Only a government of national unity can deliver us from no deal | Polly Toynbee

Let Margaret Beckett lead a ‘government’ to do what the crisis demands – call an election and a referendum

Be not afraid. There’s hope that the constitutional atrocities planned by the prime minister and Downing Street’s ‘dark lord’, Dominic Cummings, can and will be prevented by good MPs who will put saving the country ahead of their party.

Most of these will be Labour, Scottish National party, Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru, Green, Change UK and stray independents. But noblest of all will be Conservative MPs who, like the burghers of Calais (whose memorial they pass every day), will sacrifice their careers for the good of all. No “golden age” awaits Johnson: he will be hoist on his own outrageous hubris.

“The majority in parliament against no deal is bigger and more resolute than ever,” says the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer. The Tory rebels agree. They are aghast at the arrogant strutting of Cummings who is, says one, the best recruiting sergeant for rebellion on the Tory backbenches. The No 10 supremo’s careless contempt affronts many Tory MPs – and he is defiantly in contempt of parliament. The cabinet of sycophants, signed up to no deal in blood to get their jobs, are told to say nothing without permission from No 10 – that is, Cummings.

He orders myriad extra new special advisers to see that ministers say and do nothing without his consent, as he will “take no shit from ministers” who have “got to learn it’s in their self-interest to do what they are told”, the Sunday Times reports. “No one is indispensable” the cabinet has been told. “Don’t speak if you have nothing interesting to say,” Boris Johnson is said to have warned the 33 obedients round his table. How’s this for their powerless subservience? They do not discuss Brexit, which is left entirely to the “war cabinet” of six ministers in the Cobra room of the Cabinet Office, signalling the future chaos. The idea that Johnson, of all ill-disciplined politicians, can impose this omerta for long, let alone zip his own lips, is improbable. How much time before the cabinet of sheep start baaing? The insult to their amour propre already has many Tory MPs bristling at this ferocious upstart, only two weeks into the new regime.

The fight is on. MPs will struggle to stop a no-deal Brexit by seizing control of the parliamentary timetable, but Johnson has refused to rule out proroguing parliament to prevent them. Returning on 3 September, Labour will call a vote of no confidence in the Johnson government, and this will be the moment of truth: are there enough burghers of Calais on the Tory benches? Rebels reckon there could be 30 or 40. Assuming only a Kate Hoey or two on Labour’s side fails to back it, there are 14 days in which Johnson, still prime minister, tries and fails to form a government. He is legally obliged to call an election, but Cummings said over the weekend the date would be set for after 31 October, Brexit day. The country will crash out without a vote, legal but outrageous. The only way that can be prevented is by a manoeuvre itself so outrageous it makes you gasp to contemplate it. Anti-no-dealers would set up a temporary government of national unity to outvote Johnson.

The only purpose of this “government” would be to ask the EU for a delay, to conduct a referendum and a general election. Let the people decide, that would be its sole purpose. Who would be the interim prime minister? It would need someone from Labour, since the plan relies on Labour to make it happen. Let it not be an active player in future leadership or government, but a statesperson respected on all sides who would be no future threat to anyone. Rebel Tories suggest several names, but one stands out: Margaret Beckett, a previous interim Labour leader, who would be trusted to do only what the crisis demands – call an election and a referendum.

Dominic Cummings, special adviser to the prime minister.
Dominic Cummings, special adviser to the prime minister. Photograph: Alastair Grant/AP

This is no centrist party stalking horse, but purely a mechanism to ensure the country does not crash out of the EU without a deal unless the people actively vote for it. No deal was not even mentioned as an option in the referendum, where staying in the single market and customs union were regularly promised by Brexiteers.

What seems likely is that Johnson and Cummings are planning to frame a future election as a fight between themselves as “the people”, with MPs usurpers of the people’s will. The opposite is the case. As no deal doesn’t have majority support, they would struggle throughout a long campaign to explain why they were denying both the people and MPs a vote.

Expecting an election, the People’s Vote campaign is organising for mass tactical voting in the 100 most marginal seats, awarding a kind of coupon to the anti-Brexit candidate of any party with the best chance of winning. As the heat of Brexit passions supplants old party loyalties, pollsters can’t say how many may vote tactically: Ipsos Mori finds 10% is standard in ordinary elections – but Deborah Mattinson of Britain Thinks says all bets would be off in an election amid the Brexit chaos. Better by far if all the anti-Brexit parties allied at the top, standing down in seats where other parties looked better winners, as happened in a minor way in Brecon and Radnorshire. That’s not going to happen, and Labour is the main reason why.

Besides, the very real threat that Johnson could crash the country out in the midst of an election means it could be too late anyway – in which case Labour organising a temporary government of national unity will be essential. And essential for its own survival. If Labour fails in this last-ditch chance to save the country, it will not be forgiven – ever – by the 70% of its voters who want a second referendum. This is a last chance for Labour to restore its position on Brexit. Stop the navel-gazing nonsense of deselections and trigger ballots right now, and focus full firepower on this national emergency: Labour can emerge as the national saviour.

Social democrats are quick to despair when faced with full-frontal assault by the right. They are deemed too subtle, not assertive enough. But this Boris boosterism is all bogus. Look what a signally disastrous start he has made in just two weeks: the pound plunged and the shine came off his electoral magic when he lost a byelection in a Tory seat. His polling bounce has been relatively modest. His £100m spend on ads to “prepare” the public for no-deal Brexit will spark the panic buying it’s supposed to prevent. Overhyping his spending spree on the NHS and police makes some suspicious of his fiscal trustworthiness, while others plainly see that it’s only a pittance against the breaking dam of public service impoverishment.

Now consider the insanity of the Cummings plan. He wants to crash out of the EU mid-election campaign, with lorry queues, food and medicine shortages, and goodness knows what unforeseen crises as the EU turns its back on us and our £39bn unpaid debt. Really? If this disaster can’t be prevented well then bring it on, and let’s see the Tories render themselves unelectable for a generation.

• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist

• This article was amended on 6 August 2019 to add the Liberal Democrats to the list of parties whose MPs could be asked to form a government of national unity.


Polly Toynbee

The GuardianTramp

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