In my previous post I wrote of the political thunder and lightning that we were about to experience, and this week we have had the beginnings of that storm. There is much more to come.
Court ruling was a moment of huge significance not least for the calm, rational
and – naturally – judicious manner in which it was
delivered. That was a symbolic reminder that for all the rhetoric, high
emotions, lies, insults and threats we see there is still what could perhaps be
called a backstop to protect civilised and ordered society. It was a rare but
comforting, and important, moment.
was in keeping with the content of the ruling. For all the furore it has
provoked, it was at heart, in one sense, unremarkable. I am not a lawyer of any
kind, but it would seem self-evident that if a government is able to suspend
parliament whenever it wants and for whatever reason, or for no good reason,
then parliamentary democracy would be meaningless.
What we saw,
as many have remarked, was the British
constitution working as it should do, with the judiciary playing its role
in maintaining the separation of powers that underpins democracy. It is a
matter of historic importance that the Court should have decided so, historic
shame to the government that it should have been necessary to ask the Court,
and historic credit to those who brought that case that they had the
determination and courage to do so.
implications go far beyond Brexit and, whatever happens with Brexit, Gina
Miller, in particular, should be long-remembered for her heroic actions defence
of parliamentary democracy in the face of the most vile intimidation.
judgment was ‘unremarkable’ in confirming the basic principles of parliamentary
democracy, what was truly remarkable was the forensic dismissal of each and
every part of the government’s case, with the unanimous agreement of all the
judges. It was a damning and unequivocal demolition of what the government had
done, to the extent of confirming that, in fact, it had done nothing – that is,
prorogation had not as a matter of legal fact occurred.
the reaction of Johnson all the more ludicrous, but also all the more
depressing. Like an insolent, smirking schoolboy, his mealy-mouthed
‘acceptance’ of the judgment – as if, somehow, he was making a concession or
could pick and choose – was always immediately followed by the claim that the
judges had got it wrong. On what grounds? Simply the repetition of argument
totally discredited by the judgement, namely that this had just been a normal
prorogation for a Queen’s Speech.
But then the
additional line. The inevitable, dangerous line. That this judgment was all
about blocking Brexit, inviting others
to fill in the unspoken inference of judicial anti-Brexit bias. It, too, is
ludicrous. The whole basis of the argument that it was just a prorogation for
the Queen’s Speech is that it was not to do with preventing parliament from
intervening in Brexit. That has been the line over and over again from Johnson
and the Brexiters. Yet, now, with prorogation ruled unlawful he and they claim
that this would derail Brexit. So the very critique of the judgement of his
case was based on acknowledgement that his case was a lie.
If the calm
rationality of the courtroom set out in excoriating detail the utter contempt
for democratic principle with which Johnson and his government have acted, his performance in the
resumed House of Commons showed the total intellectual and moral bankruptcy
of his character, conduct and policy.
As has been
upon it was a truly disgusting display. Not only did it fail to show any
understanding, or genuine acceptance, of the judgment but it also ramped up all
the foul and divisive rhetoric that Brexiters have inflicted upon us in recent
years. For despite the current outrage, the
toxic language of betrayal has long been entrenched.
In terms of
substance, he had literally nothing to offer. Nothing. Just endless jibes about
the ‘Surrender Act’, sneering dismissals of complaints about his use of this term, airy-fairy
talk of imaginary negotiating progress, and the usual meaningless, dishonest ‘will of
the people’ calumny. There’s no longer even the pretence of claiming any
rationale for doing Brexit other than that it must be done, still less any
rationale for the doing it by any particular date.
course, he had a purpose and he fulfilled it. In any normal circumstances, the
humiliating judgement of the Supreme Court would have dominated the news, and
brought intense pressure for the Prime Minister to resign. Instead, he
successfully switched most of the focus of attention on to his language and
behaviour. And – crucial to remember for those outside it - that is doing him
nothing but good with his base support, who repeat and amplify it.
distraction techniques are his political stock in trade (the “dead cat strategy”),
but there is a bigger and far more important distraction in play here. Tempting
as it is to focus on Johnson’s depraved character, what is really on display
now is the total void that lies at the heart of Brexit itself. I’ve commented before on how, ever since the
Referendum, it’s been clear that the
Ultra Brexiters would have been far happier had they lost. They want
something to object to, rather than an alternative. They want to campaign
against, rather than create. To complain, rather than to take responsibility.
could have had their Brexit by now had they really wanted it. Instead, step by
step, lie by lie, they have torched soft Brexit, torched hard Brexit, and
indeed rejected any concrete form of Brexit as a betrayal of some imagined ‘true’
Brexit. Hence gradually the onion skins have been peeled away until the fetid
heart of it is exposed: not a policy but an undeliverable fantasy composed of
lies and articulated in the language of spite, contempt and hate. That was once
the preserve of a few fanatics. Their terrible achievement has been to spread
the fantasy and the language to a much larger number, though still a minority,
of the population.
desire, shown in their constant lie to that effect, is to claim it as the view
of every single one of the 17.4 million people, most of whom had no such
intention, and none of whom were told that it meant smashing the economy and
every institution of democratic society, the possible dissolution of the United
Kingdom, and the instigation of a permanent culture war.
mendacity is to insist that this is not just the choice of that narrow majority
of those who voted, but the settled will of ‘the people’ in their entirety and
opposed only by some shadowy elite or establishment. Thus they position most of
their fellow-citizens as traitors to whom any insult and punishment may be meted
they would like to push through to no-deal Brexit on this wholly dishonest
basis. With parliament preventing that, they are forced to confront the dishonesty
which is why they prefer an election to another referendum. If they truly
believed they spoke for ‘the people’ they would happily embrace a referendum as
the last, shattering hammer-blow in their quest. For, be sure, that would mark
the death knell for remain and much else besides. But they do not truly believe
that, and hope instead that an election, in which they might form a government
with perhaps a third of the vote, will do the job instead.
A neat irony
But, here, a
neat irony intrudes. For whilst it is parliament which hems them in on one side,
the longstanding schism amongst Brexiters, in the form of Farage and the Brexit
Party, hems them in on the other. In a re-run of the cleavages of the
Referendum campaign itself, Johnson and Cummings are again at vicious odds with
Farage and Banks. In the absence of an electoral pact, each will be competing
for that third or so of the electorate that might be willing to endorse their
Johnson ramps up the rhetoric – but who wants Pepsi when you can have the real
thing? Many will stick with Farage. At the same time, the traditional backbone
of Tory support – which, even if now a minority of that support, is still a
substantial number of voters – the kind of people represented by the likes of
Heseltine, Clarke and the twenty-one expelled rebels, will be repelled.
point of view, Corbyn’s refusal to allow an immediate election is both right
and crucial. It helps to blocks some possible forms of chicanery whereby no
deal happens through a back-door avoidance of the ‘Benn Act’. It’s also good
tactics to leave Johnson twisting impotently in the wind, for the longer he is
left there the more the possibilities of him disgracing himself in some way,
the longer the possibility of some new scandal emerging, and the longer he is kept
from his preferred, campaigning, mode. The charge of the opposition being
“scared” of an election will be forgotten the moment the campaign starts.
failure to prorogue matters for Brexit
point of view, too, the failure of prorogation matters. There is a view around
that it hasn’t really changed anything. In one way, this is true: it seems
likely that the main reason for prorogation was to prevent something like the
Benn Act passing. If so, it was a botched job, as it came just too late to do
so. Indeed, it very likely is what provoked the Tory rebels to support the Act.
It’s increasingly clear that Cummings’ much vaunted Machiavellian skills are much
parliament sitting again gives further opportunities to prevent any device to
circumvent the Act. That is important, given Johnson’s constant implication
that he will not comply with it, if its terms (i.e. no deal having been reached
by 19 October) are triggered. Parliament sitting further squeezes Johnson’s
room for manoeuvre.
the way in which Johnson has behaved since parliament resumed has, in itself,
made it even less likely that he might garner Labour rebel votes for any deal
he might strike with the EU. It is still possible that such a deal is what he
is aiming for, though
it seems a remote prospect. Since it is all but certain that such a deal
would be opposed by at least some of the Ultras in his own party – not least
because of the extravagant promises he has made them - it would only get through
with such Labour rebel support. Fewer, after Wednesday’s revolting spectacle,
are likely to give it. That, in turn, makes it even less likely he will do a
deal with the EU anyway, as they will know that it is unlikely to get approved
and are now
even more alarmed by Johnson’s populism and lack of trustworthiness.
reaction to the failure to prorogue matters
Supreme Court judgment is a
cause for optimism about the robustness of the legal and constitutional
order, it is clear from the reaction of Johnson and the Brexiters that it will
see an intensification rather than a modification – still less an abandonment –
of their populist tactics.
already be seen in attacks on the judgment and on
the judges, and in the fact that it has in no way diminished the desire to
circumvent the Benn Act. It is already
being mooted that the government might try to use an ‘Order of Council’ to
suspend the Act until after 31 October in order to force no-deal Brexit
through. If so, that would be likely to be subjected to
fresh legal challenge, but who can say that would be successful?
Meanwhile, Dominic Cummings has all
but condoned abuse and threats against MPs by saying they are “not
surprising” and result from the failure to “respect the result” of the
Referendum and from MPs being disconnected
from real people outside London. This of course is nonsense at every level
given the ambiguity of what respecting the result means (largely due to Cummings’
own tactics in the referendum campaign) and the fact that Brexiter MPs featured
prominently in preventing May’s deal going through. It is also as absurd to
depict the 8 million who live in London as ‘unreal’ as it is to portray the
rest of England, still less the UK, as a seething mass of hard core Brexiters.
It is another classic populist tactic. But, much more important than any of
this, it gives tacit licence to intimidation.
Cabinet Minister warns of riots if another referendum were to occur. By
failing to make the obvious point that such riots would be totally unjustified,
such comments are less speculation about, than implicit threat of, violence. Such
statements are revealing of the final, deepest, and most dangerous core of
populism. Cummings, like Johnson and others are always very careful to avoid
explicitly endorsing threats and violence but, rather like Kwasi Kwarteng’s recent remarks
about how “many people” (though not, heaven forbid, he) believe judges are
biased against Brexit, the dog whistles are loud enough for the deafest mutt to
are very high
are now very high indeed. This week’s events have shown that beyond all doubt.
They have also shown what many of us always knew: that this is about Brexit but
about much else besides. It is about the rule of law, about civility in
political discourse, rationality in decision making and parliamentary democracy
itself. It is only in passing about Johnson – as the clapping, gurning MPs
behind him on Wednesday night, the screaming headlines in the papers, the vile
stuff on social media, and all the rest of the poison show.
It is now clear,
as I argued two years ago, that what is underway is a
battle for Britain’s political soul. Judges can do so much, campaigners
like Gina Miller can do so much, MPs can do so much. But, in the end, the only
way of beginning to defuse what we now see being done in the name of the ‘will
of the people’ is for the people themselves to show that they will something
else - if indeed they do.
But we are still not even at the point of an
election. There is still much more drama to come. And then an election campaign
that is going to be truly horrible, with Johnson’s current rhetoric just a
foretaste of that which he and others will use. And then, perhaps, a referendum
campaign which if it comes will be more horrible still, worse than anything we
have ever seen in this country in modern times. And even then, whatever the
outcome of all that, it won’t be an end to the conflict. It will, at very best,
be the beginning of the end.
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