Dominic Cummings is hell-bent on quitting the EU on 31 October. He’ll try to persuade his boss, Boris Johnson, to do whatever it takes – even if this means flouting the constitutional convention that prime ministers must resign if they lose a vote of no confidence and a rival can win a vote of confidence. Pro-Europeans inside and outside parliament must foil Cummings’ devilish plot. So I have devised a nine-point plan that should do the trick.
1. Don’t go for a premature election
There can’t be a snap election unless either two thirds of MPs support one or Jeremy Corbyn calls a vote of no confidence in Johnson and wins. Either way, there can’t be an election without the Labour leader’s approval. So he shouldn’t go for one until and unless the conditions are ripe.
At the moment, an election would be a bad idea. Cummings might succeed in delaying it until after we’ve already crashed out of the EU. Even if he doesn’t, Johnson might win the election by squeezing Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. If the pro-European forces stay divided, the Tories could get a majority of MPs with as little as a third of the popular vote.
2. Pass a law calling for a referendum
A majority of MPs probably now back a new referendum. That is a change from the spring when several Final Say motions narrowly failed in parliament. Johnson’s arrival in Downing Street is responsible for the swing in opinion: sensible Conservative MPs are scared of his plan to crash out of the EU. They are also outraged by Cummings’ threats to turn our constitution upside down.
To get a new referendum, two laws will be required. The first will have to force the prime minister to ask the EU to delay Brexit for at least six months, so there’s enough time to hold it. The second will set out the rules for that referendum. If Johnson stays on as prime minister, the people should be asked to choose between staying in the EU and what he wants (that is, crashing out).
3. Move fast
The clock is ticking towards 31 October, so there’s no point in waiting to pass the law forcing Johnson to ask for extra time. As soon as MPs get back from parliamentary “recess”, on 3 September, they should grab the first opportunity to do so.
There is still a question about how to get the time to debate the legislation. Cummings will use every trick in the book to stop MPs having their say. The government doesn’t plan to push any laws of its own through as it fears MPs will hijack them, according to the Mail on Sunday.
Normally, the government controls the parliamentary timetable. But ultimately MPs have the power to make their own rules – and so should be able to grab control of the timetable. The speaker, John Bercow, has already shown that he sees himself as the House of Commons’ servant, not the government’s lapdog. He said yesterday: “Parliament will be heard and nobody is going to get away as far as I am concerned with stopping that happening.”
Parliament is expected to take a three week break from 13 September for the party conference season. But if pro-European MPs can’t find a way to ram through legislation by then, they should refuse to call a recess – and keep working until they succeed.
4. Sack the PM
If MPs can’t pass a law by mid-October, they will have to switch tack – and sack Boris Johnson. That will be when Jeremy Corbyn should call a vote of no confidence. But that doesn’t mean he should be gagging for an election – Brexit must first be delayed, otherwise we’ll crash out before the people have given their view about whether that’s what they want.
If Johnson loses a no confidence vote, however, convention dictates that he shouldn’t do anything to prejudge what a future government might decide. In this context, that means he should ask the EU for extra time to negotiate our departure. But since he can’t be relied to stick to convention, he’ll probably have to be physically removed from Downing Street.
5. Form an emergency national government
Under another convention, Johnson has to resign if he loses a no confidence vote and a rival can win one. If he refuses to go, the Queen can fire him. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act gives a 14 day period to see if that anybody can form an alternative government before an election is called. If they can, the new prime minister will be able to ask the EU to delay Brexit.
Unfortunately, it won’t be easy for anybody to win a vote of confidence. Corbyn would be the natural first choice, but many Conservative MPs who hate the idea of crashing out also dislike the idea of the Labour leader in Downing Street. The same goes for the Liberal Democrats.
Meanwhile, the Labour leadership is saying it won’t back a compromise candidate, such as Labour’s Keir Starmer or the Tories’ David Lidington, as a caretaker prime minister. And an idea by Caroline Lucas, the Green MP and former Green Party leader, to form a government made up of just women has not gone down well, even though we certainly need women to play a much bigger role in our political life.
If the legislative route to a referendum fails, pro-European MPs have got to rise above their differences and rally behind somebody as an emergency prime minister. They don’t need to form a formal coalition, as they could also support a minority government from the backbenches. But they must put the national interest first.
6. Still don’t rush into an election
An emergency government could call an election, but it shouldn’t rush into doing so. It should first consider whether it would be better to hold a new referendum. Much will depend on whether the pro-European forces think they can win an election which, in turn, will be influenced by how unified they are. There’s also a question of how long an emergency government could last. If it can hang together for six months, it may be best to go for a referendum – and then have an election after that.
7. Work together
If there’s an election before Brexit, pro-Europeans have to work together. They must form a Remain Alliance, fielding one candidate wherever possible in all seats which it is realistic to win from the pro-Brexit Tories and the few pro-Brexit Labour MPs. Otherwise, they will split the vote and Johnson could emerge victorious.
Pro-Europeans will also have to work together after an election because it is most unlikely that Labour will have an overall majority. Again, they will have to put party politics behind them and look to the national interest. If Labour promises in its manifesto to cancel Brexit, it would revoke Article 50 and we’d stay in the EU. More likely, Corbyn will promise a referendum. He will then have to hold together some sort of minority or coalition government for at least six months.
8. What is the question?
In this scenario, the choice in the Final Say should probably be between staying in the EU or leaving with a deal. Although Corbyn could negotiate a different political declaration setting out our future relations with the EU to the one Theresa May negotiated, the only divorce deal on offer will be the miserable one she produced.
Johnson and Farage will scream blue murder if the crash-out option isn’t on the ballot paper. But if they’ve just lost an election, why should they set the question? And why should a national unity government be saddled with trying to implement a mad policy in the unfortunate event that the people decided they wanted a no-deal Brexit?
“No deal” should only be on the ballot paper if Johnson is still in Downing Street and owns the consequences of it.
9. Build "Project Hope"
Whether we have a referendum or an election, we will need winning arguments. In 2016, we lost partly because David Cameron relied just on fear.
Of course there is a lot to fear from a no-deal Brexit, but we also need to offer the voters hope. We need to show that the things people care about can be made better if we stay in the EU.
Fortunately, there are lots of good arguments: we have a better chance to fix the big global problems such as the climate crisis if we are an influential voice in a powerful club of like-minded nations; and we can fix the problems at home – whether it’s care for the elderly, knife crime or lack of public investment in huge swathes of the country – if we have a healthy economy and our politicians aren’t fixating about Brexit to the exclusion of everything else.
While much of the action in coming months will be in parliament, pro-European citizens must keep mobilising for the fight ahead. They must keep writing to their MPs, they must keep signing petitions and they must get out on the streets – especially for the big People’s Vote/Final Say march planned for 19 October.