As long as Boris Johnson is Prime Minister, the Conservative government has a positive policy for Brexit, and the intention of leaving the European Union on 31 October. However, Johnson does not have a parliamentary majority supporting the terms on which he is prepared to leave: withdrawing from the EU without a deal.
In a House of Commons in which 322 MPs are needed for a majority, the Conservatives now have only 288 MPs, plus support from 10 Northern Ireland MPs.
In March the House of Commons rejected eight different proposals setting out plans for withdrawal. It also rejected, three times, Theresa May’s deal with the EU, which involved putting in place the Northern Ireland backstop.
Since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in July, the House of Commons has defeated the government on seven key votes.
It has enacted a demand that the Prime Minister ask the EU to extend the deadline for leaving the EU until 31 January if no deal is agreed by late October.
However, Johnson shows no sign of presenting Brussels a credible request on terms that the EU would be ready to accept. His priority is to hold what he believes would be a triumphant general election shortly after delivering Brexit.
Parliament has no positive Brexit policy because the majority of MPs are only united in agreeing what they don’t want.
They are a cross-party coalition of MPs from seven different groups. There are 63 firmly pro-EU MPs: 35 Scottish Nationalists, 18 Liberal Democrats, five Independent for Change, four Plaid Cymru and one Green.
The Labour Party’s 247 MPs are united in rejecting any deal by a Tory Prime Minister but incapable of agreeing a Labour proposal for withdrawal, or to reverse the 2016 referendum decision.
The biggest portion of the 34 independent MPs are ex-Tories expelled from the party for voting against Johnson’s diktat.
Altogether, the seven groups have 344 MPs, a majority of 56 over the number currently receiving the Conservative whip.
Party conferences have debated a variety of unicorn policies that will never be seen in the flesh.
Johnson’s Plan B is to solve the Northern Ireland border problem with technology that has yet to be developed.
Jeremy Corbyn proposes a socialist deal with Brussels that would first require him to become Prime Minister, notwithstanding his low standing among a majority of MPs and Labour’s weakness in opinion polls.
The Liberal Democrats promise they will form a government that will repeal the Act authorizing withdrawal from the EU. This would require increasing their current number of MPs by more than 15 times.
The brutal fact is that British politicians cannot take back control of withdrawal on whatever terms they want. The terms must be acceptable in Brussels as well as Westminster.
Boris Johnson has tacitly recognised this by abandoning his magic cake policy of leaving the EU and keeping all the advantages of membership too. He is now pursuing a policy that Brussels cannot reject – withdrawal from the EU without a deal.
Provided that action is taken before withdrawal happens, the EU will accept the UK remaining a member state. This is administratively simple, because it does not require any departure from the position as it is today.
However, for this to happen the House of Commons must either repeal the notice of withdrawal before it shortly comes into effect or call a second referendum in which remain is the winning alternative on the ballot.
The deal that Theresa May negotiated last November was acceptable to Brussels but rejected by an alliance of hard-core Brexiters, who said it was too soft, and of soft Brexiters, who said it was too hard.
The EU has signalled it is prepared to make cosmetic changes in that deal and alter a non-binding declaration of political principles for future relations.
However, it would only do so it if thought that there was a realistic chance of approval by a parliament that has previously rejected it. This could be shown by replacing Boris Johnson with a different Prime Minister.
Brussels has made deals with non-member states such as Norway that enable them to enjoy many of the economic advantages of EU membership whilst giving no political rights.
They also require financial contributions and acceptance of the jurisdiction of the EU’s Court of Justice.
Hard-core Brexiters reject this as BRINO (Brexit in Name Only) while pro-Europeans consider it much inferior to remaining in the EU.
If a coalition of MPs agreed to support a government of national unity it might seek a soft Brexit. However, the conditions required to get Westminster agreement in favour of a soft Brexit might inhibit its acceptance by Brussels.
The House of Commons now has less than five weeks in which to agree a positive EU policy to replace the default position of withdrawal without a deal.
Boris Johnson and Conservative MPs under pressure from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party are exploiting the inability of a parliamentary majority to agree an alternative deal and Prime Minister, or a second referendum.
In default of a parliamentary majority for a positive alternative to no deal, then Johnson can get what he has promised his parliamentary minority he will deliver.
By Professor Richard Rose, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde and a fellow of the Robert Schuman Centre at the European University Institute. This analysis draws of his forthcoming book ‘How Referendums Challenge European Democracy: Brexit and Beyond’.