What a strange, ominous day in the Palace of Westminster, desultory but tense, nobody quite clear what was going on, MPs swirling about the Chamber as they voted on Hilary Benn’s Bill, the Lords in the early stages of a determined filibuster, a great struggle unfolding between Leavers and Remainers, accusations of bad faith flying back and forth, the outcome uncertain.
Confusion was increased by the continued presence of the Tories who have had the whip withdrawn on the Tory benches. Had there really been an irreparable rift, or did Kenneth Clarke, Sir Nicholas Soames, Sir Oliver Letwin and the rest still belong to the Conservative Party?
Letwin spoke of “the horrors we’ve gone through for the last 18 months”, during which he and his colleagues had become “estranged from a party we love”.
Soames gave a short, valedictory speech, already published on ConHome, in which he observed that he had voted for the Withdrawal Agreement on every occasion it had been presented, “which is more than can be said for my Right Honourable Friend the Prime Minister, the Leader of the House, and other members of the Cabinet whose serial disloyalty has been such an inspiration to so many of us”.
As in a marriage which comes under strain, it was difficult to tell whether this was a severe but essentially transitory row which would blow over, or proof of an irrevocable breakdown. Soames still called Boris Johnson his friend, yet accused him of serial disloyalty.
Andrew Percy (Con, Brigg and Goole) accused the Remainers who were promoting the Benn Bill of trying, by repeated delays, to scupper the whole of Brexit.
He reported that his constituents have “figured it out”, and they object to Remainers who “get to tell people who voted Leave what they voted for”, and write them off as stupid, thick, racist Northerners.
In the evening, while the final vote on the Benn Bill was taking place and MPs could wander where in the Chamber they wished, Michael Gove crossed to the Labour side of the House, sat on the step directly beside the bench on which Benn was seated, and addressed him with great force and rapidity.
Benn listened with a frown of concentration, intervened from time to time, gave occasional emphatic nods, and then, as Gove made some parting remark, laughed uproariously. Watching from the press gallery, one could believe friendly co-operation was still possible.
But the prevailing mood was of uneasy flux and deep antagonism. The Benn Bill passed its Third Reading in the Commons by 327 to 299 votes, and Johnson rose to demand an early general election: “I don’t want an election, but the House has left no other option.”
Jeremy Corbyn proceeded to accuse Johnson of making no progress towards a Brexit deal: “Like the emperor’s new clothes there really is absolutely nothing there.”
Sir Patrick McLoughlin (Con, Derbyshire Dales) rose and demanded: “Does the Leader of the Opposition want a general election? A Yes or No will suffice.”
Corbyn declined to provide a Yes or No, but lobbed another accusation at Johnson: “What he’s offering is the poison of a no deal.”
Kenneth Clarke delivered the heaviest attack on a Conservative Prime Minister from his own side since Sir Geoffrey Howe’s denunciation of Margaret Thatcher in November 1990, which paved the way for her downfall.
But Howe had once been the Prime Minister’s close and loyal colleague, and few people had expected him to be so ferocious in his resignation speech.
Clarke, though a big beast, speaks for a smaller fraction of the party, and few people supposed he would pull his punches. He paid tribute to Johnson’s “tremendous skill in keeping a straight face while he’s being disingenuous”, remarked that the Prime Minister is “now desperate to have a general election”, and told him to “stop treating all this as a game”.
Nobody plays to win with greater ardour than Johnson, but he does now need a general election, and has not yet got one.