Brexit brinkmanship: Will Boris Johnson’s bad week get even worse?

Brexit battle: even Donald Trump would have struggled to match Boris Johnson’s strangled inarticulacy in Wakefield. Photograph: Danny Lawson/Pool/AFP/Getty

The police cadets were a model of discipline, in their black uniforms and peaked caps, as they stood in formation on a platform outside their training centre in Wakefield, in the northern English county of Yorkshire. They had been standing for more than an hour when Boris Johnson bumbled up to the podium to make a speech his team had designed to be the launch of a general-election campaign.

The police backdrop may have been Trumpian, but even the United States president would have struggled to match the prime minister’s strangled inarticulacy. He spewed out a handful of half-formed phrases about the importance of safe streets to a strong economy before turning to the cadets behind him.

Many voters struggle to follow the complexities of parliamentary procedure, but everyone gets the message when the PM’s own brother says he no longer supports him

“Do you know the caution? Do you know what you say when you have to collar someone?” he said before pretending not to remember it himself. “You do not have to say anything, is that right? But anything you say, if you fail to mention anything you rely on – let’s get this right.”

It’s one of Johnson’s favourite rhetorical devices, and it goes down a treat in after-dinner speeches to Conservative Party associations. But the police cadets were more bewildered than charmed by the prime minister’s eccentric behaviour, and by the time he was finished one of them had fainted.

Johnson might be forgiven for being off form on Thursday afternoon, because hours earlier his brother had resigned from his government and announced he was also stepping down as an MP. Jo Johnson, who backed Remain in the 2016 election and favours a second referendum, said he could no longer reconcile “family loyalty and the national interest”.

Brexit battle: by the time Boris Johnson finished his speech in Wakefield one of the police cadets behind him had fainted. Photograph: Danny Lawson/Pool/Getty
Brexit battle: by the time Boris Johnson finished his speech in Wakefield one of the police cadets behind him had fainted. Photograph: Danny Lawson/Pool/Getty

It was perhaps the worst blow for the prime minister in a catastrophic week that had seen him lose his parliamentary majority, expel 21 Conservative MPs and lose four key votes in the House of Commons. Many voters struggle to follow the complexities of parliamentary procedure, but everyone gets the message when the prime minister’s own brother says he no longer supports him.

Johnson was due to arrive at Balmoral Castle last night with his partner, Carrie Symonds, for an overnight stay with Queen Elizabeth. The political crisis in London means that Johnson cannot stay for the weekend, as prime ministers usually do for their annual visit.

This might be just as well, because Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament next week has drawn the queen into the kind of political and constitutional controversy she has sought to avoid throughout her 67 years on the throne.

Prorogation, which marks the end of one legislative session and the beginning of the next without dissolving parliament, usually happens once a year. It was ordered last week by the queen on the instructions of the privy council, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons.

It allows a government to set out a new policy agenda in a Queen’s Speech at the start of the next session, and any Bills that have not passed before prorogation fall.

The current parliamentary session has lasted more than two years, making it the longest in almost 400 years, and Johnson argues that there is nothing unusual about his decision to prorogue parliament now. What is unusual is the length of the prorogation, at five weeks the longest since 1945.

Johnson claimed that the purpose of the prorogation was to allow for a new Queen’s Speech, but cabinet minutes produced in evidence in a Scottish court this week showed that he had made the decision weeks before he publicly denied that he was planning to prorogue parliament. And senior civil servants refused to sign a document supporting the government’s version of events.

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Nobody at Westminster doubts that the decision to suspend parliament for five weeks was designed to limit MPs’ scope to block a no-deal Brexit. But it had precisely the opposite effect, pushing Conservative rebels into a highly effective alliance with opposition parties to pass a Bill aimed at preventing Johnson from taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union without a deal on October 31st.

The legislation obliges Johnson to write to the European Council to seek a three-month extension to the article-50 deadline if he has not secured a deal by October 19th. Johnson said on Thursday that he would prefer to be “dead in a ditch” than to write such a letter, and he wants to hold a general election on October 15th.

Opposition parties are working on a plan to ensure no election can take place until after October 19th, when Johnson would be obliged to seek an extension

He failed this week to win the two-thirds majority needed to call an election, and plans to try again on Monday. But opposition parties are working on a plan to ensure that no election can take place until after October 19th, when Johnson would be obliged by law to write the letter seeking an extension.

To write such a letter would explode the Conservatives’ electoral strategy of reuniting the Leave alliance by snuffing out Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Refusing to write it would be in breach of the law, possibly precipitating Johnson’s resignation.

Senior Labour figures are eager to postpone an election until November, allowing the prime minister to “stew in his own juices”. Jeremy Corbyn, whom one MP describes as being “deliciously otherworldly” about Labour’s electoral prospects, is less enthusiastic about a delay.

The Scottish National Party, which initially signalled that it wanted an early election, is now moving towards a later date. One way or another, Johnson is not in control of events, and he will be unable to determine the date of the election.

Within Downing Street, the prime minister’s closest advisers remain confident of winning an election when it comes by framing it as a choice between delivering Brexit under Johnson and delaying it under Corbyn. His senior adviser Dominic Cummings, who is viewed by many at Westminster as the rumpled Rasputin pulling Johnson’s strings, gets a better press from those who work with him. “He’s totally focused on one thing, Brexit. But he’s intelligent, he’s funny and he listens,” said one.

Brexit battle: Remain and Leave demonstrators outside parliament. Photograph: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg
Brexit battle: Remain and Leave demonstrators outside parliament. Photograph: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

He also has a plan, which is to win a majority by capturing Leave-voting seats in the midlands and the north of England that are currently held by Labour. Theresa May had a similar strategy in 2017, hoping that Brexit had dissolved tribal party loyalties to the point where Labour voters would back the Conservatives to ensure that the UK left the EU.

What she found, however, was that many Labour voters who liked Brexit and disliked Corbyn recoiled at the prospect of voting for a party that had overseen years of austerity that had run down the public services on which they depend.

Johnson’s flurry of announcements about more police and more money for schools and hospitals is designed to address those misgivings. Announcing a spending review this week, the chancellor of the exchequer, Sajid Javid, declared that the age of austerity was over.

“Thanks to the difficult decisions we took and the hard work of the British people we can now afford to turn the page on austerity,” he said. “Our careful management of the public finances means we can now afford to invest more in our vital public services.”

If the Brexit Party remains a going concern, it could win enough votes in key marginals to prevent the Conservatives from capturing the seats they need from Labour

The events of the past week have made the Conservatives’ challenge more difficult, with Ruth Davidson’s resignation as their Scottish leader putting most of their 13 seats north of the border at risk. The resurgent Liberal Democrats are confident of taking seats from the Tories in London and the southwest of England. And some of the 21 Conservatives expelled from the party for voting against the government this week are considering standing as Independents.

If the Brexit Party remains a going concern, it could win enough votes in key marginals to prevent the Conservatives from capturing the seats they need from Labour.

Labour remains well behind in the polls, but Corbyn’s team are confident that, as in 2017, it will outperform expectations once the campaign is under way. The party suffers from a muddled Brexit policy that envisages a Labour government negotiating a new withdrawal agreement that it might then campaign against in a referendum.

Corbyn himself is less popular than before, and younger voters are less enthusiastic about his leadership, because of his slowness in backing a second Brexit referendum. And Labour MPs critical of his leadership will not this time be able to deploy on the doorsteps the argument that it is safe to vote Labour because Corbyn could not become prime minister.

Brexit battle: Boris Johnson responds to Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/ UK Parliament/AFP/Getty
Brexit battle: Boris Johnson responds to Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/ UK Parliament/AFP/Getty

Labour has some advantages, however, notably a large membership and the support of its Momentum grouping, which proved to be a highly effective campaigning organisation in 2017. The party will also benefit from the contrast between Johnson’s promises of more police and better public services with the reality of voters’ lives.

Crime is rising in many British cities after huge cuts in police numbers under the Conservatives, patients routinely wait six weeks for an appointment with their GP, and rough sleepers line the streets of every town and city, as local authority cuts mean less shelter is available for them. If Johnson’s spending promises turn the election’s focus on public services, that is to Labour’s advantage, and he will never win a bidding war on public spending with Corbyn.

Johnson’s greatest risk factor could be himself, notably the poor judgment he has shown in recent days and his capacity for striking the wrong note in public appearances. A delayed general election will help Corbyn to burnish his image as a defender of parliamentary democracy against a tyrannical executive, as he has in parliament this week, and perhaps to bring greater coherence to his party’s policy on Brexit.

It’s worrying that each time these abnormal and unusual events take place, the government seems to think of more and more extreme ways of trying to get out of its difficulties

For Johnson, the coming weeks could be even more difficult than this one, and the purge of Conservative rebels has left the parliamentary party feeling shaken. If he cannot hold an election before October 19th, he will face a choice of seeking a delay to Brexit, breaking the law or resigning.

Whitehall insiders predict that if the prime minister refuses to obey the law, the most senior civil servants will resign and so too will some cabinet ministers.

“People like going around and saying the United Kingdom’s democracy is finished, its institutions are collapsing. It’s not actually what’s happening. The institutions are under a lot of strain, and they’re being subjected to a whole series of wholly abnormal and unusual pressures. And therefore they’re at times reacting in rather unusual and not normal ways,” one former minister says.

“Actually, I think the basic system is fairly robust. It’s worrying that each time these events take place, the government seems to think of more and more extreme ways of trying to get out of its difficulties. But there are, I think, finite limits to which that can go. And, ultimately, I think Boris Johnson is very close to those limits, which is why I think perhaps he’s going to get to the limits and then suddenly realise he’s got to take a completely different approach which seeks an outcome which is not rammed through, as he realises that in fact the battering ram is never going to succeed.”

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