POLITICS
19/10/2019 20:22 BST | Updated 19/10/2019 23:37 BST

How Boris Johnson Can Grab Victory From The Jaws Of His Latest Brexit Defeat

Was this the high water mark for opponents to the prime minister's deal?

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Pique Letwin?

When the ‘Super Saturday’ vote came through, Sir Oliver Letwin looked like one of those footballers who scores against his old side and refuses to celebrate out of respect for his former teammates. The Tory grandee looked more relieved than pleased, whereas Boris Johnson simply looked resigned.

For such an innocuous looking chap, Letwin invokes strong reactions in many Tory Brexiteers, not least the Vote Leave vanguard now occupying No.10. Winston Churchill was said to have said about Clement Attlee that he was ‘a modest man, with much to be modest about’ and that’s just a milder version of the jaundiced view many Brexiteers have of the MP for Dorset West. Downing Street aides were piqued that when he met the PM privately on Friday night, Letwin’s mobile rang and on the line was...the Remainers lawyer-in-chief David Pannick.

But although that majority of 16 looked healthy today , Letwin is the first to say he will now back the PM’s deal when it returns in the form of legislation next Tuesday. If the threat of no-deal is finally, categorically removed by Johnson sending a letter to Brussels for an extension to the UK’s EU membership, he won’t be alone.

That 16 figure feels like it could be slowly washed away over the next three days, as at least six ‘whipless Tories’ like Letwin support Johnson’s deal. Philip Hammond, David Gauke and others have always said they want a deal and they will get their wish. Add in some Labour MPs in Leave areas who have just been waiting for no-deal to be legally outlawed for three months, and you can see the PM winning the day.

Politicos often ask themselves whether we’ve reached ‘Peak Corbyn’. But today it felt like we had reached ‘Peak Letwin’. And although the large crowd in Parliament Square roared when the vote was announced on a huge screen, that too felt like the last dying twitch of a movement that now looks doomed. Appearing to heckle Jacob Rees-Mogg’s 12-year-old son was also an ugly look for a movement that prided itself on being morally superior to the Leavers’ own aggressive tactics.

The pro-People’s Vote MPs will push one final time when the Withdrawal Agreement Bill arrives next week. But having waited and waited for their moment in the hope they can bring more MPs on board, that moment may have now passed. They won’t be able to amend the second reading of the bill, which may itself be passed with a hugely important vote for Johnson’s deal.

‌Most important of all, the People’s Vote campaign has been waiting for ‘moderate’ Tories to come on board (one claimed that half of the 21 would back a referendum), but those same Tories now look ready to call it a day and back the PM. The DUP are so upset with No.10 they are flirting with a second referendum threat, but few think that will happen.

The EU, which will probably hold off until Tuesday to see whether parliament really can pass the deal, may then offer only a short extension to say mid-November to allow time for the legislation and ratification by the EU itself. Again, that can only help Johnson and focus MPs’ minds once more on ‘this deal or no-deal’.

Some pro-EU MPs believe that Tory Brexiteers will peel off Johnson’s plans as soon as they see the cold reality of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. I suspect that’s wishful thinking, particularly as the European Research Group (ERG) has today shown a unity and solidarity that may well survive the next few weeks. And with such tight numbers (Johnson may have a majority of just two next Tuesday), the pro-deal alliance will need to be ultra-disciplined over days of votes.

It’s often said that Boris Johnson’s worst enemy is Boris Johnson. And that could prove the one factor that halts what feels like a tectonic shift towards his deal. The PM reacted to the Letwin defeat today with a defiant line that “I will not negotiate a delay with the EU and neither does the law compel me to do so.” But he told EU council president Donald Tusk in a phone call on Saturday night that he would send the delay letter before 11pm, as the Benn Act demands.

If he hadn’t sent the letter, he would have triggered the resignation of some cabinet ministers and he swiftly put at risk the votes of all those Hammonds and Gaukes. Yes, he could get into a spat in the courts that would prove to Brexit Party voters that he was dragged kicking and screaming into delaying Brexit beyond October 31, but in the process he would have jeopardised his best electoral weapon of all: a deal.

However, his second letter to Tusk (making clear he doesn’t want that extension) means he may buy time to build his numbers next week. The EU could help him hugely by refusing to say anything by Tuesday - their silence effectively telling moderate Tory MPs ‘vote for this or you get no-deal anyway’. Even if the EU grant a short ‘technical’ extension possibly to mid-November, a pre-Christmas election would be impossible. Moreover, it feels we are moving towards a spring election. 

Despite a lack of support from the DUP, Johnson may also get his Queen’s Speech passed, then a Budget passed and end the year on a high. Meanwhile, Labour may well welcome a spring election with Brexit out of the way. Its hope is that Corbyn can ‘do an Attlee’: use a radical manifesto to defeat a sitting Tory PM coming off the back of a big victory, just as it did in 1945.

Johnson’s own slogan ‘get Brexit done’ sounds very much like the one the Tories used for Churchill: ‘Help him finish the job’. Yet the PM’s allies think Corbyn is no Attlee and history won’t repeat itself. The one person who won’t be standing in the election is Sir Oliver Letwin. For him, today really may be Peak Letwin. 

Quote Of The Day

’The Prime Minister will not ask for a delay”.

– The Conservative Party Twitter account.

Saturday Cheat Sheet

The House of Commons voted by 322 to 306 to compel the prime minister to write to Brussels to extend the UK’s membership of the EU from October 31 to January next year.

Boris Johnson has until 11pm to comply with the Benn Act requiring him to send a letter to Brussels seeking an extension. 

Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said another ‘meaningful vote’ debate would be held on Monday. But Speaker John Bercow suggested the move may be a “curious or irregular” attempt to “invalidate” the Letwin vote.

‌The People’s Vote campaign claimed a million people attended their march in London for a second referendum.

What I’m Reading

Forget Trump’s Meltdown, Follow The Testimony – The New Yorker .

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