27 September 2019

A bad week for Boris – but the key facts have not changed


As the dust settles on the most extraordinary week in British politics since last week, what are the poor news-pounded public to make of it all?

In ordinary times – whatever that even means now – political analysts would have been busy fisking Labour’s plans to double down on their 2017 manifesto and extend the state’s reach into every nook and cranny of the economy. Be it banning private schools, scrapping Ofsted or introducing a four-day working week, if anyone doubted the dizzying lunacy of the Corbyn project, it was there for all to see in Brighton. Most extraordinary of all was the decision not to take a position on Brexit ahead of a general election in which it will be the central issue.

As it turned out, the political drama on the conference floor ended up being a mere amuse bouche for Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling against the prorogation of Parliament.

The biggest impact on the Government from the ruling was less its content, though that will be debated for years to come, and more the way it has wrested control of the political timeline away from the Prime Minister. In the near term the return of Parliament will also cause serious disruption to the upcoming Conservative conference in Manchester, which ought to have been a chance for Johnson to make an uninterrupted pitch to the nation.

While all that it decidedly sub-optimal, many of the criticisms made of the Prime Minister this week have been either overblown or plainly untrue. Take the suggestion that he and his colleagues were somehow impugning the judiciary by trotting out the line that they respected the decision but disagreed with it. That’s hardly a controversial point of view – to use a cricketing analogy, you can respect the umpire but still think that should have been LBW.

Nor is it true that Johnson ‘broke the law’ – the whole point of the Supreme Court was to decide what the law was in this area. Ministers’ decisions are often ruled unlawful after judicial review. That doesn’t mean the minister didn’t think it was the right course of action in the first place. Baroness Hale and her colleagues were making an adjudication, not passing a sentence.

Equally, some of the charges about the Prime Minister’s use of language were seriously overdone. The idea that using the word ‘surrender’ to describe an Act of Parliament is somehow beyond the pale should strike all but the most hardened of Johnson’s opponents as, to quote the man himself, an inverted pyramid of piffle. War metaphors are ten a penny in politics, and this barely even qualifies as one of those.

To claim it is some kind of incitement to violence is as ludicrous as when John McDonnell claimed the phrase ‘call off the dogs’ was a “grossly offensive” slur on Labour members. The criticism seemed especially absurd in an era when calling political opponents Nazis and fascists is now so routine as to be unremarkable.

Nevertheless, there are ways to make that point which are sensible, and ways which are not. You can reasonably question whether Johnson is responsible for the threats directed at MPs while also acknowledging that those threats are both real and deeply disturbing for their recipients.

In that context, the Prime Minister’s faux pas at the despatch box on Wednesday was indefensible. To dismiss MPs’ concerns about their own safety as “humbug” was both tone-deaf and always bound to inflame an already overheated chamber. Likewise responding to a question about Jo Cox’s death with a stock response about getting Brexit done.

Certainly, it’s in the nature of political cut-and-thrust for people to point out that each side is as bad as each other – and plenty of columnists have made hay out of the numerous instances of Labour MPs or supporters overstepping the mark. However, it is also in the nature of being Prime Minister that Mr Johnson is held to a higher standard of both conduct and rhetoric.

As well as being an objectively poor response, Johnson’s approach in the Commons was politically pointless. He would not have suffered any great blow if he had shown some sympathy for MPs’ concerns about safety, set out how the Government is addressing them and then returned to his main point about delivering Brexit. Indeed, he ended up doing that in a subsequent interview yesterday, by which time the damage had already been done.

Where Johnson and his adviser Dominic Cummings do have a point – a point we will hear over and over again in the coming weeks – is that delivering on the referendum result is now the sine qua non of British politics.

As polling from the Centre for Policy Studies makes abundantly clear, there has been a wholesale collapse in trust between the electorate and those who represent them in Parliament – a trend which has been exacerbated by the decision to extend the Article 50 deadline.

We ought to be under no illusion that leaving the EU is some kind of silver bullet to mend our shattered political discourse. Continuity Remain will surely soon become a Rejoin the EU campaign, and there are a good chunk of MPs and activists who will never reconcile themselves to Mr Johnson being Prime Minister, even if he wins the coming election.

But while Brexit is not of itself sufficient, it is clearly, urgently necessary. Even after this week’s frenzied political action, that central fact remains as unshakeable as ever. And when Labour’s position on the key issue of the day is so hopelessly muddled, perhaps Johnson is in a better position than this bad week would suggest.

John Ashmore is Acting Editor of CapX