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Election Battlegrounds 12) Northern Ireland

In 2015 and 2017, we ran a region-by-region overview of the key seats which could decide the general election. We have revived it for 2019, and these battleground profiles run regularly throughout the campaign.

Overview

  • There are 18 parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland. Going into the election the Democratic Unionists held ten, Sinn Féin seven, and the last was represented by an Independent Unionist.
  • The DUP did very well at the last election, increasing their vote from 184,260 to 292,316 on a swing of more than ten points. They will be hard-pressed to hold all their seats, but might be able to offset a probably defeat in Belfast South by finally picking up North Down.
  • For the Ulster Unionists, it’s a grim picture. Both of the seats they won in 2015 look out of reach this time, even with the benefit of a ‘unionist unity’ pact in Fermanagh & South Tyrone. Defeat ought to prompt further introspection into what purpose the party currently serves.
  • Unlike their ‘moderate’ counterparts, the Social Democratic & Labour Party (SDLP) actually appear much better position to recover from their 2017 wipeout, and are the favourites in two of their historic strongholds. As they take the Labour whip at Westminster, this could be important.
  • Sinn Féin had a very good 2017, and ought to be happy if they hold their current seat total. They are in with a shot of unseating Nigel Dodds, but could lose a seat in Londonderry to the SDLP.
  • The Alliance have had a good few years as they capitalise on the failure of the capital-U Unionist parties to offer much to liberal voters, but face an uphill struggle to turn this into Westminster representation. They’re in with a shot in two seats, but would be very pleased to pick up either.

Method

As in 2015 and 2017, we’ll be taking a region-by-region look at the seats which could change hands. These lists aren’t predictions of gains: rather, they’re just seats which we think could be competitive. They might be official party targets, have a small majority, or be subject to other factors which could leave them open to change.

Amongst the resources we’ll be using to steer us through these murky waters are Electoral CalculusUK Polling ReportNumber Cruncher Politics, and Election Polling. For this we’ll also be using this LucidTalk predictor – YouGov’s MRP does not cover Ulster, and nor do Chris Hanretty’s very helpful constituency-by-constituency Brexit vote charts.

We’re also keeping an eye on the work of many other pollsters, psephologists, and analysts, some of whom our assistant editor has collated onto a Twitter list.

Targets by party:

(NB These are our own suggestions of potential attack seats for each party – including those officially designated as targets and others where the incumbent has a relatively small majority, or local factors are at play which may open the seat to change.)

DUP:

North Down: Lady Sylvia Hermon, this seat’s long-standing Independent (formerly Ulster Unionist) MP is standing down, so despite its long history of electing minor parties or independents the DUP should be well-positioned here after cutting her majority from over 9,000 to just over 1,200 last time. LucidTalk thinks this is a close fight between them and the Alliance, with the DUP ahead.

Ulster Unionists:

Fermanagh & South Tyrone: Very often one of the UK’s most marginal seats – in 2010 Sinn Fein held on here by just four votes. Tom Elliott, the UUP leader, won it in 2015 before losing it again by 2017. Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew is defending a majority of 875 and faces a ‘unionist unity’ pact with no DUP candidate, whereas the nationalist SDLP are running against her. Despite this, LucidTalk put Sinn Fein’s odds of holding here at two to one.

South Antrim: As in North Down, this is an inter-unionist contest with no threat of a nationalist win. Danny Kinahan took this during the UUP’s fleeting renaissance in 2015 and lost it at the last election. Despite a very strong local profile, Kinahan is reportedly suffering for his strongly pro-Remain politics in a seat which actually leaned Leave in 2016. LucidTalk give him worse odds than the Alliance and predict a strong likelihood of a DUP hold.

Alliance:

Belfast East: The site of the party’s first electoral breakthrough when they ousted Peter Robinson, the then-leader of the DUP and First Minister, at the 2010 election. The DUP won it back in 2015 and two years later considerably strengthened their majority to almost 8,500. Naomi Long, the Alliance leader and former MP, is running again, and LucidTalk give her a 42 per cent likelihood of unseating the favourites.

North Down: Often described as the Ulster seat most like the mainland, this constituency has a history of returning left-leaning or liberal unionists to Parliament – and that’s a substantial part of the Alliance base. The party doesn’t have a great track record here, bumping along at less than ten per cent of the vote, but it is reasonable to assume a lot of their voters have been backing the now-departed Lady Hermon. LucidTalk puts their chances here at 44 per cent to the DUP’s 47 per cent.

SDLP:

Belfast South: The DUP’s win here last time was the artefact of a very split vote – Emma Little-Pengelly was returned on just 30 per cent of the vote, with a majority of just under 2,000. Whilst the Alliance are running again, Sinn Féin has pulled out, and that makes the SDLP’s Clare Hanna the clear favourite even before factoring the UUP splitting the already-shrinking unionist vote. LucidTalk has them odds-on, with the DUP having just under a one-in-four chance of a surprise hold.

Foyle: An inter-nationalist contest, this was one of the SDLP’s rock-solid seats until Sinn Féin took it last time by just 169 votes. Mark Durkan, their former MP, has since stood for Fine Gael in Dublin at the European elections, but its a sign of how seriously the SDLP are taking this seat that their candidate is Colum Eastwood, their current leader. LucidTalk has them ahead in a very close fight, 48 per cent probability of victory to inn Féin’s 45 per cent.

Sinn Féin:

Belfast North: The prize of prizes. Sinn Féin have been closing in on the Democratic Unionists here for a while, and victory would unseat Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s Westminster leader. After gaining ground in 2015, Dodds saw his majority cut to just 2,000 votes in 2017 as Brexit energised the nationalist electorate. All signs are that this is a very close fight, with LucidTalk favouring a DUP retention by just a handful of probability points.

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David Shiels: The upheaval caused by Brexit is still rocking the fundamental assumptions of Northern Irish politics

Dr David Shiels is a Policy Analyst at Open Europe and also works on contemporary political history.

Since the new Brexit deal emerged in October, the relationship between the Conservative Party and unionism in Northern Ireland has been under strain. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), along with the smaller Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), are pledging to oppose the new Protocol on Northern Ireland (the replacement for the Backstop). Boris Johnson, who once articulated the unionist case against the original Withdrawal Agreement, has been accused of ditching the Unionists in his hurry to secure a deal.

The narrative that Johnson has betrayed the DUP is a powerful one and suits the purposes of the party’s opponents. Although the nationalist parties oppose Brexit and are more critical of Johnson’s deal than Theresa May’s, they are making the most of the Unionists’ discomfort. In the Republic, the persistent view is that Johnson conceded the EU’s demands, agreeing something like the original Northern Ireland-only backstop. The British Prime Minister certainly altered his red lines on customs arrangements, but it is not unhelpful for Leo Varadkar that Irish commentators are giving more attention to the British concessions than to Ireland’s. The Taoiseach also moved by agreeing to a consent mechanism on the new Protocol, effectively removing the guarantee that there would never be a hard border in Ireland. The Agreement in theory allows that the Northern Ireland Assembly could overturn the Protocol arrangements in 2024 or later. The DUP complains that this does not respect the principle of cross-community consent but there is nothing to stop them or the Unionist parties together campaigning for a majority in the Assembly, something they had as recently as 2016.

After the referendum, it quickly became clear that Brexit involved a choice between a close EU-UK relationship and a deal allowing for greater EU-UK divergence but with special arrangements for Northern Ireland. The Remain vote in Northern Ireland, the strength of the Irish Government’s position in relation to the EU, and the institutional tendency on the part of the UK to see special treatment for Northern Ireland as normal, were all powerful factors moving against the sort of outcome that the Unionists might have preferred. In the view of the party’s critics, the DUP is now reaping what it sowed by supporting Leave in 2016. There are signs that the DUP is regretting not voting for the original Withdrawal Agreement. One DUP MP described Johnson’s deal as “worse… than the Agreement that Theresa May brought forward.” But if they wanted a softer Brexit they never articulated it and their alliance with the ERG influenced the debate in the Conservative Party away from such a course of action. A painful break was always possible. The Prime Minister has simply brought forward the decision while securing concessions on the ‘undemocratic’ nature of the Backstop.

Notwithstanding these points, the perception that that Johnson cannot be trusted on the Union may yet seal his political fate. If the Conservatives fall short of an overall majority at the election, they will struggle to convince the DUP to enter into a new confidence and supply arrangement. The DUP could demand he return to Brussels to re-open the deal, a process which would risk a No Deal Brexit. Despite the Unionists’ misgivings about Jeremy Corbyn, some may quietly prefer Corbyn’s alternative plan of a referendum between a soft Brexit and no Brexit. The newly-elected leader of the UUP has said that Remain is better than Johnson’s deal.

A surprising feature of this election in Northern Ireland is the emergence of an informal anti-Brexit pact, which will make a number of DUP seats vulnerable. In South Belfast (a DUP gain from the SDLP in 2017) Sinn Fein are standing aside to give the SDLP a clear run. In North Belfast, held by the DUP’s Nigel Dodds, the SDLP are returning the favour for Sinn Fein, giving anti-abstentionist Remainers an intriguing choice about whether to vote for a candidate who will take his seat to vote the deal down. In East Belfast (which was won by the Alliance Party in 2010 but by the DUP in 2015 and 2017) and North Down (the seat of the retiring independent unionist MP, Lady Hermon) the two nationalist parties are endorsing Alliance, though Alliance is not reciprocating anywhere. The Greens are not standing in these seats and are also endorsing the Remain candidates. The pact is also a response to the old Unionist arrangement which will see the DUP stand aside for the UUP in Fermanagh and South Tyrone (currently held by Sinn Fein but won by the UUP in 2015) while the UUP will return the favour for Dodds in North Belfast. The NI Conservatives are standing in four seats and the Greens are standing in three seats. Only the Alliance Party is running a candidate in each of the 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland.

To some extent, the anti-Brexit pact is really an anti-DUP pact, and the General Election is about scrutinising the DUP’s record in the previous Parliament. On a good day, the DUP might return with ten seats (losing South Belfast but gaining North Down), but the party is very nervous about losing North Belfast to Sinn Fein. On a bad day three of their seats could be vulnerable. As for Sinn Fein, with its abstentionist policy under scrutiny, the party could lose Foyle to the SDLP and Fermanagh and South Tyrone to the UUP. But any increase in the number of Sinn Fein MPs would be a psychological blow to Unionism and would reflect growing disillusionment with Westminster. Unionists are still adjusting to the fact that they can no longer confidently speak as the representatives of the majority voice in Northern Ireland.

Having been unprepared for the consequences of Brexit in the first place, the important thing is that the Unionist parties develop a strategy for the next phase of the negotiations. Indeed, they now have an opportunity to make common cause with business groups and other parties in Northern Ireland as they seek clarifications about how the deal will work in practice.

The fact that there was a visible majority for remaining in the EU in 2016 (and one that appeared to translate into a majority for the Backstop later on) has been disorientating for the DUP. But it may be that many of the voters who gave Northern Ireland a Remain majority in 2016 are constitutionally conservative, and that what they actually want is to maintain the Union with Great Britain as part of the UK while also remaining close to the European Union. The exact balance of that relationship is yet to be worked out, but Unionists should be open to making the new arrangement work.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Henry Hill: Sturgeon turns the knife as Corbyn undermines Labour in Scotland

Sturgeon insists that Corbyn will pay her price for power…

Nicola Sturgeon has insisted that Jeremy Corbyn will grant her another referendum on Scottish independence if that’s what it takes to get into Downing Street, according to the Daily Mail.

The Labour leader has already conceded that he would not “stand in the way” if such a vote but has been flip-flopping over the timing. The SNP have been ratcheting up their price, with Ian Blackford, their Westminster leader, also hinting that the future of Trident could be on the table in any negotiations.

If that wasn’t bad enough for Labour’s beleaguered Scottish wing, Corbyn was also sucked into a row this week over whether or not he’s even a unionist, sparking fresh confusion over his already-ambiguous stance on independence.

Meanwhile Richard Leonard, the Party’s leader in Scotland, was reportedly left “ashen-faced” by the news that Labour could include a stinging windfall tax on the oil industry in their manifesto. The proposal has already been attacked by the trades union representing oil workers, which is one of Scotland’s largest.

…but Salmond trial casts shadow over the SNP

But the Scottish Nationalists’ muscle-flexing over the past week should not disguise the fact that it is anything but sunny skies for Sturgeon’s forces.

Today will see the first court hearing in the case against Alex Salmond, the former First Minister and SNP leader and still one of the independence movement’s few superstars. He has been charged with two counts of attempted rape, nine counts of sexual assault, two of indecent assault and one breach of the peace.

Labour blogger Ian Smart has previously provided some background on what might occur during the trial here and here. It could potentially have ramifications which extend far beyond the fate of Salmond himself. The key question will be who else amongst the tight-knit SNP leadership knew what, and when. It might even bring an early close to Sturgeon’s own career.

Meanwhile there are straws in the wind that the Nationalists may have a tougher time in the general election than previously supposed. In an earlier column I set out the thesis which holds that the Tories could yet make a few gains in Scotland, but now two on-the-ground pieces (from Stephen Daisley and our own Andrew Gimson) suggest the SNP might even be struggling in Stirling, the most marginal Tory-held seat north of the border and one they ought to take at a canter.

Meanwhile Boris Johnson, in contrast to his Labour counterpart, continues to try to bolster his Party’s pro-UK credentials in Scotland. He gave an unequivocal answer to the question of whether the Union was more important than Brexit in the TV debates (although his u-turn on Ulster suggests limits to that sentiment) and reiterated that he would neither debate Sturgeon nor grant her a re-run of the 2014 vote.

As a result, Murdo Fraser suggests that traditional Labour voters are switching to the Conservatives as the anti-SNP option – the key thing which needs to happen for the Tories to hold their position.

Donaldson claims DUP will still have leverage after the election

A senior Democratic Unionist MP has claimed that his party might still carry influence with the Conservatives in the wake of next month’s general election.

According to the News Letter, Sir Geoffrey Donaldson said that he doesn’t expect the Tories to secure a ‘huge majority’, which in turn will give the Northern Irish party ongoing leverage over a Conservative government.

However, this hope will have been undermined by Arlene Foster’s (perfectly understandable) announcement that the Unionists will do nothing to support putting Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. This really leaves them little option but to support Johnson, despite his jettisoning the DUP and his promises on a border in the Irish Sea in a bid to ‘get Brexit done’.

Welsh Government proceeds with plans to give 16-year-olds the vote

Wales Online reports that plans to extend the franchise to those aged 16 and over have taken a ‘huge step forward’ after the Welsh Government decided to bring forward new legislation.

The plans will allow them to vote in Welsh local government elections, along with prisoners serving sentences of less than four years’ duration. The next Welsh local elections are due in 2022.

Other measures included in the bill include extending the number of foreign citizens eligible to vote; forcing independent candidates to declare any party allegiances, and allowing individual councils to choose between using either First Past the Post or the Single Transferable Vote system.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Henry Hill: Johnson ‘vows to end persecution’ of Troubles veterans

Prime Minister promises action on troop prosecutions…

Boris Johnson’s stock in and on Northern Ireland is not high after his u-turn on what he previously claimed was implacable opposition to a border in the Irish Sea.

His deal is already being dubbed the “economic equivalent of the Anglo-Irish Agreement” in some unionist circles, and whilst Conservative MPs have rowed in behind him he still appears to feel the need to offer something to unionist feeling.

Therefore this week the papers splashed with a pledge from the Prime Minister to end the “unfair trials” of soldiers who served in Ulster during the Troubles. According to the Times: “The party will pledge to amend the Human Rights Act to exclude any death in Northern Ireland that took place before the act came into force in October 2000.”

Claims that this will amount to an amnesty have been rejected, with Ben Wallace claiming that it will only apply to soldiers whose cases have already been investigated. This chimes with the argument advanced by Johnny Mercer in the Sun, in which he argues that the Tory policy is aimed at “repeated and vexatious legal claims”.

All very well. But the stock of solemn vows on such subjects from Johnson is understandably low. Would his Government, elbows-deep in the future relationship negotiations and with Northern Ireland in a very sensitive spot, really open up yet another front on anything related to the Belfast Agreement?

…as he’s criticised over Ulster claims…

Whilst we’re on the subject, the Prime Minister has been accused of “deceit or ignorance” over attempts to deny that his new deal does create an economic partition inside the United Kingdom.

Speaking to manufacturers in Northern Ireland, Johnson declared that they could put any forms they were asked to fill out on goods shipping to the mainland “in the bin” – contradicting Steve Barclay, the Brexit Secretary, who had previously said that “some information” would be required.

Kwasi Kwarteng has backed the Prime Minister, claiming that his remarks were “bang on the money”. Michael Gove managed to go even further and distil the Tories’ muddled position on the subject into a single sentence: “It will be the case that there will be some administrative processes but in no way are they checks.”

Given recent developments, even the Northern Irish Conservatives are understandably sceptical. Irwin Armstrong, their former leader and the man who asked Johnson about the checks, apparently said that “I want to believe him, but is he just being bombastic and being Boris?” The answer is almost certainly yes.

Nor is that the only criticism. Remainers have seized on his claim that Northern Ireland will get a “great deal” to attack the harder Brexit his terms deliver for mainland Britain.

…and takes a firm stance against a Scottish referendum…

He’s had somewhat greater success in shoring up his credentials on the Scottish question – aided and abetted by Jeremy Corbyn’s kneecapping Labour’s credibility on the subject, of which more below.

This week, Johnson “emphatically ruled out” authorising a second referendum on Scottish independence if he’s returned to Downing Street next month. This marks a hardening of the Conservative stance over recent months as it implies refusal even in the event that the Scottish National Party (and their separatist allies, the Greens) win a Holyrood majority in 2021.

Such a stance is intended to help shore up the Tories’ credentials as the ‘Party of the Union’ and consolidate pro-UK voters in seats such as East Renfrewshire. In a previous column I wrote about how a dissenting minority of election-watchers suspect the Scottish Conservatives could do much better than anticipated through anti-Brexit. (Ian Smart set out the full theory on his blog, and he’s followed it with another interesting read on what might be worrying the SNP.)

Unlike his promises on Northern Ireland, it is easier to imagine the Prime Minister keeping this one – perhaps a sign of how much more effective the Scottish Conservative approach is over the Democratic Unionist one when it comes to influencing the Tory leadership.

…as Corbyn swithers on the Scottish question

If the Scottish Tories’ best hope at the next election is to consolidate the pro-UK vote, they ought to be made to declare the Labour leadership’s conduct on the independence question as campaign donations in kind.

This week saw another slew of bad headlines for Scotland’s once-dominant party, most prominently when Corbyn u-turned on whether or not he would authorise a re-run of the 2014 vote within a matter of hours of appearing to rule it out – leading to claims that his party was in “complete disarray” on the subject.

Yet whilst obviously trying to keep the door open for Nicola Sturgeon, he has nonetheless publicly rejected calls for a “progressive alliance” with the Nationalists, perhaps fearful that the Conservatives might be able to successfully re-run their “Vote Miliband, get Sturgeon” campaign from 2015. Michael Gove is certainly trying.

The SNP are not making it easy for him, either, with senior Nationalists this week making headlines with claims that they will not only drive ‘a hard bargain over independence‘ but even demand a Labour-led government scrap Trident as the price for installing Corbyn in Downing Street. Music to the ears of Tory strategists, no doubt.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

David Gauke: When your bell rings in December, you expect to be sung a carol – not asked how you’re going to vote

David Gauke is a former Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, and is MP for South West Hertfordshire.

We now begin the most exciting and dramatic week in the Brexit saga since the last exciting and dramatic week…which was last week. It will be followed by an exciting and dramatic week next week, too. But before turning to the future, it is worth looking back at developments in the last two weeks since my last column.

The big development is that the Prime Minister got a deal and he deserves credit for that. I remain convinced that at the time of the passing of the Benn Act there was no real determination to reach a deal and, even if there was, the Prime Minister did not have the political space with the European Research Group to make the concessions that he has now on Northern Ireland. If the current deal had been presented to Parliament and the alternative would have been a no deal on October 31, ERG members would have stayed loyal to the DUP and opposed it.

Some will argue that the EU would have caved on the Irish border, but there remains no evidence to support that view. The choice that has been available to the UK has always been continued customs alignment between the UK and the EU or some kind of customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Theresa May’s deal went for the former until alternative arrangements might emerge; Boris Johnson has chosen greater divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

As a Unionist, I prefer the former option but at least the Prime Minister has made a choice. Any option has downsides, but to govern is to choose and that is what he has done. In reaching a deal, he has turned his back on unicorns and we have something tangible to examine. That does constitute progress.

In terms of the deal, there are two big issues. The first is Northern Ireland and the Union. As I have already touched on, this is a worse deal than Theresa May’s deal from this perspective, and the DUP are understandably furious. In truth, the Government had adopted incompatible red lines, and something was going to have to give. It was probably the Prime Minister’s least worst option.

The second issue is the long term relationship between Great Britain and the EU. Those of us deeply concerned about a No Deal Brexit this year will take little comfort if the consequence of the Withdrawal Agreement is a No Deal Brexit for Great Britain at the end of 2020.

Completing a Free Trade Agreement with the EU by December 2020 was always highly ambitious when this deadline was negotiated by May’s government with a view to leaving in March 2019. But with the May deal, if an FTA had not been negotiated, the provisions of the backstop meant that regulatory and customs alignment with the EU would be maintained. This gave businesses a level of certainty and reassurance they needed to continue trading with the EU on current terms whilst a future relationship was being negotiated.

We have now lost many months of the implementation period and, with a new Commission being appointed, it is unlikely the EU will have a mandate for negotiations until next Easter. Getting a trade deal done in the time available looks fanciful. And the consequences of not getting an FTA finalised is now much more serious. If we do not extend the implementation period to the end of 2021 or, more realistically, 2022, the chances are we will be trading with the EU on WTO terms – with the introduction of tariffs and disruption to supply chains – by January 2021. This would be a very bad outcome for jobs and living standards.

In my view, the Government should seek an extension of the implementation period as soon as we have left the EU (it would have been better to have extended the implementation period in the Withdrawal Agreement, but that ship has sailed) and I welcome the confirmation from the Government that Parliament will have an opportunity to vote on seeking an extension of the implementation period and that the Government will abide by that decision.

This concession was sufficient for me to support the Government’s programme motion last week, albeit with little enthusiasm. Not only was the time for Parliamentary scrutiny very short, but I feared it was counter-productive in meeting the objective to ‘get Brexit done’ to attempt to get the Bill through the Commons in three days. It would have legitimised the Lords taking its time and delegitimised leaving the EU under the terms of this deal with even more Remain voters.

It is true that the Prime Minister had repeatedly promised to leave by October 31, but there was never going to be time to properly scrutinise a deal reached at the October 17 EU Council and leave in that timescale. And if we leave at some point is November of December, who – in future – will really care what the date was?

The sensible course of action would have been to put forward a programme motion which allowed the Commons to take two or three weeks to scrutinise properly the Bill. The motion would have got through (I do not think Labour want to be seen as filibustering it) and Parliament could then have done its job in scrutinising legislation. The likelihood is we would have left the EU within weeks.

A more aggressive, high risk timetable resulted in an unnecessary defeat, followed by the even more high risk move to seek a general election. I say high risk, because the result of a December poll should not be treated as a foregone conclusion.

The Labour Party might be seen as there for the taking given the obvious inadequacies of Jeremy Corbyn, but Labour voters have proven themselves to be remarkably resistant to voting Conservative in the past. The Liberal Democrats and SNP will be a threat to a number of our current seats, and the Brexit Party might see a resurgence if we go to the polls still as members of the EU.

The other big unknown is how the public will react to a snap election. At the best of times, voters distrust governments calling elections if the move is seen as being motivated by party interest. This would not be the best of times. When someone opens the front door to a stranger in December, they expect to be sung a carol, not asked how they are going to vote. A government that is seen as provoking a season of ill-will is unlikely to be viewed affectionately by the general public who have had more than enough of politics in 2019.

In any event, the argument many of us have made against a second referendum on EU membership was that it would be divisive but not decisive. Exactly the same argument could be made about a December general election if we have not left the EU. It might easily become a second referendum by proxy but with a result less legitimate because it would be distorted by our electoral system and a lack of clarity as to the question the electorate is trying to answer.

I will listen to the arguments in Parliament about why we should dissolve Parliament a week after the Government won on both the Queens Speech and Second Reading of the WAB, but the heavy-handed approach to the programme motion and the now abandoned threat to ‘go on strike’ has not been a good look. The Prime Minister’s successes at the European Council and in winning the Second Reading vote seems a long time ago.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

BoJo to EU and Parliament: No delay, or the deal gets it

Westlake Legal Group lampoon-dog BoJo to EU and Parliament: No delay, or the deal gets it The Blog Northern Ireland no-deal Brexit European Union DUP delay Brexit Boris Johnson

If Parliament thought they could box in Boris Johnson with the Benn Act, he has some news for them and the EU. The PM went to Parliament to demand quick action on the enabling legislation for his deal, and with a warning to the Commons and the EU. If they impose any significant extension of the Brexit deadline from his forced request over the weekend, Johnson will pull the bill, kill the deal, and demand a general election instead:

I will in no way allow months more of this. If parliament refuses to allow Brexit to happen and instead gets its way and decided to delay everything until January or possibly longer, in those circumstances [the government cannot] continue with this … I must say that the bill will have to be pulled and we will have to go forward to a general election. I will argue at that election: ‘let’s get Brexit done’. And the leader of the opposition will make his case to spend 2020 having two referendums – one on Brexit and one on Scotland…

Mr Speaker, there is another path. That is to accept, as I have done, that this deal does not give us everything that we want. And all of us can find clauses and provisions to which we can [object], as we can in any compromise. But it also gives us the opportunity to conclude that there is no dishonour in setting aside the entirely legitimate desire to deliver the perfect deal in the interest of seizing the great deal that is now within our grasp.

Well said, although I prefer the Theresa May original recording to the Boris Johnson cover.

Johnson later clarified that he’d allow for a short delay to get this deal through, but anything else would trigger a showdown:

At any rate, this is a clever ploy by Johnson. The longer Parliament looks at this deal, the worse it will get for the government. For instance, Johnson and his deputies are claiming that the agreement allows Northern Ireland’s Stormont to veto the provisions that will set up a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea. One of Johnson’s erstwhile DUP allies stood up and declared that her copy of the enabling act seemed to be missing a few pages:

The more scrutiny that gets applied to Johnson’s deal, the more opportunity there is for soft support to peel away — especially the support based on the idea that a bad deal is preferable to no deal at all. If the EU offers another extension, why not use that to keep negotiating, or to rethink the idea altogether? To get this bill passed and deliver Brexit as promised, Johnson needs to keep it in crisis mode.

If that doesn’t work, then Johnson can press again to get what he really wants — a general election. He can’t use it to create a default no-deal Brexit, but an election victory would provide him a claim for a mandate to tell the EU to pound sand. He’d have to get cooperation from Nigel Farage, whose own assessment of Johnson’s deal with the EU is even more negative than May’s agreement. That means Johnson would almost have to campaign on a no-deal Brexit, which at least would clarify what the British people truly want for the first time since the referendum in 2016, which was phrased on a purely conceptual basis. As long as Jeremy Corbyn remains Labour leader, Johnson has a leg up in any election.

However, that doesn’t mean Corbyn will agree to an election, and Johnson will have to get at least some of the Labour contingent to go along with it. It takes a supermajority to call a snap election now, thanks to a 2011 change in the UK law that sets fixed terms for Parliament. Johnson can pull his bill, but that alone won’t get him an election — even though it’s clearly what the UK needs.

Johnson’s likely to get his predicate from the EU, too. The question isn’t so much whether the EU agrees to a Brexit delay, but for how long. The options run from no extension at all, which is highly unlikely, to an open-ended extension that’s probably even less likely. The real decision is between the Benn Act date of January 31 or some intermediate date:

Pros: A short, technical extension could be sold as not materially delaying Brexit while avoiding no deal — but at the same time it might not be sufficient to resolve all of the uncertainty still swirling in London, especially if British politics comes up with any new surprises. A further delay of “a few days or a few weeks” in order to avoid a no-deal Brexit would not be a problem, said German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier on Monday.

A short extension of just a few weeks would be most useful in case the ratification process in the U.K needs a bit more time for technical rather than political reasons. EU diplomats say that an extension granted only for technical reasons could be agreed without the need to summon EU leaders to Brussels for another summit.

Cons: The key question is whether a short extension would really be long enough to accomplish anything, or if EU27 leaders will have to come back and extend their extension once again? This is the nightmare scenario envisioned by leaders who are eager to move on to other things, and who believe the EU has already wasted enough time and resources on Brexit.

The Benn Act deadline is the most likely scenario, Politico concludes:

Pros: A delay until the end of January is probably the easiest option. This is the date specified by the Benn Act (the legislation that has compelled Johnson’s government to put in the extension request), so EU leaders can say they are simply complying with an ask from the British parliament.

It’s also the surest way to prove that the EU is not interfering in the U.K.’s internal political debates. “The EU will first and foremost want to isolate itself from the … process and avoid coming in on one of the sides in the debate,” an EU diplomat said. “So I assume we’ll respond in kind to what is asked.”

Cons: After all the tumult of Brexit, giving the Brits what they want could be seen as a dangerous and undesirable precedent.

That’s not “giving the Brits what they want.” No one in the UK really wants a delay; they either want a no-deal Brexit or a do-over on the referendum. It’s safe to say that few Brits want the deal Johnson’s touting, and that may also exclude Johnson himself. Agreeing to the Benn Act letter discourages both while leaving the EU outside of the parliamentary muddle. It’s the best option Brussels has, which is not a happy state of affairs by any means.

Will Johnson get his election when the EU grants the extension? Watch what happens with Corbyn. If he gets replaced, Labour will stampede into an election, and Johnson might have reason to worry about his prospects.

Note: The front-page image is a detail from the classic National Lampoon cover, from the “Death” issue.

Addendum: Sinn Féin has a solution to the backstop, and thinks it might come well ahead of Johnson’s promised veto timeline:

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Iain Dale: Now it’s crunch time – will MPs who say they fear No Deal vote for the obvious solution?

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

Well what a day that was. I normally write this column on a Thursday morning, and when I started to type this yesterday I had woken up to the fact that the DUP were refusing to go along with Boris Johnson’s compromise plan with the EU over the Irish border. A few hours later there was white smoke, albeit not from the DUP. Hmmm. Perhaps mention of white smoke and the DUP might cause my old acquaintance Ian Paisley to spin in his grave. Apologies for that. No, the white smoke came from the Berlaymont building in Brussels.

To be honest, I think we were all taken a bit by surprise. But there it was, the deal that no one thought Boris could either get, or frankly ever intended to get. We all have short memories, but I remember during the leadership contest when he would constantly say he intended to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement and abolish the Backstop.

The Withdrawal Agreement, the EU said, could not be reopened. It was.

The Backstop could never be touched or abolished, said the EU. It was.

Regulatory alignment could never be watered down, they said. It has been.

This was a diplomatic and negotiating triumph for a prime minister who has only been in office for 85 days. I doff my cap. I never thought it was achievable, but it was. OK, there are many aspects of the deal which I could criticise, but in this sort of situation you never get all you want. And most sensible people recognise that.

The next crunch time comes tomorrow when the House of Commons meets to decide whether to pass the deal. I keep coming back to the point that if opposition MPs are so fearful of No Deal, why are they still so reluctant to support an actual deal? I know why. It’s because it’s got nothing to do with a deal. It’s all to do with thwarting Brexit. And the general public can smell that a mile off.

The next deadline is Saturday evening when, if the deal hasn’t passed, the Prime Minister is supposed to send a letter to Brussels requesting an extension to Article 50. Hints continue to be dropped by Number 10 that there is some way around this, but we’ll have to wait and see.

If the letter is sent, and a No Deal Brexit really is avoided then the next test must surely come on Monday when Boris Johnson will surely again challenge the opposition parties to agree to an election. They may well try to delay that until 31st October just in case the Prime Minister tried to pull a last minute fast one. There is also much talk of Labour moving towards a position, first articulated by Tom Watson before the Labour conference, whereby there would have to be a confirmatory referendum in advance of an election. This would also mean keeping Boris Johnson in power for another nine months. Is it really a credible position for Labour to describe Boris Johnson and his government in evil terms and yet be the prime movers of keeping him in power for nine months longer than absolutely necessary? As Alastair Campbell might say, this is all tactics and no strategy.

– – – – – – – – – –

Sky News have seemingly trolled themselves by opening up a new channel which won’t have any Brexit news on it whatsoever. But it only operates Monday to Friday 5pm-10pm. Utterly baffling. You can just imagine the meeting where some bright spark came up with the idea and no one was prepared to tell the bright spark he or she was talking utter bollocks. It has been glorious to see Adam Boulton treat the idea with the contempt it deserves.

– – – – – – – – – –

The race to succeed John Bercow as Speaker of the House of Commons hasn’t really caught light yet and it’s not easy to predict the winner. There are nine candidates but none of them have really pulled ahead of the others. Lindsay Hoyle and Harriet Harman are said to be the two favourites, but it wouldn’t at all surprise me to see Chris Bryant come up on the rails. Lindsay Hoyle’s problem seems to be that while he is very popular among Tories, Labour MPs aren’t flocking to him. It’s a sort of reverse Bercow situation. Harriet Harman, meanwhile, is struggling to attract any Tories at all. Among the Tory candidates, Eleanor Laing would appear to be the frontrunner, but in the LBC hustings last week it was Shailesh Vara who impressed most. Everyone assumes he’s running because he really wants to be a deputy speaker, but in the right circumstances maybe he might come through the middle. Stranger things have happened.

– – – – – – – – – –

The fact that Dame Louise Ellman has quit the Labour Party has sent reverberations through what’s left of the right of the party. It’s been a long time coming, but it had a certain inevitability about it. The reaction on the hard left has been predictably disgusting, and if she had any doubts about leaving after 55 years, the comments on Twitter threads will have dispelled them. I just hope she never read them. The question now is what the more moderate voices in the Labour Party do now. The answer is probably nothing. Why? Because they hope that after an election the long nightmare of the Corbyn leadership will be over and things will get back to normal. They won’t, though. The hard left have a vice-like grip on the party machine now, and in any leadership election following Corbyn’s departure, it is almost inevitable that the most hard left candidate would win. Everyone is talking about Angela Rayner, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Laura Pidcock and Emily Thornberry duking it out. Just imagine, though, if Diane Abbott threw her hat into the ring…

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Farage: Come come, this is no Brexit — but is it a Borexit?

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So sayeth the leader of the Brexit Party, Boris Johnson’s biggest political threat to his populist right. Nigel Farage has spent the day insisting that the prime minister has signed not an exit from the EU but a new commitment to it — leaving the UK in an even worse position, subject to Brussel’s regulatory and foreign-policy control. The Benn Act might prevent an immediate no-deal Brexit, Farage concedes, but he’s changed his mind about delay. Better to put this off for another election than to take the deal that Johnson has put together:

What Farage really wants is a no-deal Brexit coalition in an election, with Johnson on board:

Speaking to Sky News, the Brexit Party leader claimed it was time to “get rid of Michel Barnier’s treaty” and admitted he would rather have an extension to the Brexit negotiations than have the deal negotiated with Brussels pass in the Commons. He said: “I don’t think whatever is agreed tonight is going to pass on Saturday anyway. But let me put this to you, if withdrawal agreement four fails on Saturday, as I believe it will, I think then Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would drop the idea of this new treaty and there is a possibility of putting together a Leave alliance for the next general election.

“I think there is an opportunity here for a Brexit alliance to fight the elections that would win a big majority in Parliament.”

He added: “Look I would much rather we had an extension and a chance of a general election than accept this dreadful new EU treaty. Absolutely. I think in a general election manifesto he can even talk about going for a genuine free trade agreement.”

That could create a huge problem for Johnson when elections get called, which will be shortly regardless of which way Parliament votes on Saturday. At least at first blush, it appeared that Johnson might have set this up so that Conservatives could avoid running on a no-deal platform. Market Watch saw this as a bit of triangulation around Labour in an attempt to expand the reach of the Tories, saying that Johnson “might not mind failure“:

Constantine Fraser, political analyst at TS Lombard, points out that Johnson will now have this deal rather than a hard Brexit to run on if the U.K. were to hold a general election.

“The main takeaway is that the Conservative party is now committed to this deal, not no-deal, and will campaign for a majority for it if the coming general election takes place before the U.K. has left the E.U.,” Fraser said.

Oliver Harvey, macro strategist at Deutsche Bank, said the most likely outcome if the deal is not ratified would be a general election in November.

“If the government were to lose a ratification vote on Saturday, Prime Minister Johnson could request an extension to Article 50 from the EU27 and table a motion under the Fixed Term Parliament Act to hold an election in November. If opposition parties refused to vote for an election, he could resign and instruct his cabinet to do the same. The political pressure to hold such an election would be high, as a caretaker government formed under these circumstances would be seen as politically illegitimate,” he said in a note to clients.

It’s not a Brexit, as Farage says — it’s a Borexit, a way for Boris Johnson to untangle himself from the Gordian knot he created by rejecting Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. If Parliament rejects it, then Johnson follows the Benn Act and get another extension, he and Farage get their election, and the two of them put together a Leave coalition and ride off into the sunset together.

Just one wee problem with that strategy — the EU won’t abide by the Benn Act. EU president Jean-Claude Juncker told the media that the EU will not authorize another extension to the UK’s Article 50 deadline, regardless of the Benn Act. Either the UK takes Johnson’s deal, or no deal at all:

That’s not quite as politically tasty for Johnson, although it’s precisely what Farage says he wants. If the EU refuses another extension following a parliamentary rejection of this pact, the UK will default into a no-deal Brexit, and Johnson and the Tories will own all of the short-term pain it creates just as voters go to the polls. If Parliament takes the deal, Farage’s Brexit Party followers will wreak electoral havoc on the Tories for selling them out.

Does this even have a prayer of passage? One can never say never, but Farage is correct that this is in some ways even worse than the May deal that Brexiters rejected three times this year. It contains both a backstop and a customs/regulatory border in the Irish Sea, with little power to end it either unilaterally. Ireland likes the deal because of both those elements, meaning that they keep their no-border status quo and don’t get pushed into becoming the UK’s customs agents. May’s Withdrawal Agreement at least kept the UK and Northern Ireland aligned together, but both deals keep the UK tied to EU regulatory policies while stripping the UK of any power to influence them. It’s a recipe for massive disillusionment if implemented.

If the deal gets rejected, though, it sets up a worse scenario. A no-deal Brexit will force the emergence of a hard border in Ireland, which will backfire on the DUP most of all. Unionists are already on shaky ground with the failure for the past three years to form an executive in Northern Ireland under the devolved government set up by the Good Friday Agreement. If the UK further undermines that with a no-deal Brexit, it will add fuel to the reunification fire that could cost the UK its last remaining enclave outside of Great Britain; the GFA guarantees a referendum on reunification if enough political support develops for it. The big question will be which leaves the UK first — Northern Ireland or Scotland, where leaders are expected to officially demand a new referendum on independence in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

Johnson had better hope that Juncker will be more flexible on an extension after Parliament rejects the deal on Saturday. At this point, the status quo looks better than any of the possible alternatives.

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The miraculous Brexit deal… or not?

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Just as I was getting coffee this morning, an excited flurry of news was breaking across the pond. Seemingly out of the blue, a Brexit deal had been reached between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the head of the European Union commission. As recently as yesterday, the prospects for such an agreement seemed seriously in doubt, but both men were out on social media announcing the success of the talks. But as we’ll get to in a moment, it may not be as solid as they seem to think. (NBC News)

The U.K. and European Union announced Thursday they had agreed to a new Brexit divorce deal, a key breakthrough ahead of the Oct. 31 deadline for Britain to leave the bloc.

However the deal must still be ratified by European leaders and lawmakers in the British Parliament.

Negotiators for the two sides had been locked in talks ahead of a critical summit in Brussels later this week.

The agreement, which looked unlikely just days ago, could break the deadlock that has paralyzed British politics since the country voted to leave the E.U. in a June 2016 referendum.

As with most things these days, the momentous news was first put out on Twitter. EU Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker certainly sounded optimistic.

And BoJo struck the same positive tone.

So is that it? Johnson wins and Brexit happens on Halloween? Not so fast, sports fans. The deal doesn’t happen unless the House of Commons approves it in a rare weekend session on Saturday. And unless the Prime Minister knows of some Labour defections that nobody else is talking about, he still needs the support of at least ten Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs from Northern Ireland.

That doesn’t sound like a sure thing at all. No sooner had the deal been announced by both BoJo and the EU, Arlene Foster, the head of the DUP, retweeted a statement from the party’s main account saying nothing had really changed.

To give credit where due, BoJo has gotten further than Theresa May ever did. She made endless trips across the channel with what was essentially the same offer and Juncker would always send her back with nothing to show for her efforts. The difference with Johnson’s approach appeared to be the “resolution” of the Irish backstop issue. But it really doesn’t resolve it at all. The deal simply kicks the can down the road for a few years while allowing Northern Ireland to remain in one the main European trade groups.

Perhaps that temporary bandage wasn’t enough to convince the DUP to go along with this. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s being reported that the IRA has come out saying that such a deal would mean that any new “infrastructure” along the border would be a “legitimate target for attack.”

Things are getting messy and nobody wants to see a renewal of “the troubles” between the Irish after so many decades of progress toward peace. Boris Johnson may have convinced Juncker, but he clearly has more work to do back home.

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The DUP rejects the fledgling deal “as it stands”

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As matters stand:

  • A draft deal between the UK Government and the EU appears to be in the final stages of drafting.
  • It isn’t clear whether or not it will now be amended in the wake of the DUP’s objections.
  • Without the party’s support, no deal can pass the Commons.
  • Nor is it certain that the Commons will sit on Saturday, though Labour seems to be gearing up to push a second referendum – a reverse for Jeremy Corbyn, if true.
  • It seems unlikely, even if the DUP changes its view, that there will be a full legal text for the Commons to consider.

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