A conspicuously rattled and tired Boris Johnson – flanked surreally by the police in Wakefield – said yesterday he would ‘rather be dead in a ditch’ than obey the expected new law that would force him to ask the EU for a Brexit delay.
Which carries only two implications.
Johnson could quit as Prime Minister before the EU summit on October 17 and bequeath to some other temporary prime minister the gift of suing the EU for a Brexit delay.
That could happen, but honestly I don’t believe Johnson will ever voluntarily quit Downing Street.
He’s waited for this moment too long.
Apart from anything else, any new PM – presumably temporary leader of a government of national unity – might well offer the EU the promise of a Brexit referendum in order to secure a Brexit postponement, and Johnson would also presumably die in a ditch to prevent that.
So more likely – and some of his Brexiter supporters are urging him to do it – he could break the new law, refuse to sign the letter requesting a Brexit delay and dare Parliament to impeach him, under ancient and rarely used rules.
It seems extraordinary that senior Tory MPs tell me that a serving prime minister should break the law, rather than break a promise that under no circumstances would he fail to take the UK out of the EU by October 31.
The choice is between keeping his word or disobeying the law of the land.
‘He can’t sign the letter’ said a Tory grandee and former Cabinet minister.
‘He has to precipitate a very real constitutional crisis.’
It has come to this!
The party of law and order, the party set up to conserve property rights and ancient traditions, is giving serious consideration to flouting the law to execute what it perceives as the instruction of the British people in that referendum.
This row over how and whether we Brexit is shaking institutions big and small, including Boris Johnson’s own nuclear family – as his brother Jo decides he can no longer serve as a minister or MP for a PM whose determination to keep alive the probability of a no-deal Brexit is anathema to him.
An ally of the PM blamed ‘parliament’s disastrous conduct for years’ which means ‘the system is necessarily adapting to basics’.
He added: ‘MPs want to stop Brexit and the public wants this resolved. So stuff will break.’
UPDATE: A former senior Tory minister writes to me:
‘Robert, I doubt impeachment is necessary. Surely a court order would suffice, with contempt of court sanctions available if defied.
Also, Civil Service code, with obligation to comply with law, is statutory (unlike ministerial code). So no official could lawfully act to support Johnson in disobeying the law.’
In other words if Johnson were to disobey the new law – which senior colleagues are urging him to do – the entire government system would be paralysed, though maybe that would be trivial collateral damage compared with the constitutional earthquake of a PM being found in contempt of court.
Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his ITV News blog.