Labour could fall into its own Brexit trap

Delaying the PM's Brexit bill will unravel his fragile coalition of MPs, but at what cost?

by The Secret Brexiter
Last Updated: 23 Oct 2019

Watching Boris Johnson scarper from the Commons chamber after the defeat of his programme motion yesterday, I couldn’t help thinking that he’s increasingly taking on the role of the Roadrunner, from the Looney Tunes cartoons.

The PM’s a man in a hurry to pass his legislation and hold a general election. Up against him is an alliance of coyotes seeking to lay traps in the road, drop 10-tonne weights on his head and generally blow his plans to smithereens. Yet as MPs are discovering, somehow the Roadrunner keeps going through the trap, and it’s Wile E. Coyote who inevitably finds himself holding the stick of dynamite with the ever-shortening fuse.

It’s clear why the rebel alliance of uber-Remainers and opposition partisans wanted to prevent the Brexit legislation passing this week. Speed is Johnson’s friend. 

His poll numbers are through the roof (or rather Corbyn’s are through the floor), he’s won over the Brexiters in his own party by rejecting a close economic relationship with the EU and he’s created a fictional Halloween deadline to convince the public that they’re tantalisingly close to the end of this mess, emboldening a critical group of Labour MPs who fear the wrath of their constituents if they don’t back Brexit now.  

Great as that political achievement is, it’s not at all easy to hold it together for a sustained period of time.

Racing through the scrutiny stage would have minimised the risk of those crucial MPs getting second thoughts. It would have made it that much harder for his opponents to get organised around wrecking amendments to soften Brexit, protect workers’ rights or stay in the customs union. It would have made it easier to avoid discussion of the detail (never Johnson’s strong point), or the publication of an economic impact assessment (it won’t be pretty). 

Now that a formal extension, which the government is insisting on calling "Parliament’s extension", is on the cards and the PM seems trapped, Labour will want to drag the whole process out as long as possible.

They want the prime minister to miss his promise, they want him sitting in parliament with no majority, unable to pass legislation, losing vote after vote. They want his parliamentary alliance on the withdrawal bill to collapse, they want him trying to pursue a no deal, or if Brexit does pass the house, they want it on their terms with his Brexiters offside howling in frustration, or they want it to pass and go badly, for the public to realise that Brexit will take years to negotiate, that their hope of a swift ending was a fallacy and that in fact what they’ve got to look forward to is bread, water and the workhouse. 

Frankly, given their poll numbers, they don’t have many other options, but as the coyote often discovers, it might be them that finds a tonne of electoral bricks landing on their heads. It’s becoming clear that this roadrunner has a few tricks up his sleeve to keep him on the road, not least his relentless focus on the people vs Parliament narrative, in which any delay - indeed, any defeat - becomes an act of sabotage by MPs in the minds of Brexit voters. 

The next big political question will therefore be, once an extension has been granted, how long the fragile alliance of uber-Remainers, Scottish nationalists and Labour, with all their diverse interests, can avoid detonating their own trap by withholding support for an election.

Image credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images for The Chuck Jones Experience

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