When conservatives throw away the guidebook of tradition
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
INTERESTING TIMES WE live in. So interesting, indeed, that you need a thesaurus, a crystal ball, several dusty books on parliamentary procedure and an unlimited
supply of aspirin to make any sense of it all.
Baffling times. And, for any self-respecting Brit, humiliating times. Our unwritten constitution has turned into a free for all, and our political parties, our conventions and our sense of dignity seem to have dissolved.
Perhaps WB Yeats had it right when he lamented that ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity’. Or, maybe, the Kaiser Chiefs were nearer the mark when they sang ‘I predict a riot’.
How did we get here? The condensed version goes something like this.
In 2016, we held a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU). The Leave side won. We have not left.
We did have a leaving date, chosen by our then Prime Minister Theresa May—March 29th, 2019—but this was moved, twice, and now stands at October 31st, 2019. May’s government and the EU negotiated terms for a mutually acceptable ‘orderly exit’—the Withdrawal Agreement—but the House of Commons rejected it three times.
Ever since, angry Leavers, who were told we would ‘Take Back Control’, have been on the hunt for culprits, and habitually use warlike language—collaborators, betrayal, surrender, treason. Tempers have risen to worrying levels. Why can’t we just leave?
Surprisingly, the culprits who were most demanding about the conditions of leaving were not Remainers, trying to cling on to nurse for fear of something worse, but arch-Leavers, who considered that anything less than a complete, clean, ‘no deal’ exit was not leaving at all. The deadlock brought down Theresa May.
Enter the saviour, long-time Tory maverick Boris Johnson, after a stay of rather more than 40 days in the wilderness. He had led the Leave campaign in 2016, but then left the government, because he felt that the Withdrawal Agreement was not sufficiently Brexity. Many Leavers also believed that having any hint of connection with the EU did not take back sufficient control, and the notion of a ‘no deal’ Brexit caught on.
Johnson won the Tory leadership election in July 2019, and became prime minister, sparking euphoria among Brexiteers. At last! A true Leaver they could trust after the deadlocked days of Theresa May. Johnson had energy and charisma, and made bold promises. He soon said that negotiations with Brussels were going ‘tremendously well’. The poll ratings of the newly-formed Brexit party, which believes in one thing (no prizes), began to drop. The one serious rival to the Tories on the Leave side had been fatally winged, or so we thought.
But they say a week is a long time in politics, and last week has been the longest of all weeks in British political history.
On Monday, September 3rd, Boris Johnson had a slim majority, a buoyant party and a range of options. By Monday, September 9th, he had lost the lot. His majority vanished with a single defection, and he lost six votes in a row in the Commons. Meanwhile, he further depleted his parliamentary strength by sacking 21 of his own colleagues, some of whom were the kind of grandees that Tory leaders usually venerate. Why? Because they had not supported him in trying to defeat an opposition bill that ruled out a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Why didn’t they? Because many of them, even the ones who actually want to leave the EU, believe that leaving with ‘no deal’ would be very bad for the country—an unpredictable leap over a regulatory, legal and diplomatic ‘cliff edge’.
Johnson has trust issues, and his opponents smelt a very pungent rat. They believed his strategy was designed to serve many more purposes than implementing the will of the people
Johnson, ironically, has always professed to agree with them. He says he doesn’t want a ‘no deal’ Brexit either. But, and this is the crux, the EU has to believe that he is willing to leave without a deal, because this makes it more likely that Brussels will budge and give him a better deal than the one he resigned over.
That is why the backbench rebellion was such a grievous blow to him. His credibility was at stake, having promised he would get a better deal than May’s, or leave without. This had been his pitch to the Tory party, and the thing which probably won him the leadership. But, but, but. He pressed this message so hard—‘we will leave on 31 October, do or die’—that his whole premiership has come to hinge on this one issue.
When he became prime minister back in July, things looked good for him. He was generally popular in the country—he has always been something of an entertainer—and many people expected a good show. Then August was strangely quiet. New proposals? No, just ‘more oomph!’ said the prime minister. No details. But the UK’s team in Brussels was quietly, but massively, scaled down.
Johnson himself said that the chances of a ‘no deal’ Brexit were ‘a million to one’, but the absence of new proposals seemed to tell another story. What was the endgame—deal or no deal? And just as importantly, what was the strategy? Double bluff? Triple? How could Parliament, with its Remain majority, be persuaded either to tolerate a ‘no deal’, which it had already passed motions to forbid, or to accept anything like Theresa May’s deal, which it had repeatedly rejected, and which Johnson simply did not have the time to modify in significant terms. The weakness of his position led many people to suspect that he would go for an early general election, framed as ‘The People vs Parliament’.
With nothing else to write about, the British commentariat started to speculate. A popular idea was that Johnson would prorogue—shut down—Parliament, which would leave him free to do whatever he wished. This was thought to make a ‘no deal’ exit more likely, because many people believed that this was actually what he wanted. But, of course, Johnson’s strategy prevents him from denying this. The Europeans must keep believing that he is playing the hardest of hard, hard balls.
PROROGATION IS A routine procedure over the summer months, and is the conventional way of rounding off a session of Parliament. The new session then begins with an autumn Queen’s Speech, setting out the government’s legislative agenda. Wouldn’t that be convenient? A legal cover for a sneaky move to avoid scrutiny and/or obstruction. But who would believe that of a British prime minister? And here is the next crux. Boris Johnson is known to have a ruthless side, which is not often seen. And one further consideration. Johnson has chosen as his chief adviser the man who masterminded the successful Vote Leave campaign—Dominic Cummings. Had Boris got the old gang together for one last big heist?
Cummings has a fearsome reputation as a member of the new tribe of data-savvy, Svengali advisers—the likes of Steve Bannon—who might be called ‘institutionoclasts’. With Dominic Cummings whispering in his ear, what boundaries would Johnson fear to cross?
Under the banner of ‘the will of the people’, would it not be legitimate for him to push through Brexit, by whatever means necessary? To ‘just get on with it’, as so many people have been urging. But how wise is it to trash constitutional norms in the name of the will of the people?
Johnson has trust issues, and his opponents smelt a very pungent rat. They believed his strategy was designed to serve many more purposes than implementing the will of the people. Succeeding by force where others had failed by persuasion promised to make him the people’s champion, glue him into No 10 Downing Street, secure his place in history, and, incidentally, get the Conservative Party out of a terrible mess.
But would he be so bold, so blatant?
Of course, the whole idea of prorogation was immediately pooh-poohed, by Johnson himself, and all his cabinet colleagues. So everyone relaxed. Until the day prorogation was announced.
Suddenly, all hell, as they say, broke loose. Johnson himself denied that there was any political motivation, other than the need for his new government, with its majority of one, to prepare for a Queen’s Speech. And, in a piece of very fine judgement, he did not prorogue parliament till beyond the October 31st deadline, but only for about five weeks between the second week of September and the middle of October. Quite routine. Except that a routine prorogation lasts about three days.
All the ministers who had denounced the very idea of prorogation now fanned out across the nation’s media chanting ‘business as usual’. But many believed that this was simply a big lie, hidden in plain sight. One prominent right-wing commentator wrote a gleeful column, applauding Johnson for lying, and stealing a burger company’s slogan. He was lovin’ it.
Around this time, a worm must have turned somewhere. The Remainers in Parliament, spanning five political parties, had had enough. They had long been paralysed by infighting and arguments about what degree of remaining was Remainy enough, whether to have a second referendum or not, and so forth. Now the mixed whiff of grapeshot and perfidy seemed to shock them into unity.
So, in the short time they still had before the doors of Parliament were locked against them, and fearing that Johnson actively wants ‘no deal’, they agreed a plan, which was then successfully implemented. The opposition took control of the Commons’ order paper, and introduced a bill ruling out ‘no deal’, effectively tying the prime minister’s hands, and wrecking his strategy.
This represents the worst series of defeats for a sitting prime minister the country has ever known. And he only suffered those six defeats because he didn’t resign after the second. He justified the sacking of 21 of his colleagues because he turned the vote on the ‘no deal’ bill into an issue of confidence. Justified in normal practice, certainly. But if a prime minister loses a vote of confidence, the normal practice is to resign, and Johnson did not.
His government fought back. With straight faces, senior Tories threatened they would talk out the bill in the Lords—thwarting the will of the elected chamber is a long-standing taboo—or might refuse to present it to the Queen for Royal Assent—a complete outrage. But they did neither, and the bill is now law.
So the prime minister has had to face humiliation over his flagship policy, mockery over his incompetence and torrents of condemnation over his party management and his behaviour in the Commons, where he has revived an unexpurgated version of yah-boo politics. He is probably the first First Lord of the Treasury to use four-letter words at the dispatch box that cannot be reported without asterisks in national newspapers. It’s all been too much even for his brother, who has resigned from the government.
Johnson is now in a very tight corner because what he calls “the surrender bill” compels him either to get a deal at the next EU summit on October 17th-19th, or if he cannot, he must ask for a further extension of EU membership till the end of January 2020. The best counter he has come up with so far is to say that he would rather ‘die in a ditch’ than go to Brussels and ask for an extension, and to declare that the law is only binding on him ‘in theory’.
And that snap election—the one he was going to call after securing Brexit, the one that would give him five years in Downing Street with a thumping majority? Unfortunately for him, he needs the cooperation of the leader of the opposition to get it, because under the terms of the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a prime minister can only call an election inside the five-year term of a parliament by obtaining a two-thirds majority in the Commons.
Johnson has chosen as his chief adviser the man who masterminded the successful Vote Leave campaign—Dominic Cummings. Had Boris got the old gang together for one last big heist?
But Johnson doesn’t have the numbers. One way and another, his wafer-thin majority has turned into a mattress-thick minority, somewhere around minus 43. So he needs cooperation from across the aisle. Would it come? Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition leader, looked like he was minded to help out; he has spent every day since the last election, in which he did much better than expected, calling for another one.
But cannier heads prevailed. If Johnson is denied an election until after the October deadline, he will look like the most busted of bust flushes. Boris Johnson—the serial winner—may have to admit defeat. He could then resign, and become the shortest serving prime minister ever, or stay on as a zombie premier in a zombie Parliament. Or, horror of horrors, bring back a tweaked version of May’s deal.
And why, for the first time ever, has an opposition leader refused to go for the earliest possible election? Again, this is largely Boris Johnson’s own doing. He has been so tricky in the eyes of his opponents that they are reluctant to leave him the least wriggle room. If the opposition agreed to an election on, say, October 15th, this would give them, if they won, a chance to go to Brussels and negotiate their own deal. A nice prospect. But the prime minister retains a prerogative power to name the date of an election. So even if October 15th was voted through, signed in blood, and published in the streets of Ashkelon, the opposition is not reassured that Boris Johnson would not find a way of postponing it till after October 31st, and thus, at a stroke, getting back everything he currently seems to have lost. The game, it seems, is still on.
And we are still stuck. Nobody knows what is going to happen next. Everybody is accusing everybody else of undermining our democracy, whilst simultaneously advocating unprecedented, possibly unconstitutional courses of action themselves. What do you get when politicians say “we are only resorting to dirty tricks because the other lot did”? A race to the bottom is what.
People are beginning to ask what it looks like when democracy dies. If the prime minister is not bound by the law of the land, then who is? Will prime ministers in future be allowed to pick and choose the laws they obey? Partisans do not see it that way; they want to win, and winning ugly is still a win.
Things are going very awry when self-styled conservatives end up determined to smash institutions and conventions that have delivered generations of peace and functioning civility. This seems to be where Britain, slightly behind the US, has ended up. When conservatives throw away the guidebook of tradition, where exactly are we going? Who, then, are the revolutionaries?
Is Dominic Cummings a game-theory genius, or just a megalomaniac who has messed up, badly?
Parliament is now closed till October 14th, with no date set for an election, no deal in sight and no guarantee that the prime minister will obey the law.
Now, where’s that crystal ball…