Are we there? Has the political world of the UK finally hit breaking point? Is it on the verge of imploding?
To be honest many of us, including politicos like myself, are just in a suspended state of disbelief. Every new twist and turn in the Brexit story is met with a response akin to: ‘This is bonkers… but not unexpected.’
Before the summer recess in Parliament the country had a new Prime Minister in Boris Johnson after Theresa May eventually succumbed to her battle wounds, becoming the latest fatality of the Tory civil war on Europe.
With the new Prime Minister standing firm on his commitment to deliver Brexit, deal or no deal, on 31 October he appointed a new cabinet which reflected this with hard Brexiteers getting promotions with many who had left May’s Cabinet in disagreement returning.
Summer in the UK is often referred to as silly season, when Parliament is on recess and the media is lacking in fresh stories. The agenda was dominated with how the opposition would deal with the new hard deadline. We had the ‘will he, won’t he’ drama over whether Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn would call his much-threatened confidence vote in the Government. Then we had the cycle of ‘if Corbyn isn’t going to get the backing of the public should we have a caretaker Government to stop the PM’? Who should lead it? Should it be Corbyn? Would he be palatable to the public on a short term basis? Should a political grandee such as the Tory Father of the House Ken Clarke, or Labour’s Mother of the House Harriet Harman lead a caretaker Government with the objective being to extend Article 50 and call a General Election? Should they run with the idea from the solo Green MP Caroline Lucas to have a woman-only caretaker Cabinet to deal with Brexit?
Whilst the Opposition parties and Tory rebels have been working out what to do the new PM has been making spending announcements palatable to the public, fuelling speculation of an early General Election despite the Prime Minister saying there would be no election before Brexit.
As the end of silly season came into sight, the Prime Minister threw another ‘unsurprising’ spanner in the works by saying he would be proroguing Parliament. What does this mean? Well, just days after the MPs had returned from their summer break the Prime Minister was going to suspend Parliament through the procedure of inviting the Queen to open a new session with his agenda at the forefront.
Taking into account the couple of weeks off for conference season, the Prime Minister has effectively squeezed the Parliamentary timetable before 31 October to days, running down the clock to stop a no deal Brexit.
The chaos in the opposition parties who had only just decided not to push for a caretaker Government and rather propose legislation to block a No Deal Brexit became embattled in the latest twist. The Prime Minister was no doubt revelling in his absurd position of strength after effectively announcing he would bypass Parliament to force through his policy. As this is Europe and the Tory party the civil war wages on with former Cabinet Ministers threatening to stop the Prime Minister, leaving the EU with no deal by siding with the opposition alliance.
You would think that a Prime Minister who only has a majority of one in the Commons needs all his MPs to toe his party line and yet, rather than reaching out to his colleagues he threatens to remove the party whip and have them deselected as Conservative candidates in any future election.
This is a risky strategy – one that could encourage rebellion from those who are voting on principle rather than job security.
Then the day before MPs return to Parliament, the Prime Minister called a surprise meeting of the cabinet with a statement to follow. The media went into a frenzy with many expecting the Prime Minister to announce a vote on calling a General Election.
The media expects him to face down his rebels by having the electorate remove them. When the statement came he uttered the words, ‘I don’t want an election, you don’t want an election,’ calling for the rebels not to side with the opposition and to back his ‘radical’ and financially flush domestic agenda.
In the background, sources were whispering to the press that if the Prime Minister lost the vote against the opposition he would seek a snap election.
Does the Prime Minister’s strategy make sense? Well if you look at the situation in full, purely based on strategy, then you could argue that he is doing everything right.
Boris Johnson came to office with Parliament unable to work out what it wanted from a deal with the EU. We saw sessions of indicative votes where a list of ideas were pitched to the Commons: a common market, Canada plus, a confirmatory referendum, Theresea May’s deal without the Irish Backstop. They all failed.
To bring order to the chaos, Johnson hired Dominic Cummings, the man behind the strategy of the Vote Leave campaign. What he appears to be doing is shifting the position of the Prime Minister, not as a man leading a Government, but as a Prime Minister standing by the ‘will of the people’, uncaring of what Parliament wants.
The PM’s spending announcements and his hard line on a leave date is a throw down to the divided electorate. The Prime Minister and Cummings have taken note of the recent EU election results where the Brexit Party topped the tables with 30.5%. The Tories came in fifth with 8.8%.
Whilst these results look bad, BoJo and Cummings may have looked at those results and the fact that the ‘remain vote’ on the other side is fractured – with the Lib Dems who campaigned hard on a remain platform coming second with 19.6%, Labour which was ‘strategically ambiguous’ on its position coming third on 13.6% and the Greens who like the Lib Dems campaigned on a remain platform taking 11.8% – and seen an opportunity.
A fractured and ambiguous opposition is a good thing for the party in Government. So electorally Johnson would need to try and suffocate the support of the Brexit party by positioning himself as the champion of Brexit – taking the crown from Nigel Farage.
Let’s not forget a General Election isn’t a single issue vote, so he’s trying to appeal to those swayed by Labour’s arguments that Tory Austerity is crippling society by pledging money at issues such as crime, the NHS and education. He is trying to be all things to the Brexiteers and the swing voters whilst creating a showdown between himself and the MPs.
Even though he says he doesn’t want a General election, is he trying to force the opposition into giving him a reason to call one? Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair has warned Corbyn about entering an ‘elephant trap’ by calling for a General Election before Brexit has been dealt with.
Under the terms of the Fixed Parliament Act, if two thirds of the Commons vote for a General Election then the Prime Minister can set the date of an election. Maybe this is what the Prime Minister wants? A date just before 31 October would provide even less time to stop Brexit in the Commons – or could he set the date after the Brexit deadline to keep to his man of the people pledge?
On a political level, we should all deplore the suspension of Parliament and the reduction in Parliamentary time to debate Johnson’s Brexit. It is an affront to Parliamentary sovereignty – the very thing Brexiteers argue Brexit is meant to restore.
Equally, I am frustrated by the fractured position of the opposition parties, which has allowed the Johnson strategy to flourish. Our opposition parties need to do more.
By the end of the week we should be a little closer to the next steps. Will the Prime Minister call an election or will time have run out before Parliament is suspended? It will be another chaotic week in Westiminster.