Boris got his Brexit bill approved by Parliament with a swag of Labour party votes – but in principle only. And the opposition has shafted him on his request for an urgent timetable to turn it into legislation before the given Brexit day of 31 October. Nor is the EU putting any pressure on them to move fast – yet.
There are many motives keeping the ramshackle opposition together but two predominate.
The underlying motive for most is a strong reluctance to accept Brexit in any form, even a not-unfavourable compromise. The earlier Theresa May deal was rejected even though it would have kept the UK tied to the EU. The Boris deal is opposed because it won’t.
The more immediate motive is a calculation that stringing out the ratification process can be used to achieve tactical benefits. These might include: discrediting Boris with the ‘hard Brexit’ faction; getting concessions on the deal, its implementation or future EU trade negotiations; getting a referendum on the deal; and, at the very least, hanging on until opposition chances improve for the expected general election. Some MPs undoubtedly entertain hopes of overturning Brexit.
Boris too is responding tactically. He has ‘paused’ the Bill and is blustering about a general election instead (which he is powerless to initiate). He presumably hopes that public frustration with parliamentary shenanigans will crack the opposition united front. But given many of them risk losing their seats in a general election or have written off their parliamentary careers altogether, he would be unwise to hold his breath. Let’s see if he has any other clever ideas: convincing the EU it is in its interests to impose a firm deadline still looks the most promising.
Absent that, it feels like acceleration towards even greater polarisation (yes – it is possible).
A surprising number of voters – at a guess, up to one-third – mostly quietly, sometimes noisily, approve of the anti-Brexit tactics. They would spurn the offered compromises and conclude that, in this case, the end justifies the means. This, in turn, sustains the anti-Brexit parliamentarians.
At the same time, while pro-Brexit forces have come together to back Boris’s compromise Bill, their unity is fragile. Many feel he has made too many concessions (read ‘This flawed deal is a tolerable price to pay for our freedom’ by QC Martin Howe) but want a settlement now and hope this one can be improved over time. Some will nurse a hope that public disgust with delay induces Boris to drop the Bill and campaign on immediate ‘no-deal’ exit.
While it’s not yet clear when, in what form, or even how many times the British people will be asked for a decision on what happens next, they might have something interesting to say about all of this (in)activity on their behalf.