Gill Morris: What’s Going On?


Category: Brexit, devoComment

No one expected him to do it but he has. Boris Johnson’s surprise prorogation of Parliament means that MPs could be denied the opportunity to stop a No Deal Brexit. This tactic has thrown a giant spanner in the Parliamentary works.  

The constitutional and political ramifications of this unprecedented action by a UK Prime Minister are yet to be seen and the consequences are likely to be felt for many years and decades to come.  Leave or Remain, there is a united public outcry and outrage about the contempt in which Parliamentary democracy is being held. Can Johnson get away with it or has he set a dangerous and undemocratic precedent?

This is a political gamble like no other and no one knows how it will play out. We must remember that whilst the overwhelming majority of MPs voted to trigger Article 50, Parliament also voted against the EU Withdrawal Agreement three times. We now have a new Prime Minister committed to exiting the European Union on 31st October even with a ‘No Deal’ outcome. The prorogation means there is even less Parliamentary time to do anything else but crash out. If you add to that the divisions, delays and lack of unity in both major parties, it is easy to think that Johnson has rendered Parliament powerless. I cannot see the EU changing tack or conceding on the Irish backstop or Scotland accepting the status quo. So unless Parliament votes to revoke Article 50 or force an extension to win more Parliamentary time, I fear the Brexit ‘can’ has been kicked too far down No Deal Road.

The prize for Johnson is, of course, to win a General Election against Jeremy Corbyn. It’s his best chance of getting a majority to deliver the popular pledges and promises for the North, education, infrastructure, transport, housing, health and tackling crime. On the face of it a General Election is entirely possible and increasingly likely. Johnson looks to be the only show in town and as long as Corbyn remains leader of the Opposition and the Labour Party there is little prospect of the Remain movement achieving the strength of unity and opposition required to topple Johnson with a unifying candidate – but they shouldn’t give up hope entirely.  It would be foolish to underestimate the impact of the anticipated Parliamentary fireworks, legal challenges, petitions and protests in the weeks ahead but for the moment the Prime Minister is running rings round the Mother of Parliaments.

Regardless of how much ‘No Deal’ planning the Government undertakes there are huge risks to ‘crashing out’ which extend far beyond those of shortages in food and medical supplies. There will be knock-on effects for the private sector and public services; price rises, inflation, unemployment and potentially slower growth for years to come.  In particular, a slow and lingering downturn will have a major impact on the UK’s nations, cities and towns who feel ‘left behind’ and controlled by Westminster.  

On the assumption that all attempts to thwart Johnson’s No Deal strategy fail and no alternative deal emerges we can be sure that he will call a General Election – possibly in November. To win power, Johnson must win Northern votes in Brexit-voting constituencies. Hence the rash of populist policies and Johnson promises including a high speed rail link between Leeds and Manchester and promises of further devolution, investment and new infrastructure.  If we also assume he wins and gets his mandate the prospects for further devolution are actually quite good. It is equally good news that Jake Berry, the Northern Powerhouse Minister, has been upgraded to the Cabinet table, and is likely to remain in post. 

Conversely, the HS2 Review is of concern. Whilst it is an ‘independent’ review there is little doubt Number 10 transport adviser, Andrew Gilligan, and chief strategist, Dominic Cummings – both HS2-sceptics – will be all over it; calculating the electoral and political capital to be  gained from either stopping HS2 at Birmingham or promising high speed rail investment in the North instead.  It has never been more important to bang the drum for the North and make the political, business and economic case for HS2 “all the way” as well as NPR.  It is time for  Northern MPs of all parties together with Northern Metro Mayors, political and business leaders to come together and hold this Prime Minister to account like no other.  He needs to feel the pressure to deliver on his pre-election promises.

This, by quite a long way, is the most profound political crisis in living memory. The prospects are not good and the only certainty is profound uncertainty. Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. 

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