“Nice constitutional democracy you’ve got there… shame if anything happened to it.” Not a direct quote from the Prime Minister, obviously. But a flavour of the sentiment, if you listen to the anger and worry expressed by many opposition MPs and some backbench Tories. Protection rackets work by backing victims into a corner, by insinuating violence and by demonstrating that you’ve got the heavies to back it up, needs be. The worry for Brexit-sceptic MPs is that this is the Prime Minister’s strategy now; literally or figuratively depending on who you speak to.
But let’s take a step back for a moment, a break from the breathlessly ever changing day to day, and consider the bigger picture. What has actually happened specifically to affect the variable likelihood of different Brexit outcomes?
So, for example, the Supreme Court’s decision that proroguement was carried out illegally is significant for all sorts ofreasons. It curtails executive power and has an interesting potential impact on the prerogative in other ways too, on the right to declare war for instance. But it does not, on its own, affect Brexit or how likely any resolution to Brexit may be. So we will put it to one side.
The situation is actually reasonably clear. The law states that if the Prime Minister has not achieved a deal with the EU by October the 19th he must request an extension. He must do so using a pre-prepared letter contained within the Bill itself. So, no playing silly buggers, in other words. That’s the law. And it was the passing of that law that first began to throw Johnson’s strategy into peril. Because the Prime Minister had up to that point hoped to neuter Parliament, demonstrate an absolute determination to leave at Halloween no matter what (do or die, etc etc) and by such means to frighten Brussels into agreeing a backstopless deal. For obvious reasons, Brussels no longer believes the U.K. will leave (come what may, etc etc) at Halloween. They are therefore less inclined to rip up their red lines in panic. Therefore it is reasonable to believe that by passing the law that it passed Parliament has made a new deal less likely whilst also making No Deal less likely. Brussels is less likely to propose something. Britain is less likely to crash out. Parliament changed the negotiating dynamic to suit Parliament’s desired outcome – stasis for now, some as yet undetermined deal or a change that makes Remain viable later. All well, good and rational.
But it isn’t as though Parliament’s geopolitical interventions do not have repercussions at home. Just as Remainers have found themselves pointing out at various points to Leave ‘strategists’ that Europeans can read our newspapers to find out our cunning plans so now one has to point out to MPs that Brexit voters can see what they are doing. It might not be fair or right but there is a great deal of anger out there – particularly, of course, amongst those who voted for Brexit and have not been given the prize that they worked for and won.
It is in this context that we can understand Johnson’s behaviour and actions since the day he lost that vote on the extension. He does not yet know precisely what he will do – resign to avoid the law but remain Leader of the Conservative Party in wait for a coming election? Refuse to send the letter and test the power of the courts? Send the letter but make a great song and dance of how miserable we will make life for our European partners, hoping one government might veto the extension? But whichever path he chooses, Johnson knows that his best hope of survival – then victory in an election – will be to channel that anger and to make himself a tribute of it.
That is why he talks of ‘surrender’, ‘betrayal’ and the ‘humbug’ of discussing the late MP Jo Cox. And that is why he tells MPs that if they wish to end this division (and once again feel safe) they must vote with him and ‘get Brexit done’. Because Boris Johnson, having failed as yet to intimidate Brussels into submission – scuppered as he was by Parliament – hopes to show the British people that he is a strong man nonetheless. In the meantime he is showing Parliament that he has the heavies to back it up, needs be. That way he hopes to use the sheer chaos and fear of the situation to push through a deal in the unlikely event he secures one. And he can use all of this as the platform for a Brexit coalition to sweep a general election if he doesn’t. Not afraid of smashing a few eggs, is Mr. Johnson. Irrespective of whether he even intends to make an omelet.
And so, that is where we are after a scratchy Labour conference and ahead of a ghost town Tory gathering. The Prime Minister has not yet fixed on a programme of action over Brexit. But he has selected his mood music, whichever strategy he finally adopts. And nothing is going to dissuade him from humming this tune as the clock counts down to Halloween.