Professor Philip Syrpis analysis on Jeremy Corbyn’s letter, and the prospects for ‘a strictly time-limited temporary Government’ to stop a no-deal Brexit.


First published in August 2019.


Professor Philip Syrpis is Professor of EU Law at the University of Bristol Law School.
• He wrote and shared the following story on Twitter a hours ago.



I think it is a welcome move. But there are problems both with Corbyn’s letter, and with the reaction of the other ‘remain’ parties.

A preliminary point is that a temporary Government may not be needed. Prime Minister Boris Johnson might call a pre-Brexit General Election himself, either in October – or for example in November after securing an extension from the EU. I already set out the reasons why he might do that.

But on the other hand, it might be needed. Johnson’s plan might be (as he has consistently said) to leave without a deal (if needs be) in October, potentially bypassing Parliament.

So, on the assumption that Johnson might be heading for no-deal, the opposition needs to find ways to stop him. Professor Mark Elliott has expertly set out the legal and political obstacles.

One such way is via the creation of what I and others have been calling a Government of National Unity (GNU), but which might be better described as an emergency/temporary/caretaker Government.

There are profound disagreements about this emergency Government. Most of the attention has been on who might lead it (and who might command majority cross-party support), but there has also been some discussion about the scope of such a Government’s mandate.

My view is that the identity of the leader (or new caretaker PM) is only of secondary importance. Far more important is the discussion about what such a Prime Minister might or should strive to do.

In my view, Corbyn is right about the important question (the scope of the mandate), but wrong about the secondary issue (the identity of the new PM).

Let me explain.

The core of the plan should be to stop a no-deal Brexit from happening without the support of a majority of MPs. A pre-Brexit General Election achieves this goal. It is also, incidentally, what Labour has called for consistently for the last year or so. If there is a pre-Brexit General Election, it enables the various parties and factions to make their case to the electorate. For no-deal, for something like the Withdrawal Agreement, for a People’s Vote, for revoking Article 50.

There is, of course, a very real risk that Brexit parties will win such a General Election. But given that support for Remain is now well above 50%, it is also very possible that a clear path to stop Brexit will emerge.

Many Remainers are not content with this. They see an opportunity for the emergency Government not just to call a General Election, but to settle the substantive Brexit question. There are plans for it to agree to the Withdrawal Agreement (see Stephen Kinnock), to arrange a People’s Vote (see Caroline Lucas), or to revoke Article 50 altogether (see some Lib Dems). The eagle-eyed among you will already have noticed the differences between these rival positions.

The more ambitious the mandate, the more difficult it will be to reach an agreement. Also, the longer the emergency government would be in office, and the more agreement would be needed on questions beyond Brexit.

The various leaders, parties and factions should be discussing the extent to which they can find common ground. But, bottom line, they should decide whether they are content with a solution which ensures a pre-Brexit General Election.

I think that they should be and that anything more is unattainable. The differences between them on Brexit (over whether to leave with a ‘good deal’, whether to have a People’s Vote, whether to revoke A50) are huge, and that is before we reach the differences on other policies. Those seeking to grant the emergency Government a greater mandate risk rendering the project politically unviable. So, I think that Jeremy Corbyn is right to speak of a temporary Government with a very limited mandate.

As to who should lead such a Government, the key again is not to compromise the viability of the proposal. This time, all the parties are playing an unsavoury blame game. Corbyn asserts that as Leader of the Opposition, it has to be him. Others make the point that he is perhaps not the most likely figure to command cross-party support. Political point-scoring, opportunism and Meatloaf all feature heavily.

If it is agreed that the emergency Government has a narrow mandate; then the identity of the would-be new Prime Minister matters a lot less. This will not be a Prime Minister who has a programme for Government which they will be able to implement. They will simply be setting the scene for a pre-Brexit General Election. They will be presented (by Boris Johnson) as the leader of a Parliamentary coup to stop Brexit, and defy the people.

Little thought seems to have devoted to how this might play (electorally) for Corbyn in the lead up to the General Election. Does he want that mantle? Might it not be better (for Corbyn) if a ‘moderate’ Tory is the object of Johnson’s ire?

So, a path to stop Prime Minister Johnson heading for no-deal without Parliamentary support exists. The disparate opposition groups need to keep (or start?) talking. They should focus less on scoring political points off each other, and more on the clear and present danger.

Johnson and Cummings’ dream leader of the Parliamentary coup to stop Brexit would, I think, be Jeremy Corbyn.🔷



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[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 16 August 2019 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

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