Oliver Letwin’s intervention in favour of a second referendum may turn out to be of real political significance. To understand why, let’s start by returning to Boris Johnson’s options, assuming that he isn’t able to agree a deal with the EU before October 31.
They are, first, to extend, which would break his word. Second, not to apply for an extension, which would break the law. Third, to resign. It may be that there is a fourth option unclear at present – for example, a legal appeal against some defect in the Benn Bill. But at any rate, such appear to be the Prime Minister’s choices, regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision next week on progogation, and other action in the courts.
ConservativeHome concluded earlier this week that, faced with these choices, Johnson might do best to resign. We added that this anti-No Deal Commons might then tolerate Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister for as long as it took him to apply for the extension. After which he would be no confidenced, and a general election would take place.
We added that there was a danger such a scheme might work too well. In other words, that Corbyn could be kept in place by MPs as Prime Minister for months, not weeks. Or that it might not work at all, because he would be unacceptable to the Commons, which would insist on putting someone else into Number Ten.
The Letwin plan has further complicated these already mind-bending possibilites. It should be viewed alongside Tom Watson’s almost identical proposal as a kind of pincer movement on Johnson, intended or unintended. Both now support a referendum before an election. Which raises the following line of thought.
To date, the so-called rebel alliance has been unable to resolve a simple question about extension, namely: “what is it for?” The referendum plan answers it by breathing new life into a familiar idea. “It is for allowing the Commons the chance to put Brexit back to the people,” comes the response.
Now there is still a majority, as far as can be seen, in the Commons against another public vote. Motions supporting a second referendum have twice failed, though not by all that much: one fell short by 13 votes second time round, back in April; another by 27, the week before.
So there would almost certainly be a further struggle in Parliament over a second plebiscite. But one can see how, were Johnson still Prime Minister in the event of extension, his premiership would slowly be bled to death while MPs debated a second referendum and other plans – with his Government still unable to obtain a majority for an election.
And were not still Prime Minister? At this point, further complexities kick in.
As we say, the Commons would be unlikely to settle on a second referendum quickly, if at all. Were it to do so, a Bill to enact it would take time. David Cameron’s original EU referendum bill took over six months to pass through Parliament, gaining first reading in May 2015 and royal assent in December of that year.
While it is possible to imagine MPs putting Corbyn into Number Ten briefly to agree an extension, before pitching him out again to ensure an election, it is very hard to picture them doing so for several months. For even if a second referendum bill passed through Parliament faster than the first did, its passage would surely take many weeks.
It is here that the Letwin/Watson plan begins to run into problems. One can see why most Labour MPs, perhaps the SNP and some of the minor parties would support a Corbyn-led, John McDonnell-driven government that would hold office for several months.
But Jo Swinson presumably would not, since propping up the Labour leader would run the risk of legitimising him among her party’s target voters. Nor, it appears, would Letwin, and most of the 21 Tory dissidents who so recently lost the whip.
Instead, the rebel alliance would cast around for an alternative Prime Minister. Let us call this person Ken Clarke. Or Hillary Benn. Or Letwin himself. Or even Watson. One can see that how such a premiership would suit all of these, and those who think like them.
For a Clarke premiership lasting several months, with all the above in place in Cabinet, would raise the prospect of realignment. If they could all work together so smoothly, after all, wouldn’t the old party allegiances look a bit out of date? Why should not this “moderate centre” coalesce permanently, and isolate “the extremes?”
Nick Boles would come on board. So would Anna Soubry. Philip Hammond would already be in place. The Speaker would provide procedural aid. This new force of “progressives”, cheered on inter alia by George Osborne’s Evening Standard, would begin to work as an alliance with the Liberal Democrats, who would already be well represented in this new coalition. But you will have spotted the red fly in this pinkish ointment.
For if we can work all this out, so can Corbyn. He would fight with as much of the Labour Party as he can command to stifle such a centrist infant at birth. And would work in strange alliance with someone who has a mutual interest in doing so too: Boris Johnson, or whoever was Conservative leader at this point in time. Seumas Milne, meet your new best friend: Dominic Cummings.
We apologise for burdening our readers with yet more speculation, all of which could be rendered out of date tomorrow by some new twist in the tale. But the current floating of electoral reform – as by Amber Rudd in her recent speech which we carry today – doesn’t come from nowhere.
Behind the scenes, conversations are being had; possibilities are being broached; understandings half-reached. Perhaps Johnson will get his deal after all. Or the EU suddenly veto extension, and put us all out of our uncertainty. In the meantime, though, watch Letwin, the man with a claim to the title of: our Real Prime Minister.