We end another turbulent week at Westminster, one which caused more confusion about the UK’s exit from the European Union, to add to the already chaotic efforts to leave the bloc. We also saw the resignation of the respected and successful Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson.
As we reflect on the week, it is safe to say that no one enters politics to lose – it may take a special kind of person, but politics is about winning support, winning votes and winning elections. We can talk about a kinder type of politics but that’s what it ultimately comes down to – and it’s helpful to look at the current Brexit struggle taking place in Parliament through a more Machiavellian lens.
Boris Johnson’s latest surprise manoeuvre: a pre-emptive strike was announced on Wednesday – with the Queen agreeing to start prorogation from 10 September, and holding a Queen’s Speech on 14 October. It’s a move straight out of the Dominic Cummings playbook. He too is a man programmed to approach winning with near-religious zealotry, and his “attack is the only way forward” mantra is clearly at play. He didn’t win the 2016 referendum by adopting the defensive crouch that characterised Theresa May’s time as Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister’s supporters are saying the move is entirely legitimate and that it is standard practice for a new government to lay out their agenda in the Queen’s Speech. They also claim that by placing the prorogation (mostly) over the conference recess Parliament loses very little time to act (four parliamentary days). They are, in part, correct.
His critics claim that it is a tactically timed delaying manoeuvre designed to increase pressure on legislative time and are openly talking about it being a coup. It is being described as a flagrant abuse of the machinery of British democracy. They are also, in part, correct.
The truth exists somewhere in the grey. The move is clearly political, and a brazen attempt to achieve Boris’ aims and reinforces the Prime Minister’s core goal – making sure Parliament has limited time to mount effective opposition to his commitment to Brexit on or before the end of October. As the Brexit drama reaches its latest climax, the question that matters is: “What will the finale look like?” Anyone who tells you they have an answer is lying, but some outcomes are more likely than others. In the immediate term, we might expect a few things:
Labour has announced that it will seek to table an emergency debate next week, in which the Speaker would allow MPs to take control of the order paper in order to introduce legislation to block no-deal. There is speculation that Parliament could sit over a weekend and the Lords might have a part to play. He has done so before, but unless they were able to pass a bill quickly it would be dissolved when Parliament is prorogued.
Johnson’s prorogation could prompt another legal challenge, although this has limited chances of success because the parliamentary move is not illegal.
The newly formed Remain Alliance could call a vote of no confidence in the Government relying on the support of Conservative MPs who are not comfortable with their leaders’ latest political manoeuvre. While this course of action has the highest chances of preventing a no-deal Brexit, it is unlikely to succeed. The likely interim PM would be Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and when push comes to shove, it is unlikely Tory MPs would vote to collapse their own government.
A general election is looking increasingly likely. For Johnson the when matters little. If it is triggered by the Opposition, he can have his “People Vs Politicians” election, and rail against their attempts to block the will of the referendum. The battle cry: Parliament frustrated the will of the people, let’s elect a new one and get on with the job. If Boris calls the election after the UK’s departure from the EU, it will be fought on more normal terms – whatever that now looks like.
So, Boris has put the ball very much in the court of his opponents. There’s not much time left, but there is time, and everyone is still playing to win.