A Nightmare on Downing Street

Sienna Rodgers
© UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor
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Less than a week before Halloween, the government has got itself a new sound bite: we have a ‘zombie parliament’, ministers are now keen to quip at every available opportunity. Combined with Boris Johnson’s demand that MPs vote for an election to take place on December 12th, oddly in exchange for the Brexit bill being unpaused, this is supposed to shame the Labour Party. Never mind that, as Jon Ashworth points out, this is the same parliament that has just passed both the withdrawal agreement bill at second reading and the Queen’s Speech. Its apparently horrible act is to have requested more time to debate and scrutinise the Brexit legislation, which the Prime Minister introduced and almost immediately shelved entirely of his own volition.

If we’re all being entirely honest, there is a good chance of parliament not approving the Brexit bill as a whole. As I have already argued, it’s likely most of the Labour rebels would not approve of it unamended. Does that make this a zombie parliament? Although the lack of clear decision-making and constant delay makes the whole process incredibly frustrating, the make-up of parliament only represents the stupefaction of the wider public that is equally divided in complicated ways over Brexit. And anyway, it is the government that is threatening to effectively go on strike – making sure parliament is zombie-like – unless MPs go for an election.

Boris Johnson says he will put the matter of a snap poll to a vote in the Commons again next week, and under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act he would need two-thirds of MPs to approve the proposal. Is that going to happen? Last night offered a classic Labour whirlwind of media chaos, with contradictory briefings going out at the same time. The official situation now is that Labour’s position is not yet decided and Jeremy Corbyn will give the final verdict once the EU has issued its response to the extension request. As ever, Labour says it will back an election “once no deal is off the table” – which gives it some wiggle room, because even if Brexit is delayed until January 31st the opposition could argue that a December 12th election does not allow sufficient time for the next cliff edge to be avoided.

The leadership largely aligns with Labour left activists in thinking that to continue refusing an election is highly embarrassing and not clever either. After all, is this not a vital chance for Remainers to avoid Brexit? MPs can’t keep delaying forever, and another referendum is only possible with a different set of MPs. Ultimately, Labour’s decision will be made on the basis of how other opposition parties react, how much pressure is exerted by key allies at the top as well as the parliamentary party, and the length of the EU’s extension offer. Approval could be conditional on further legislation to prevent against no deal, as Diane Abbott suggested this morning. Or it might simply require the possibility of a 2020 no deal to be stripped out of the Brexit deal and an election earlier than December 12th, as the SNP is suggesting. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.

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