Going for Broke

This week saw the Supreme Court unanimously rule that the government had unlawfully prorogued parliament. This was a surprise. Prorogation had been thought to be a prerogative power beyond judicial review. They ruled it was not. Yet however surprising this might be, it reflects the constitution’s evolution as a barrier against the possession arbitrary power by the executive (if I can indulge in some Whiggery). The government’s attempt to prorogue for five weeks rather than five days was a clear attempt to circumvent debate and scrutiny on Brexit. So where can Johnson go from here? 

The answer became evident as soon as Geoffrey Cox began bellowing in the House of Commons: you bluff and go on the attack. The Attorney General was only the warm up act for Johnson. The Prime Minister’s choleric performance in parliamenthas produced shock and anger in Westminster. There was no hint of contrition, only black and putrid bile. Anyone who thought that the Prime Minister would reach out to the opposition and Tory exiles must have been totally disabused after this. No self-respecting Labour MP can lend their voice and vote to this government. Last night the Prime Minister made it all but impossible for any deal of his to pass this parliament. 

But it won’t trouble him. He knows there won’t be a new deal. There will be nothing to put before parliament. This is an election strategy. It is public knowledge that the Conservatives were planning to run a ‘people vs. parliament’ election, but few expected it to become so brutal so quickly. They are opting for a blitzkrieg approach of unrelenting attacks on the institutions of British politics. Johnson and Cummings must be looking at the polling data. They are ahead in all polls, sometimes by a lot, sometimes not. They are hoping that they can preserve or extend this lead by fuelling a populist and nationalist surge against the ‘metropolitan elite’, even though it will not be the people who enjoy avocado toast and organic kombucha who will be significantly harmed by a no deal Brexit. 

Despite the Prime Minister’s multiple failures and humiliations, he still has a good chance of winning. The opposition is divided along party lines, there is popular frustration, and Jeremy Corbyn’s approval ratingsare even more dismal than Johnson’s. The dynamics may change in the next few weeks because everything is in flux. It might be that Johnson has crossed a line and will become the subject of public revulsion for eviscerating the mores of civil behaviour. But we live in uncivil times.

What options are available to check Johnson? The obvious is to call his bluff and have a vote of no confidence, but not for an immediate election. There needs to be an interim government of national unity. If Corbyn cannot command the confidence of the house, then he ought to stand aside for someone else, such as Ken Clarke or Harriet Harman. The new Prime Minister would have a limited mandate: secure an extension that takes a no deal Brexit off the table and legislate for a new election once this has been done. Why should Corbyn agree to this? Well, if we are still in the EU on 1 November, the Conservatives will have a harder time at the polls, but there is a more substantive answer: we need adults in politics. Johnson’s puerile and incendiary behaviour needs to be met with maturity. We are in desperate need of people who are willing to put aside partisan advantage for the sake of the common good. I hope Jeremy Corbyn is such a person.