Westminster moiling in multiple plots

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Joanna Cherry QC MP

By Russell Bruce

Newsnet has so far identified five maybe six plots aimed at MPs taking control of Parliament with the aim of – well that’s more complex because there are multiple manoeuvres with different objectives. Some plots are intended to change the Brexit outcome from May’s plan, while Corbyn’s vote of confidence gambit is complicated by internal concerns and plots to remove him as leader. Newspaper headlines of a coup are an over simplification. It is all heading for a right royal rammy.

The video from The Convention featuring Joanna Cherry’s speech has caused concern and confusion with those impatiently waiting for Indyref2. A friend the other day said “May you live in interesting times” is a Chinese curse. Nobody has ever unearthed a Chinese source for the quote and it is more likely an English construction attributed to interpretation of the speeches of Joseph Chamberlain.

The plotters are certainly digging up curses on May, her government, her plan, so here is another from a burlesque version of the witches scene in McBeth ” Double, double, toil and trouble: Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. Three home wins and a sixpenny double.”

As long as the Scottish Government is a devolved government we need to use Westminster to our advantage when opportunity knocks. SNP MPs have used their position as the third party to great effect in recent months. The greater the turmoil, the more the Scottish electorate will come to view Westminster as buried in a past Scotland should leave behind.

The chaos at Westminster is an opportunity and SNP MPs are playing a critical part. The objectives are straightforward and strategic. The UK leaving the EU in whatever form allows us to seek a solution that would minimise trading obstacles post independence, in whatever form of Brexit finally emerges. Scotland needs a surefooted route to independence, so bear with me as I explain the possible procedures and stages behind what Joanna outlined as a possible way forward.

In a recent article I indicated the strong possibility May, on losing the parliamentary vote on her deal on 15th, would then go over the head of parliament and call a general election in an attempt to obtain a House of Commons more to her liking. With the current turmoil any general election could come even sooner than I suggested in ‘Is England spiking democracy’s guns”.  As soon as 15th March, or not at all.

The procedures for calling a general election are set out in the Fixed-term Parliament Act (FTPA). On the 18th April 2017 May decided to go to the country in the hope of a larger majority. Nothing ever quite seems to work out for Mrs May. The procedure, which requires a vote of two-third of members, was duly passed the following day. There are then a few days to tidy up outstanding parliamentary business before the dissolution of parliament with the election held six weeks later. On the last occasion the date was set for 8th June 2017.

There is a second method provided by the FTPA. If a vote of no confidence is called and passes then within 14 days the government must win a vote of confidence to remain in office. If it loses then a general election is called.

Under the first provision of the FTPA the general election would take place on 8th or 15th March. With the second two-stage provision the election might be a little later, around the end of March. But there is more.

May you live in interesting times Mrs May

If an alternative government can be formed following a no confidence vote the second part of the procedure, that is the government seeking a motion of confidence, does not happen and there is no general election. If there is enough support for what Joanna Cherry described as a temporary Alliance Government, parliament can take control of Brexit and probably a few more things besides. This is not a National Government like that of the 1930s because it has limited intentions; to remove the possibility of No Deal and arrange for a second referendum on leaving the EU. The parties within the alliance will set out the options. They might even, as individual parties, campaign for different outcomes.

The price for SNP cooperation would be a firm agreement on granting a Section 30 order when the Scottish Parliament asked for one – not the £1bn the DUP demanded of May. The only certainty of a majority for anything in the Commons is to knock out any chance of leaving with No Deal. The most likely options are Customs Union and Single Market or Remaining in the EU. Different outcomes in the four nations could lead to different future relations with the EU – but tricky.

One cross-party group are looking at a Norway option- also tricky.

Corbyn: fly in the ointment

Corbyn is not in favour of either of these options which raises the difficulty of an ‘Alliance Government’ getting the numbers. An ‘Interim Administration’ might have slightly better odds. Corbyn wants a Customs Union and bits of the Single Market. It is a small advance but the Single Market comes as a whole. Corbyn wants Brexit and a general election. Labour Party target seats are in Leave voting constituencies. Seats they won with a small majority are screaming we are not ready: “We will shortly [Wednesday] be expected to vote in a no confidence motion. Unfortunately we are not confident. We note your public statements that the party is election-ready. This does not reflect our experience”

Meanwhile the party activists supporting remaining in the EU, comprising the younger members in Momentum and remnants of Blairism are looking for a way to come together. The latter are scratching their heads on how to get rid of Corbyn and the new generation from the last influx are either leaving or beginning to mull over making an alliance with former Blairites.

That’s a fine mess you got us into Jeremy

The Tories are also plotting

They used to do this with remarkable efficiency but they are constrained. Getting rid of May means replacing her and there is no time. So some have hatched a plot for members to take over the running of the Commons meaning the government would not be in charge of business and could not get anything passed. This is scheduled to take place after May loses the vote on her deal. Quite possibly before Corbyn’s vote of no confidence in the government.

The Brexiteers’ incompetent move to remove May failed but they remain a vocal element on the Tory benches and would be incandescent watching fellow members flush their Beautiful Brexit down the Westminster sewer.

All of this makes it important that independence supporters stay calm and let SNP MPs be seen to be working for a solution that worked for the UK as well as Scotland. Our MPs at Westminster are now admired by many in England. A Brexit solution, what ever that is, comes before the move to Indyref2.

So lets just pause, stay cool, take time to think and look at a series of recent events that demonstrate the SNP through cross-party cooperation has delivered. First there is the European Court of Justice’s decision that Article 50 can be withdrawn and that the UK would retain its rebate and opt outs in that event. Then there are three defeats parliament inflicted on the government last week.

May’s government of irreconcilables has wasted everybody’s time for nearly two years. Parliament has had enough and the real prospect of a no deal outcome has created a rare situation where the unthinkable might just be possible to end May’s tormented government.

Why a general election is a bad idea

Never thought I would say that. We are all in previously unthinkable territory. Precedent indicates this is the point when the country goes to the polls. For many reasons this is not the time.

The outcome may not resolve this crisis; would waste time when May has the country hovering over the cliff; leave May’s ministers in charge of government until the election result is in; make cross party working on key issues more difficult after a confrontational election; two more months during which nothing is resolved or progressed.

There is only one real alternative and that is for parliamentarians to resolve the crisis by doing what the electorate expects when they send MPs to Westminster. Their job is to ensure people can sleep at night knowing government is working in their interest. That has not been the case for quite a number of years.

Will this be difficult?

Very, and not just for the SNP. There are prizes to be gained. Most important is a written guarantee that the Scottish Government has the right to a Section 30 when the Scottish Parliament decides to hold the next independence referendum. The Scottish Parliament guaranteed as a permanent feature of the government of Scotland with all May’s appropriated powers given back to the Scottish Parliament. It is a big step to move from being supportive of a new progressive Alliance Government at Westminster from a confidence and supply basis to being a part of government, as Ms Cherry has suggested. With 35 MPs the SNP would be providing over a tenth of the probable total forming the new administration and would come with some ministerial positions. Goodbye David Mundell at the Scottish Office and a new more collaborative relationship with the Scottish Parliament installed.

It will also be very difficult for all the other parties. It would carve a new chapter in the way Westminster works. If it fails, remain supporting Scotland would see the SNP had tried to make Westminster work and break paralysis threatening all the nations of the UK.

70% of voters in Scotland now support Scotland remaining in the EU

If an interim administration with limited objectives is more likely we could gain less from a unionist dominated parliament.

Would there be an opposition?

Without a doubt – vociferous, angry and verging on the demented. The opposition benches would comprise the Conservative Party, the DUP and probably most of the 8 independents. Any Conservative members that supported the Alliance would be excommunicated and most likely contribute on a confidence and supply basis.

Newsnet conclusion

We need to be honest. This is a long shot at best but that does not mean we should not try. SNP policy is membership of the EU, as it has been since 1989. From the start of the present debacle the SNP have argued for the UK to remain in the EU. The compromise position is membership of the Single Market and Customs Union. From advocating a progressive alliance at Westminster to participating in an alliance movement advocating a temporary Alliance Government to resolve the Westminster blockage is not such a large step.

As a devolved administration, still within the union, the Scottish Government has a responsibility to work for the best possible outcome for Scotland, one that works for our economy and jobs without a hard border between Scotland and England which would raise similar problems to those created by Brexit in Ireland.

We should not under-estimate a widespread feeling across the UK that the UK government and parliament has failed. It is still difficult to see Corbyn being a willing participant. He appears to be stuck in a railway carriage occasionally sliding a few inches along the track. There is no sign of the engine and it turns out it has not been organised. If he really has ambition for government he needs to get on a train with actual traction. Hanging around for the Conservative government to crash out and therefore take the blame for the resulting mess is not the mark of a serious and ambitious politician.

Serious politicians want to be leading, driving a positive agenda, giving people a sense of direction. Hanging around for May in the baggage carriage to derail is a sign of weakness. over caution, and lack of self belief.

Whilst on the subject of elections

If article 50 is extended or withdrawn, as the Norway group and others seem to advocate, then we remain a member of the EU. That would require us to participate in the EU elections scheduled for 23rd May. An additional reason why a general election in March or even April would not be wise. It will have to come at some point despite what I have argued unless May gets another go at going to the country. Leaving it later than after the summer though would produce a democratic deficit if May has gone.

Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Cool it with a baboon’s blood, Then the charm is firm and good