Rumours of the Prime Minister’s death in a ditch have been greatly exaggerated. Parliament’s rejection of the Government’s programme motion for its withdrawal agreement bill makes it all but impossible for Boris Johnson to extricate the UK from the EU by 31 October as promised.
It is an obvious defeat for a PM who got the job by swearing to Tory members that he would have us out by Halloween, no tricks, no treats, no last-minute scares.
It is also, however, probably the optimal way for Johnson to break his oath. To the uninvested voter with only a passing interest in the goings-on at Westminster, tonight was not about the PM’s new withdrawal agreement or the programme motion or which Labour MPs trotted through the Aye lobby. It was Day 1,216 of no Brexit — three years and four months since the country voted Leave and still with nothing to show for it.
MPs’ decision to vote for a second reading of the withdrawal agreement bill will only add to the confusion of these electors. Parliament backed a deal, then unbacked it.
We will see how these tactics play out in the opinion polls and ultimately the general election, as and when it comes. Maybe they’ll be so scunnered with the whole Brexit enterprise they’ll toss the Tories out for a bit of peace and quiet.
More likely, though, is that they turn their frustration on the Brexit-blockers. Professional Parliament-watchers are aghast at the very suggestion that MPs ‘get on with it’, because they grasp neither the political potency of tedium not the British public’s short fuse for dithering. Tell the voters that Brexit was almost done but Yvette Cooper wanted to read the small print and they won’t commend her on her attention to detail — they’ll want to run her out of town for prolonging the misery. The country is done with this already and it wants to move on.
The Remain Parliament is determined that Johnson goes to the electorate a liar, having failed to keep up his end of the bargain on the Brexit deadline. But the voters already know Boris has a strained relationship avec la vérité; all they needed to see was him fighting tooth and nail to keep his promise and on the surface that is what he appears to have done.
The Great British public can be a tricky bunch but they seem more likely to give Boris the benefit of the doubt than his parliamentary tormentors. The sooner we have a general election the easier it will be to test this hypothesis but, while Boris Johnson lost a vote tonight, he may have picked up seats along the way.
Today was the 1,216th day with no Brexit and Parliament only has so many more of these days left.