It’s time for Boris Johnson’s opponents to decide what they want

29 August 2019

9:16 PM

29 August 2019

9:16 PM

Boris Johnson sees method in and admires some of Trump’s apparent madness: not the ‘send them home’ abusive chants about ethnic minority Democrat critics, but the refusal to play by the normal rules of politics or international relations (threatening to nuke North Korea before talking with its despot; imposing new tariffs on China while claiming to want a trade deal; ripping up the international entente with Iran prior to saying just days ago he could be the first US president since the toppling of the Shah to meet an Iranian leader).

In case Johnson hasn’t noticed, Trump hasn’t enjoyed any conspicuous success with what can perhaps best be described as governing through organised chaos – though equally the world hasn’t ended. Or at least not yet.

It isn’t a coincidence though that Johnson has chosen to defy all liberal opinion opinion by closing down parliament for five weeks, when most would say the imperative is for our representatives to be on the feet in the chamber holding him to account for how and whether we leave the EU.

Johnson, in a wholly Trumpian way, is characterising himself as champion of the people, and his anti-no-deal-Brexit MP opponents as the enemies of democracy. And as I said yesterday, MPs cannot absolve themselves of blame or responsibility for Johnson as il presidente.

But if there is method in Johnson’s madness, which there is, one important question is why he has chosen to accelerate the showdown with his MP critics – which has been the inevitable and predictable consequence of him choosing to suspend parliament from 9 September or so until 14 October.

One explanation is that this battle was coming anyway, and it’s probably best for Johnson to fight it in conditions when his opponents will feel under extreme time pressure, as they will next week, so close to parliament being prorogued.

When time is so short, there’s a much greater risk that Johnson’s slightly chaotic opponents will muck it up.

Also if Johnson and his senior aide Dominic Cummings were to trounce MPs, they could then prove to Macron, Merkel, Juncker and Tusk that the threat of a no-deal Brexit is as real as real can be – and that the only way to avert such a rude rupture would be to dump the backstop. So a win for Johnson and Cummings so early would be a huge victory, a six pointer.

And even if Johnson and Cummings lose – which they may well – they would be no worse off than they would be if they lost in four weeks or six weeks or whenever.

Whenever they lose, and it won’t be plain sailing for them, at that juncture their response will be the same – first to refuse to accept the legality or binding force of whatever MPs force on them. And when that approach runs out of road, to characterise their critics as defying the will of the people, thus justifying and underpinning a fight to the death in a general election.

Either way, with no majority in the Commons, Johnson has nothing to gain from being emollient and placatory with his own MPs, and everything to gain from being focussed and ruthless.

In fact, more or less the only advantage he has over his opponents is that he has a single aim, which is to deliver Brexit, deal or no deal, by 31 October, whereas his enemies only know that they don’t want a no-deal Brexit, but are a million miles from consensus on what they actually want. And that lack of consensus among the rebel alliance about what would follow from vetoing no-deal is a huge strategic weakness, in a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown caused by Brexit uncertainty.

So what will Johnson’s opponents actually do in just a few days?

Well, the 40-odd rebel Tories, led by Hammond, Grieve and Letwin, will – in partnership with pretty much all opposition MPs – push through emergency legislation to compel Johnson to ask the EU to delay Brexit by around six months. Or so one of their leaders tells me.

They want another six months of blinkin’ Brexit limbo, because they think it would take that long to get parliament to agree at the very last some version of Theresa May’s thrice-rejected Brexit – which would almost certainly end up being put back to us for ratification in a confirmatory referendum, at the insistence of the Labour party.

Normally it would be impossible for backbenchers to construct and pass such an important law, because it is the privilege of the serving government to set the order paper and control the business of the house. But the Speaker, John Bercow, made it crystal clear today – in his emotional attack on Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament – that he would make sure Hammond, Grieve and co are temporarily given control of the order paper. Bercow has the power.

So it is pretty certain – though not quite inevitable – that backbench MPs and lords will in rapid time attempt to pass a new law to delay Brexit.

To be clear. Johnson’s enemies probably have the numbers. Of the 40 rebel Tories, precedent would suggest around 20 will hold their nerve and oppose their leader and PM; and it’s highly unlikely that more than three or four Brexity Labour MPs will vote with Johnson, though perhaps ten could abstain.

So by a slim margin, a bill for a half-year Brexit postponement may squeak into law. But that does not mean Johnson will do what MPs order him to do, and actually ask the EU’s 27 leaders to delay the date we leave the EU yet again.

There is an apparent precedent for a PM becoming the MPs’ Brexit robot or slave, since they seemingly acquired that hold over Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May just before the 29 March Brexit deadline.

At the time Downing Street briefed that the attorney general Cox told May she had to obey the Brexit-delay law. Now, if Cox were to give the same advice this time, I honestly can’t see Johnson or his senior aide Cummings following it – which could prompt Cox to quit.

But equally none of us saw Cox’s advice. Who knows whether it was as unambiguous as May and her team implied? At the time, it was clear that May was desperate to avoid a no-deal Brexit, and being instructed by parliament to sue the EU for a postponement of our Brexit date suited her.

To be clear, MPs cannot be certain that they can bind the Prime Minister’s hands and force him to beg EU leaders for more time. These are uncharted waters.

One more thing – which Johnson’s opponents would be foolish to ignore. The EU is fed up with the UK’s Brexit dithering – and while EU leaders may recoil at Johnson’s no-deal sangfroid and total refusal to accept the backstop, they respect that they know what he wants. This was conspicuously clear at the G7 in Biarritz a few days ago, and from my conversations with EU officials.

There will be panic attacks in Berlin, Paris and Brussels if MPs vote for a six month Brexit delay, but cannot guarantee that the delay will yield a new and realistic Brexit deal, or a referendum, or an election, or any process with a certain outcome. The last thing Merkel, Macron, Tusk and Juncker can stomach is the EU not knowing whether the UK is in or out of the EU by next spring, when the EU’s new budget has to be agreed.

It is possible – even probable – that if MPs voted to delay Brexit with no clear purpose in mind, the EU could politely decline to furnish that delay, and we’d still be out on our ear, without a deal, on 31 October.

If MPs want to stop Johnson’s no-deal, it is high time they decided what they want instead.

Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his ITV News blog

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