Parliament wants to halt Brexit, but a no-deal Brexit may be unstoppable. Or not.
For most of the last two years, the conventional wisdom on Brexit has been that a no-deal Brexit was impossible because it was certain to be blocked by a Remain-majority House of Commons. For the last few months, however — roughly since it became clear that Boris Johnson was about to be elected Tory leader and prime minister — the conventional wisdom has changed to the view that a no-deal Brexit is now unstoppable.
In both cases, the conventional wisdom was and is wrong. The best approximation to the truth is that both these outcomes are possible but that there are large obstacles in the way of either: A no-deal Brexit is at risk because a majority of MPs want to block it at all costs; the blocking of a no-deal Brexit is at least as difficult because MPs earlier voted by a huge majority to legislate an automatic no deal if Parliament couldn’t agree on a deal, and now there is no apparent majority for any available deal.
As I’ve argued before, Brexit is now the Rubik’s Cube of British politics.
Consider, first, the idea proposed by Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, the brain-heavy Dominic Cummings: The prime minister, if he lost a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons while pursuing a no-deal outcome, would simply dissolve Parliament and declare a general election on a date after October 31 so that Brexit would occur automatically.
I should issue a brief accuracy warning at this point. Cummings has been extensively profiled, notably by Iain Martin here, and the upshot is that his strategy is rooted in deception: He is almost never doing what he seems to be doing; he misdirects opponents and throws them off balance. Well perhaps, because if not, he has given his opponents plenty of time to think of counter-moves to his proposal of running out the election clock on Brexit.
As to the proposal itself, the prime minister is constitutionally entitled (indeed expected) to remain in office for two weeks after losing a first no-confidence vote while everyone tries to find if there’s a Commons majority for him or someone else. Nothing very dramatic there. Boris would certainly stay in office after the passage of the first vote. Only if some other political figure were then to assemble majority support and inflict a second defeat on Boris would he be required to resign and thereby lose the right to call an election.