Time to reorient
With talk of prorogation and an ‘alternative parliament’, writes Eddie Ford, a constitutional crisis is looming.
Everyone knows that Boris Johnson will easily win the Tory leadership contest, probably by a landslide - the result being announced on July 23, just two days before parliament goes into recess.
Given that Johnson’s victory is certain, the first so-called head-to-head TV debate between the two contenders on June 9 was something of a formality - especially as a large part of the membership would already have voted. Nevertheless, it still revealed a few things of interest. Jeremy Hunt had previously labelled Johnson a “bottler” after Sky News a few weeks ago was forced to cancel a scheduled live debate between the pair. On this occasion, however, the foreign secretary accused the former London mayor of putting personal ambition before the needs of the country - “it is not do or die,” he quipped: “It is Boris in Number 10 that matters.” But the UK needs a leader, not a “newspaper columnist” - a reference to Johnson’s handsomely remunerated work for The Daily Telegraph.
More interestingly, Johnson swerved repeatedly away from the question of whether he would resign if he failed to deliver Brexit by October 31 - which for Hunt meant not being willing to “put his neck on the line” or stand by his principles: Boris was bluffing again. In reply, Johnson said making such a commitment would play into the hands of the European Union, because “they might encourage my resignation by refusing to agree a deal” - he found it “extraordinary” that British politicians “should be telling the British electorate we are willing to kick the can down the road”. Johnson also gave equivocal answers on issues including the planned HS2 railway, Heathrow’s third runway, and abortion and LGBT rights in Northern Ireland - even though that very same evening MPs overwhelmingly voted to bring the statelet into line with the rest of the UK on these matters. Unsurprisingly, Johnson also failed to condemn Donald Trump for his attacks on the British ambassador, Kim Darroch - who scandalously wrote in a confidential memo that the current US administration was “inept” and “dysfunctional”. Yes, hard to believe.
Perhaps more significantly still, Boris Johnson distinctly hinted that he will call a snap general election when appointed prime minister - though exactly when that will happen remains a bit unclear: on July 24 or after the summer recess? Of course, like all the other candidates, Johnson had said he has no intention of calling an election - but no-one really believes him. During the TV debate, Johnson declared that if the Tories fail to deliver Brexit by Halloween they will not win back the hundreds of thousands of voters “who are currently deserting us for other parties” - and “that is how to lose the forthcoming election”. Interpret that how you will.
But what excited most attention, however, was his refusal to rule out proroguing (suspending) parliament, as he was “not going to take anything off the table”. In fact, he thought it “absolutely bizarre” at this stage in the negotiations for the UK “yet again to be weakening its position” - the UK had had a “bellyful of defeatism”, when what needs to be done is to stand up to Brussels by showing them that the government was serious about leaving the EU on October 31, deal or no deal.
Under the current schedule, Boris Johnson will become prime minister by virtue of being the leader of the governing party. Some have complained that this method is undemocratic, because it will be the first time a sitting prime minister has been chosen by party members alone, who represent about 0.4% of the overall British population. But this is typical liberalistic, woolly-headed thinking. Party leaders are elected by rank and file members, MPs, or they emerge somehow from the hierarchy. Even in America the president is formally elected indirectly. Through state delegates. There are countries, such as France, where the president is directly elected. And what that means is an elected monarch, or a Bonaparte. Communists, needless to say, favour representative democracy.
Having said that, things are not going to be straightforward for Johnson. Last week ex-MI6 chief Sir John Sawers, who is now a non-executive director of BP Global, ruffled some feathers when he talked about Britain going through a “political nervous breakdown” and how both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn do not have “the standing that we have become used to in our top leadership”. He added that it is only to be expected that “the people who have devoted themselves to serving the interests of this country” are concerned about the direction in which it is heading. It seems clear that Sawers was giving voice to the collective anxiety of the establishment and in reality this is another call for a national government - nothing to do with Johnson’s personal qualities or Corbyn being too “frail” for the job - though, of course, these stories feed into that particular narrative.
Either way, it would appear that both Labour and the Tories are about to have a car crash. Firstly, we had the July 10 BBC Panorama ‘exposé’ of Labour’s supposed ‘institutional anti-Semitism’, after which we should expect an ultimatum of some kind - Corbyn must take immediate action to boot out the witches or you must go. If you deny that witches exist, that only proves you are a witch.
Secondly, Johnson says he will take the UK out of the EU by October 31, “do or die”. But this is somewhat at odds with the fact that the Tory Party is hopelessly divided over the issue of Brexit and Johnson will find himself presiding over a minority government just like the hapless Theresa May. You cannot wish that away. There have been various plausible stories about Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, conducting negotiations with 30 or so Tory MPS on support for a no-confidence vote in the Johnson government. There are also rumours that Philip Hammond has 40 MPs around him determined to stop a no-deal Brexit come what may. And Johnson is as aware of the situation as any reader of this article - even more so, indeed. What is he going to do?
One fairly obvious way to go is to prorogue parliament, as indicated in the ITV debate. Of course, that will require the consent of the monarch - or the privy council, which is how things really work. If Johnson gets his wish, which is a big assumption, Gardiner and Hammond cannot hold their confidence vote - or, to be more accurate, they will not get a chance to have a second one, as required by the Fixed-Term Parliament Act in order to trigger a general election. Also making life potentially more difficult for Johnson is John Major, the former Tory prime minister, whose premiership was sunk by “the bastards” (Eurosceptics), who has said he would seek a judicial review in the courts if the new prime minister tried to suspend parliament to deliver a no-deal Brexit - such a move would be “utterly and totally unacceptable”. Others have muttered about legal action if Johnson tried to suspend parliament.
Anyhow, he is shortly due to go to Buckingham Palace and have a nice chat with the queen. Anyone who thinks that the monarch is purely a feudal relic in a tiara might well discover the reality within a few weeks. She could turn around to Johnson and tell him he does not have sufficient backing in parliament to become the next prime minister - which is within her right under the current constitutional-monarchy system. Rather, she might inform the disappointed BoJo that she has been advised about other possible candidates for the post, like Hilary Benn or Yvette Cooper - names mentioned recently as possible leaders of a ‘temporary’ national government by Ed Davey, one of the contenders in the Liberal Democratic leadership battle (which has been totally eclipsed by the Tory contest). Then again, maybe it will be Philip Hammond, Sir Keir Starmer, Tom Watson - or even Jeremy Hunt, which would be highly amusing. Who the hell knows? At the end of the day, the monarch has the power to approach anyone she believes can command a ‘strong and stable’ majority in parliament and thus earn the right to become prime minister.
The idea that the leader of the largest party in parliament automatically becomes prime minister is false, though a remarkably large number of people seem to believe it - including some on the left who are also prone to constitutional cretinism, it seems. Ultimately, it is just a convention, usually followed because the leader of a party historically tended to be chosen either by members of parliament or by the parliamentary hierarchy. In other words, they could turn around and confidently declare to the monarch that they have the backing and votes of a sufficient number of MPs.
But you certainly cannot say that about Jeremy Corbyn, just ask the 172 scabbing Labour MPs who put their names three years ago to a no-confidence motion - have they changed their minds? There is no need to send a postcard with your answer: just think about the Panorama programme. At most, Corbyn has the active support of around 40 MPs. On the other hand, though, there is a big question mark around Boris Johnson too. Yes, he just about had the support of the majority of Tory MPs in the last round of voting (160, or 51.1%) and obviously has the overwhelming backing of the party rank and file. But, when it comes to parliament as a whole, it is highly questionable as to whether he can command a majority - very doubtful, in fact, particularly if he is not bluffing and presses hard for a no-deal Brexit. Or he might not even get that far, Theresa May feeling in all honesty that she cannot recommended to the monarch that Boris Johnson becomes the next prime minister.
Clearly, as alluded to by the former MI6 spymaster, a seismic political-constitutional crisis is looming - it could only be a few weeks away. Sleep with your boots on.
In which case, we might see a situation where parliament is prorogued by a desperate Boris Johnson - running the clock down until October 31 to secure the prize. Thoroughly unconstitutional and devious, yes, though probably not illegal - but watch this space.
Rory Stewart, the defeated leadership candidate who became a bit of a star for his live-streamed walks around the country on social media, has said he is prepared to help organise an “alternative parliament” in order to stop a no-deal Brexit by a new prime minister determined to prorogue parliament or to use some other “constitutional manoeuvre” to get his way. He has suggested that the Methodist Central Hall opposite parliament would be a suitable venue for this rebel parliament - a former speaker of the Commons, such as Betty Boothroyd, could be enlisted to oversee proceedings.
Equally possible, the monarch refuses to prorogue parliament, as requested by prime minister Johnson and looks around for a replacement. Again, imagine what would happen under those circumstances. How would Johnson react, or Nigel Farage - mass Brexit Party rallies up and down the country to save Brexit from the treacherous metropolitan elite? It is almost impossible to predict what is going to happen, but what you can say with complete confidence is that we are moving into very interesting times - especially as you can expect any sort of move by Boris Johnson or the Brexiteers to coincide with a split within the Labour Party, as previously discussed. There was a story floating around recently about the PLP withdrawing the whip from the ‘anti-Semitic’ Chris Williamson - maybe they will do the same to Jeremy Corbyn if he does not resign following the Panorama ‘exposé’? This would lead to the extraordinary situation where the Labour leader is not actually a member of the Parliamentary Labour Party. God knows how the Labour left or Momentum, insofar as it exists at all nationally, would respond to such a course of events.
More speculation: the newly elected Boris Johnson might go for an early election, only to find that Jeremy Corbyn, having survived a post-Panorama coup attempt, puts in another brilliant performance, this time making Labour the biggest party in the Commons. Under that scenario, you can guarantee that MI5 and the deep state would get involved, with a Mike Pompeo-type “pushback” - dig out your battered old copy of Chris Mullins’ A very British coup.
Alas, the left as presently constituted is ill-equipped to deal with such a challenge. Time to get reorientated, time to get reorganised.