Brexit: Boris vs the Rebel Alliance

Brexit: Boris vs the Rebel Alliance

September 2019 | Politics

After an extraordinary fortnight in British political history, a minority government finds it stuck in office but not in power. Not for much longer.

After a remarkable week for British Democracy, Parliament is now suspended until mid October. Legal attempts to block the Prorogation of Parliament may have succeeded for now, but the government has no intention of recalling the Commons, so the court decision to block Prorogation is merely symbolic. Doing so would be pointless as Parliament is controlled by the opposition. The government has lost its majority and is now trapped between a bitterly divided electorate and Boris Johnson's increasingly long list of enemies.

The Special Advisor

There was much talk in late August of the Prime Minister's most senior advisor. Dominic Cummings has become the shadowy puppet master moving all the actors towards the inevitable outcome of No Deal Brexit. It has since become clear that while Cummings has a lot of power over the Prime Minister, the rest of the House of Commons are far less inclined to blindly following his lead.

Cummings is a PR man. His genius lies in the ability to cut through the noise and pitch a simple message that appeals to the greatest number of people. In 2016, that message was 'Take Back Control'. In 2019 it has been 'October 31st: Do or Die'. He can win over the public but has been less skilful in predicting the actions of other politicians and responding to their moves, which means that the government's Brexit policy now looks impossible to deliver.

Plan A

Plan A was a general election in mid October just before the EU Summit. A victorious Boris intended to travel to Brussels in the wake of a hypothetical election triumph and present his demand for a revised Withdrawal Agreement without the Backstop, threatening No Deal if it wasn't agreed. It is doubtful that the European Council would have given to such open blackmail, but likely that Boris would have felt obliged to follow through with his No Deal threat. Either way, Britain would have left the EU on time.

It's a strategy familiar from Cummings time advising Michael Gove as education secretary; heavy on grandstanding and populist threats but light on diplomacy and consensus-building. Gove attempted to transform the English school system and made no attempt to make allies when doing it, leading to a significant backlash from hostile teaching unions. In the end, Gove became the most unpopular education secretary in history among parents too, and was reluctantly demoted by David Cameron to resolve one of his coalition's biggest policy headaches.

Deal, what Deal?

This time the failure is due to Labour's unexpected refusal to support a general election. Jeremy Corbyn has spent the past two years campaigning for one, even when it cost him his own reputation and a large chunk of the Labour Party's support. No one credibly predicted that the opposition would refuse an election, but it appears that Corbyn's personal desire has been overruled by more cautious figures in his party. Quite now long that stance will last its unknown, but it is now virtually impossible for a general election to take place before late November.

As a consequence, the Conservatives are having to scramble around for a Plan B Brexit policy. The previously rejected idea of a Northern Ireland only backstop has been revived alongside various other Northern Ireland only customs arrangements. Ironically, it was the ERG and the DUP who killed off these ideas in the first place, despite it being the preferred option for both the EU and Theresa May. With the ERG now in control of the Conservative party and the government lacking a majority, DUP support is no longer required so the Northern Ireland only backstop plan is being revived. It will still need opposition support to pass and probably far more than the 30-40 Labour deal supporters it is likely to get.

Other deal ideas are being floated too, but sources in Brussels indicate that no serious negotiations are taking place. The government has set itself a hard deadline to leave for electoral reasons, and now appear to be unable to negotiate the Brexit agreement needed to meet that deadline. Many people on the Remain side do not believe that the Conservatives even want a deal, but instead are stringing their MPs along in the hope they only discover the truth when it is too late. The 21 MPs expelled from the party last week all belong to this camp. Those members still have many friends and allies on the backbenches, which Boris has now discovered.

No Deal

Conspiracy theories about Boris are probably false. The Conservatives rejected the opportunity to forge an electoral pact with the Brexit Party and guarantee victory at the next election. An arrangement is undoubtedly possible on paper, but the price is too high. For a start, the Brexit Party will want a clear run at a large chunk of Labour's northern Leave seats, some of which the Tories want for themselves. The real deal-breaker is Farage's opposition to any form of Brexit deal. He wants to go straight to No Deal, whilst most Conservatives do actually want a new withdrawal agreement and despite the rhetoric are very reluctant to pursue No Deal.

The Conservatives only ever considered the idea because of concerns about Farage's impact on their vote, but have dismissed such concerns as they are confident that they can win over most of it during an October General Election. An evenly split opposition makes their chances of getting a majority much easier than in 2017, where the anti-Tory vote coalesced around Jeremy Corbyn. This could happen again next time, but it is far less likely. Particularly in a pre-Brexit winter General Election where many No Deal supporters will be voting for Farage.

Strangely, a post Brexit election would probably see a much larger Conservative majority, as middle class remainers who have switched to the Liberal Democrats over Brexit return to their traditional party. However, without a new election there is no path to get any form of Brexit through Parliament. Avoiding No Deal is the only thing politicians agree on. Hence the No Deal brinkmanship, as it is the only way everybody will agree to anything. The overwhelming desire to avoid the risk of No Deal, as well as the economic hit that would result mean that such a strategy is doomed to fail.


Ultimately, a general election is a massive gamble for everyone except the SNP, who are guaranteed to gain seats following the Labour collapse and Ruth Davidson's resignation. The 4 way split in England means that small swings during the campaign will fundamentally change the result. Another hung parliament and continued deadlock is the most likely outcome on current polling numbers. There will be a lot of shock gains in the event a vote does take place this year.

A less toxic Labour leader would be able to shape the opposition rebel alliance into a stable coalition government capable of negotiating a softer Brexit deal and putting to a referendum. Corbyn is unable to do this, due to his dreadful polling numbers and fear of his left-wing beliefs among swing voters. Nor can Corbyn afford to let another MP become Prime Minister in a Government of National Unity, in case that person becomes a threat to the Labour Leader's position in his own party. Thus, an election will take place as soon as the polls start swinging in the opposition's favour.

If that election results in Labour losing seats, then a Progressive Alliance government led by a compromise figure will take office. If Labour gain seats than Corbyn should have enough authority to take office as Prime Minister. The Tories will probably be the largest party, but it is unlikely they will win sufficient seats to form a government, even with DUP support. They are guaranteed too many losses in Scotland and London.


If a genuine emergency ensures, such as the PM refusing to follow the Benn anti-No Deal Law, then a Labour leadership loyalist acceptable to the Liberal Democrats and Conservative Rebels would need to be found to step up as Prime Minister. The frequently suggested Ken Clarke would not be acceptable to the Labour leadership, because of his association with the Conservatives. Harriet Harman or Margaret Beckett are sometimes named as potential options and are much more likely.

If a Government of National Unity did take office, it would probably last longer than most expect. Once in office, they would feel an obligation to sort out Brexit, which for all the opposition parties means a second referendum. Either way, a deal followed by a second referendum will happen, but Remainers might end up disappointed by the result. The only way the Conservatives can stop it is to win a majority in a 2019 General Election, which is definitely possible but not the racing certainty it seemed last week.

Dominic Cummings probably won't be a player in the Brexit saga for too much longer; his stint in Downing Street is only temporary. Even this brief spell in charge has transformed a Brexit debate that was becoming increasingly stale, by uniting the opposition in a way that had never seemed possible previously. In doing so, he has made the passage of a Brexit deal much more likely. Few Brexiters will accept any deal offered by opposition parties committed to a second referendum. They will need to. An opposition deal negotiated by Remainers is now their best chance of getting Brexit delivered.

Written by Alan Chatfield