In a judgment that will ring down the centuries, the Supreme Court unanimously finds that a Conservative prime minister had unlawfully suspended Parliament, and press ganged the Queen into being his accomplice.
A Conservative prime minister, I should emphasise: the leader of a party that once lectured us on the need to defend the British constitution and rule of law from socialist extremists. Now it is reduced to being led by a jobbing journo, whose word few have believed since the early 1990s, and a thuggish clique of advisers, of the type who give student politics a bad name. They have driven genuine conservatives from their own party, and possibly millions of voters with them. The caution of Philip Hammond, David Gauke, Nicholas Soames and Dominic Grieve, may not be to the taste of the Maoists of the right. But they are the kind of politicians small ‘c’ conservatives once supported on the boring but nevertheless compelling grounds that ‘at least they won’t wreck the country’.
Johnson has purged his party and disgraced it. He has made a nonsense of its own history. The party of Queen and country has misled the Queen and the country. The party of law and order has broken the law and launched a shabby and, as the Supreme Court found, dishonest attack on the sovereignty of Parliament.
Surely, Johnson must resign. Surely, the Conservatives must lose the next election.
Not so fast. Johnson is ahead in the polls. He wanted an early election because he was convinced he would win it. The courts can reveal the prime minister to be the British equivalent of a tatty dictator, so lacking in honesty he would not even explain his actions to the judges, but he believes he can still triumph.
Johnson’s lead comes because he has persuaded supporters of the Brexit party that he is their man. Farage’s people are, in the words of Rob Ford of Manchester University, ‘low trust, anti-politics’ voters. They’re the guys who tell you in the pub that ‘all politicians are liars’ and expect to be applauded for their insight. They are generally old, disappointed, and angry. They like being aggrieved. Grievances make them happy. And if Johnson compromises and fails to go for no deal then they, and Farage, will scream he has betrayed them. They owe the Tory party nothing. They don’t love or respect it. Indeed, if one wished to feel sorry for the Conservative party under Boris Johnson (I don’t but someone must) you could say no one loves it now.
The great failure of British statecraft since 2016 is that it has reduced Britain to the status of a football team in the relegation zone. Its fate is no longer in its hands. Its future depends on what its opponents do. In theory, the EU could throw us out on 31 October. Only one country need veto an extension, after all.
If it does not, however, I do not see how the battered Johnson can orchestrate a crash out. The Supreme Court was careful to say that a prorogation can only last four to six days, not weeks. Even if he tries the same trick again on the Queen, I read the judges’ comments as a warning that they would be more than happy to slap him down.
Meanwhile, the unanimity of the Supreme Court ruling showed how decisively the judges would deal with an attempt by Johnson to break the law and ignore Hilary Benn’s European Withdrawal Act. Perhaps government lawyers can find a way round the stipulation that Johnson must ask for an extension, if he does not have a deal by 19 October. Former Commons’ clerks have assured me that their efforts will be in vain. Benn has done his job well and they can see no loopholes. If, somehow Johnson crashes us out, he will lose Conservative voters who expect the Tory party to be a safe pair of hands. If he does not, he will lose the ex-Brexit party supporters.
Never underestimate the cunning of a cornered charlatan, but the PM looks snookered to me.
The opposition ought to be heading to power. But until the Supreme Court ruling, commentators were saying that Labour was unelectable under Corbyn, who may not have achieved much in his life but is the undisputed holder of the title ‘most unpopular leader of the opposition since records began’. The smell of death hung over the Labour conference. The plots against Tom Watson revealed a fear that the deputy leader could take control of the party after Corbyn lost the next election, not confidence in the future.
The infantilism of the delegates’ leader worship, the ugliness of the manoeuvres to fix Labour’s EU policy might have been designed to repel former Labour supporters as surely as Johnson repels traditional Tories.
Labour deserters place a value on having a government that works, but they also have a sense of personal integrity. Outsiders may mock their tender consciences, but they are real none the less. Labour’s betrayals on Brexit feel like personal betrayals. They say they will not vote for them.
But once again, you cannot be certain that their disgust makes a Labour defeat inevitable. In the 2017 general election campaign, Corbyn overcame bad poll numbers – although admittedly they were not as bad as now. Perhaps when confronted with Johnson, they will abandon their principles and vote Corbyn again. No one can say. Least of all them. Ford and other political scientists point out that hardly anyone noticed the evidence of tactical anti-Tory voting in 2017. In seats where the Lib Dems were in second place, their vote went up, while Labour benefitted where they were the Conservatives’ leading opponent. Will the same thing happen next time? God knows.
There is a final option that the British could begin to free themselves from the decaying old parties. Johnson and Corbyn are doing everything they can to drive voters to the Liberal Democrats, and you have to think that, if Lib Dems cannot break through now, they never will. The most dynamic opposition to Brexit does not come from the Labour party but the Liberals and from Caroline Lucas and the Greens, Tory rebels, and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists. They feel like the future of progressive politics. I’m getting a little weary of hearing lectures from political allies who tell me I must vote Labour as it is the only way to stop Johnson – and an election campaign is not even with us yet. But if the Lib Dems start polling above 25 per cent, then the old rules no longer apply, and you do not have to choose the lesser of two evils, but can renounce evil in all its manifestations.
I want a realignment, But I cannot guarantee it will happen. Just as no one can guarantee that Johnson will win or Corbyn will win or that there won’t be another a hung parliament.
My point is that Britain has no clear path to any future. It is stuck and for the life of me, I cannot see where it goes next.