is a into a general election, the Brexit party have made lots of noises saying they can't support the Conservatives unless it's no-deal, or as they also like to call it, clean Brexit. They have a flair for phraseology.
Whether these people really mean it. Thus far, the One Nation Tories that have stayed in the party I've been a tower of jelly. So whether they would really go through with it, I don't know. I think they are still desperate to get a deal over the line, almost any deal. Which is why I think the referendum point comes back into play.
So the One Nation Tories are really worried that you'd end up with a Tory party standing on a platform that even if it wasn't promising no-deal, would commit them to it, facilitate it. And would mean that if they won a general election, won a majority or even the largest party again, they could say, we have a mandate to do this. We have a mandate to crash Britain out.
I've also spoken to some of the Labour MPs who, although they are sort of softening their red lines as it were, they've started to say, so long as the EU is happy, we're happy. Which is quite interesting in and of itself, I think. But those Labour rebels are also really worried about the idea of having a general election in which it turns into a proxy Brexit referendum where people vote on lots of other issues, and you end up with no-deal. Because these Labour rebels, they might be willing to support a deal. They sure as hell are not willing to support a no-deal Brexit. So you've got these...
Of course, then they're going to lose.
Well, that's right, exactly. They wouldn't be worried if they thought Jeremy Corbyn was going to sweep the board, clearly. But I think the other intervention this week that's been interesting is Tony Blair, the former Labour prime minister, who's always... he has always, we should say, been campaigning for a second referendum on Brexit. Because he wants to just have Remain on the ballot paper and for Remain to prevail. But he made a very good point, which is actually a general election where Brexit is just one ingredient in the manifestos. It's a very unclear mandate, and it's not really a just the way to settle the problem. So I think the voices that are saying... and saying in Labour circles...
Let's put this here. Sorry to interrupt. Let's put this here. He's come back from Brussels with some kind of deal, which he's putting to the House of Commons. He's got to get it voted through - approved - otherwise we're back into no-deal territory. So he's put his great deal to the Commons. Boris's deal. This is why you do all the writing, because even I can't read my own handwriting.
Can we just let me write vote here? Vote. Vote in House of Commons.
So how does this happen? He comes back. He's got Ireland squared, he thinks he's got the DUP on board, he thinks he's got a chance. We can discuss that. He thinks he's got a chance. So what's your premise about how it goes through from here?
From a vote where he manages to get it through...
No, he's brought it to the House. We haven't had the vote yet.
There'll be all of these calculations, as we've said, as to the advisability of voting for a deal that you might not be 100 per cent happy with. Clearly groups like the SNP and the Lib Dems will always vote against anyway. But the rest of these groups will be sort of minded to give it support if they think that the next stage is possibly a second referendum. If a condition of passing it is then put to the people. Clearly the Labour leadership and most of the Conservative party have always been dead set against another referendum. So the dynamic would have to change quite significantly.
But it is now Labour policy.
Well, what's Labour policy and what the Labour leadership want are not necessarily one and the same thing, because they've been backed into a corner. But yes, you're right. And a lot of the Labour MPs would be happy with that. Of course, it might still go down.
Last time the referendum was voted on in the Commons, it lost by 12 votes and with 60-odd people abstaining. So that means theoretically the numbers are there. We know that the SNP want a referendum, we know the Liberal Democrats want a referendum, the Welsh Nationalists, the Greens, a spattering of Conservatives - we don't know how many.
But then shifting. Some of them are shifting. Even Ken Clarke - such a significant touchstone figure in this that he's even been mooted as a caretaker prime minister - he has started to say, we might have to have a second referendum.
But I think it's probably fair to say that there's nobody still in the Conservative party voting for a referendum. So it's only that group of 21 that are possible - it's 20 now, isn't it - who are possible referendum voters from the Conservative side. And not all of them...
But doesn't that depend... doesn't that depend if it becomes an official gambit of the government's?
To attach the referendum to the deal? But that's not going to happen, is it?
If it's the only way to get Brexit through.
I don't think Boris Johnson could attach a referendum to the deal. You don't know, but if he thinks he's got the votes, then he's got the DUP. If he has the DUP, he has reduced the hardline Brexit ERG rebels to a sliver. So let's say they're under 10. We said there's eight of them.
These work in concert, these two.
So let's say there's eight of them. He's got them. That means he needs about 10 or a dozen Labour rebels to get it over the line, probably. And he's also pulled back most of his rebellious Tories. That to me is the key question, because a large chunk of the rebellious Tories will come back into the fold to vote for a deal, because they were only against no-deal. But some of them won't.
Quite a lot of them voted for the May deal as well.
That's right. Absolutely. All of them, I think, actually.
So of course, some of those Labour rebels don't like a referendum. They don't want to back a referendum. But they also don't like the deal that Boris might bring back because it's got fewer protections for workers' rights, environmental regulation, and so on. But you think that an amendment would be attached to this vote, and they could actually make it contingent on a referendum?
I think it's possible, because if you look back at all those awful evenings where we had to sit through the indicative votes earlier in the year, these compromises, they all went down - as the hard Brexiters keep liking to remind us - that parliament failed to agree on an alternative path forward. But they didn't go down by very much. And I think the dynamics could shift quite significantly. Also, I think, as I've said, it's significant that the Labour rebels keep saying now if it satisfies the EU, it satisfies us.
Yeah. So it's possible.
I think it is possible.
But it's also possible he could just get it through.
Yes, it is possible he could just get it through. In which case that would then be off. And we'd be probably going to a general election, on the basis of which Boris can say...
He's in quite a strong position then, isn't he?
I've cut through the Gordian knot of Brexit. I can now unify the country.
In that outcome, he's in quite a good place. Yes, I think that's right. So if he comes back with it - if the deal doesn't happen then, then we're here. He's failed to get a deal. We've hit the deadline for the Benn Act, which means he is required to seek an extension if the Europe Union hasn't really just unilaterally offered it earlier. But he's required to seek an extension which he doesn't want to do. That's where we get into some very, very interesting territory. There's been some fantastic briefings out of what we have to call a Downing Street aide (Cummings) and who, essentially [INAUDIBLE] all kinds of things such as he could refuse to leave office, he could challenge the Queen to sack him. Some really extraordinary stuff.
Yes, it's quite fun. I think it's fun enough that we should put in a little crown. Boris.
...versus the Queen. That's supposed to be the Queen there, the crown.
We don't believe this, do we? Don't believe that he's going to defy the Queen to sack him, or defy the Benn Act.
These are very, very extreme proposals that they are going to cling on in Downing Street, even if the Constitution says they should be out. I'm no constitutional lawyer, but it seems like a threat rather than a promise, as my grandma used to say. And I think it's sabre rattling essentially. But I think the reason they feel confident in upping the ante in that way is that they think they're on very strong territory anyway if the vote goes down and they fail, because they can then go to their precious general election at that point on what they think is this extremely powerful platform of - we tried, we failed. All of these Remainers, the courts, the MPs, the opposition parties trying to gang up on us. They've tried to frustrate your Brexit. We're the only people you can trust. And then when then it gets very worrying for all these other groups, including the One Nation Tories, right. Because it would be a mandate for no deal.
So I want to put another idea to you. I do think that the stuff about, we're going to defy the Queen, it reminded me of that character in Just William who always said she'd hold her breath until she passed out. That's what it's reminding me of, these absurd, empty threats.
But I think that's another thing. One of the things Boris Johnson said, there's going to be a special sitting of the House of Commons on a Saturday to thrash everything out. I think if he comes back with no-deal, that special sitting could see a separate motion for a referendum not attached to any specific proposal. But rather like the one that they voted on in April which simply says, whatever position we end up with in Brexit it needs to be confirmed by a second vote. I think that could be passed in the Commons at that point, which is why I think your instincts about why the referendum is more likely. I agree with them.
I think that's the moment at which all these people. The One Nation Tories, the Labour party, all the other parties... suddenly say, look, we're screaming towards the rocks here. We could be going to an election. And what if Boris wins and then no-deal is really back on the cards? Although if he were to win, it also raises the possibility that then with the no-deal mandate he goes back and is able to get a better deal. But who knows? I think at that moment, that's when they try to push the referendum legislation. Of course, any legislation can be overturned by a new government. But it might be tricky. It would also suit the Labour party, because it gets Brexit off of the electoral map when the election gets held. And it makes Boris Johnson look much weaker.
So the thing we haven't discussed though is that if he is forced to ask for an extension from the EU, that could be quite a long extension. There have been some rumours that the EU might be minded to say, well, what's the point of giving the UK another few weeks? They're really in such a mess. We need to give them a decent chunk of time. And that potentially would be enough time to hold a referendum. Although you'd have to speed up the whole process.
I think this is difficult, because the point is a very, very short extension is just enough time for a general election, in effect. If you give a... and we're talking about the end of January, for the sake of argument. If they're talking about the end of June, which has been mooted...
Or the spring.
OK, or spring. The problem is this. I think you still have to have the election rather than the referendum, because the country's still run by Boris Johnson, and he doesn't want a referendum.
And he has no majority.
And he has no majority, no Queen's speech, no budget. It's a completely preposterous thing. And he, at the same time, is not interested in negotiating the kind of deal that these people want. So even the June extension... I don't think... I think it makes it even harder for the Labour party to fight an election, to resist an election. And so I still see it that whatever kind of extension you get, I don't know how you can avoid this for that much longer.
Unless, to go back to our original drawing of the other week, unless you can find the numbers to put a different government in place in the House of Commons. I don't see how you avoid that, even if you manage to put that through the House before you get there.
Well also, even if on the off chance you could put together this caretaker government, that's not a sustainable government. And in fact, it's been explicitly said that it would only be for a short period of time to call a referendum or an election. So you couldn't limp on till next summer with a caretaker government. That would be absolutely impossible.
I can't see it either. But it does require the Labour Party to follow through and say, we would have an election straight after we've got the delay. And there are increasingly loud and important voices in the Labour party telling Jeremy Corbyn it's not just backbenchers. We know that members the shadow cabinet - John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry - are voicing concerns about this. So they're in a bit of a bind too.
The one thing that is really hard to say, really hard to call, is if any of this column comes right - whether it's his deal, or a referendum vote - what impact that then has on a general election. Because lots of parties have built their strategy around Brexit being a fundamental part, and this happening before Brexit. Not least the Liberal Democrats, of course. And if it happens after, that's a whole new ball game.
So it if it was me designing the way out, I'd say, why not have a general election and a referendum on the same day?
And then you separate...
But what's the referendum on?
Well, the referendum is one of these compromises where everybody with regret passes the deal on the condition that it's put back to the people.
But do you think if... the one problem with the referendum...
Because that forces... the reason why, as a voter, I would like that to happen is okay then you get to make up your mind based on the other issues of, do you want to be in power, and how you feel on Brexit.
Yeah. So if you're a Labour Brexiter or a Conservative Remainer, you can have the best of both worlds. But if that referendum terms are decided before election, and we know it's not a quick thing to get a referendum up and running, then a lot of Conservatives will insist on no-deal being in that referendum set of choices. So that makes it more complicated. They will probably try to resist votes for 16-year-olds, although I guess if you've got the majority to force a referendum into the equation, you've probably got the majority to force the terms of it.
There we go.
OK, I'm literally now more confused than I was when we started.
I'm not. I think I've just solved the Brexit conundrum.
You solved it. So it's a referendum on the same day as a general election.
And an election on the same day having passed a compromise deal.
What would happen if the general election returned Boris Johnson and no-deal a manifesto without having voted to stay in?
No, because you take Brexit out of the manifestos by decree, of me!
Oh, there's still the government to review. OK, I think it's Queen Miranda, then.
I'd vote for that.
If called upon to serve.