One of the defining themes of this week has been the government threatening to do something dramatic, before manifestly not carrying out that threat. We’ve had No. 10 sources claiming Boris Johnson would pull his Withdrawal Agreement Bill if MPs voted down the programme motion, only for the Prime Minister to announce he is ‘pausing’ it, before then making a bid to the Labour Party to resurrect the legislation with a longer timetable.
We’ve also seen the demise of Johnson’s claim that he would rather be found ‘dead in a ditch’ than delay Brexit beyond 31 October. Though the Prime Minister hasn’t openly acknowledged that he’s missing the deadline, his 12 December election bid was an attempt to move the conversation straight past an awkward admission.
Today, No. 10 backtracked on a threat made yesterday as part of that election bid: its spokesman had suggested that the government would go ‘on strike’ if MPs refused to vote for a snap poll. ‘Nothing will come before Parliament but the bare minimum’ was the line.
I approached No. 10 about the implications of this last night. Did this mean that the much-delayed Domestic Abuse Bill was going to fall by the wayside once again? Johnson found himself embroiled in a row about whether he backed the legislation during his leadership campaign, and then again when the government failed to carry it over when it prorogued Parliament. At the second prorogation, ministers made sure the Bill went through into the next session, and it appeared in the Queen’s Speech.
This morning, a source clarified to me that the Bill was safe and that the government wouldn’t allow the turmoil over Brexit to stop the legislation progressing. A little later, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Johnson ‘has a domestic agenda. We want to deliver for the British public.’ Now, the ‘strike’ will only relate to Brexit legislation, which will be on pause anyway if MPs haven’t taken up Johnson’s offer and backed an election.
There are two possible explanations for these empty threats. The first is that there is a difference of opinion within No. 10 over strategy regarding an election and how to deal with Parliament. The second is that aides aren’t thinking through their threats before making them. Or perhaps it’s a bit of both. Either way, we are rapidly entering the territory of a government crying wolf while trying to look in control.