Writing About Brexit: The House of Lords Fails To Filibuster

EdinburghEye on Ko-FiThis was first posted on Facebook on 5th September 2019, with support from my Ko-Fi network.

I stayed up til after 1am last night listening to the House of Lords debate the No-to-No-Deal-Brexit bill.

(The last time I did this it was when the Lords were debating equal marriage.)

There was a group of less than a hundred peers who were trying to prevent the bill passing – effectively, a filibuster. Endless references to “Lord True’s manuscript amendment G-9-c-x-zzzzz.”

Something over two hundred peers stayed from 3pm til after 1am consistently voting down the amendments proposed by the Brexiter peers. I was impressed by their tenacity and endurance.

Lord True started talking at one point about how they had never had a guillotine in the House of Lords and shouldn’t start now. He meant not the humane device for removing heads but the introduction of a rule that requires debate on a Bill to be terminated at a fixed time. Another peer pointed out to him that proroguing Parliament was effectively a guillotine and Lord True flew into a little peer-ish tantrum about how prorogue was suspension of Parliament and not a guillotine. Hanging rather than beheading, in other words.

Around 1am the party Whips had a negotiation huddle and sometime around the 18th amendment came to a conclusion: The Lords can continue to debate the bill over Friday, it will return to the Commons on Monday, and the government have agreed it shall receive Royal Assent 5pm Monday – making No Deal Brexit unlawful.

Jeremy Corbyn told Boris Johnson that he wouldn’t consider a general election until this bill had become law. Boris Johnson has committed to proroguing Parliament next week – that is, any time from 5pm Monday to Thursday evening.

He has, therefore, three and a half days to try to provoke Corbyn into agreeing to have Labour vote for a general election under the Fixed Term Parliament Act – which would mean Boris Johnson could set the date.

I don’t think Corbyn wants a general election before November. I could be wrong – no one’s let me in on what Corbyn’s thinking – but here’s how I see it.

If Johnson has control of the general election timetable, he will undoubtedly modify the prorogation of Parliament. He’s said he wants to have a general election on 15th October, but he may be lying about that. He is certainly hoping that by having a general election before the EU Summit on 17/18th October, he can go to the summit with a majority of MPs in his corner – whether Tory or The Brexit Party Ltd – and come back declaring the situation impossible and repeal the Act which requires him to write to the EU on the 19th for an extension.

Of course Johnson may instead get a hung Parliament. I think that’s the most likely result of an October election. But Corbyn wouldn’t want that either. The best chance of a Labour majority (or even a Labour / SNP / LibDem majority) is a general election after Boris Johnson has been roundly defeated on Brexit.

Without a general election, Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament stands – which means he has to have a Queen’s Speech on 14th October, and schedule a debate for the Queen’s Speech to be voted on 14-16th October, and having at most 289 MPs, he will lose the vote. Again.

Of course, Johnson can try to win back 21 newly-Independent MPs to the fold even only to vote for his Queen’s Speech, but he would have to win back all of them – and I doubt he can.

Once Johnson loses his vote of confidence, this triggers the two-week provision of the Fixed-Term Parliament Act in which the leader of the Opposition has that time to form a government. If Corbyn cannot do so, this triggers a general election – last Thursday in November, I think.

So while Boris Johnson is in Brussels at the EU Summit, he may not even have a government. (This is, I think, the only argument that could lead ex-Tories such as Ken Clarke and Nicholas Soames to at least pass the Queen’s Speech – but they are more likely to argue that Boris Johnson should resign.)

Boris Johnson could, of course, change the dates on which Parliament is prorogued. But it is customary for Parliament to have a recess over conference season. And at some point, I presume, it becomes difficult to impossible to change the date of the State Opening of Parliament – it is a big, traffic-stoppping event in central London that has to be planned for in advance.

And, on 19th October, after his Queen’s Speech has been voted down in the Commons, after he attended a EU Summit as a prime minister without a government, Boris Johnson has by law to write to the EU requesting an extension – and as the UK is about to have either a caretaker government with Corbyn as PM, if a majority of MPs can agree what to do about Brexit, or else a general election: Either one is sufficient for the EU to agree to an extension.

Unless of course Boris Johnson resigns. (Helpfully) The Tory conference in Manchester, 29th September – 2nd October, would be a great venue for that. And if Johnson resigns and is replaced by a Tory leader who could get those 21 MPs back into the fold and provide a plan for Brexit that Brexiter Labour MPs would vote for, everything changes again.

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