We won’t insult our readers’ intelligence by parroting the Government’s case for prorogation. Yes, this Parliamentary session is already the longest since before the English Civil War. Yes, a Queen’s Speech is therefore well overdue: Valerie Vaz, Labour’s Shadow Commons Leader, has called for one at least three times since May. Yes, Boris Johnson doubtless has legislation he wants to implement (though how he expects to get it passed without a working majority, goodness only knows). And, yes, the number of days that Parliament now won’t sit is only six more than was originally planned.
But to compare an autumn recess without prorogation to one with it would be to compare apples and pears. Prorogation ends the session: during it, no motions or questions can be tabled. And this will be a very long prorogation: it is to last the best part of five weeks. At a stroke, the Prime Minister has thus prevented those MPs opposed to a No Deal Brexit, or indeed to Brexit itself, from seizing control of the Commons timetable and extending the September sitting into the Party Conference season.
In short, he has given them as little time to postpone Brexit on October 31 as he can get away with – just as Ben Wallace suggested in a moment of on-camera candour. This is bending the rules. But it is not breaking them. Parliament is not being shut down. (It will sit next week and after October 14.) Johnson is not acting unconstitutionally (because if he had been, the Queen would not have agreed the prorogation).
And he is not, repeat not, re-enacting the Reichstag Fire. The Commons can pass a no confidence motion in him – this week, if it wishes. At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, the German Communist Party was not in a position to move such a vote against Hitler in 1933.
One has to be very clever indeed to suggest a parallel so profoundly stupid, but that’s the effect of Brexit for you. Terry Christian hopes that elderly leavers die of flu this winter – or did. (He seems to have deleted the offending tweet.) Philip Pullman, that the Prime Minister will be hung by rope from a lamp-post. (He has since retracted.) Hugh Grant is vanishing into his own expletives. How vocal were they and others when the Speaker himself bent the rules of Parliament, rewriting Commons procedure against the advice of the Clerks?
The long and short of it is that where Theresa May rolled over, Johnson pushes back. It is almost too much for the Remainer Ascendancy, with its Lord Kerr-like sense of entitlement, to be able to bear. (And the Hard Left now has an excuse for making a nuisance of itself by, er, rising up in defence of one of our great established institutions).
So much for the tits for tats. What about the rights and wrongs? The core of the matter is simple. Parliament legislated for a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. “This is your decision,” David Cameron’s Government declared. “The Government will implement what you decide.” The people voted to leave in the biggest democratic exercise ever undertaken in this country. Both the main parties stood in 2017 on manifestos pledging to implement the result. Last June’s European elections saw the Brexit Party win the most votes.
But the Commons cannot make up its mind what to do. It has voted against No Deal. It has voted against Theresa May’s deal. It has voted against revocation. Against a second referendum. Against Norway Plus. Against the EEA. In short, against everything – with two exceptions. The first is extension. The most likely course it will now take, if it can get its act together, will be to vote for extension yet again. No wonder the Prime Minister believes that enough is enough, and that Britain must leave the EU by October 31.
The second exception is worth bearing in mind. There will be no shortage of drama this week in the Chamber and in law courts, on TV and all over Twitter. Stand by for S024 motions, judges’ rulings, emergency Bills, Mr Speaker, Gina Miller, Brussels rumours, Dominic Cummings, Corbyn opposing the No Deal Brexit that he has done so much to further – not to mention deselection talk, with possible action, and election fever. But one should not be so gobsmacked by the actors as to miss the structure of the play.
The only positive Commons vote of significance for any Brexit plan has been for the so-called Brady amendment – which essentially proposed the Withdrawal Agreement minus the Northern Ireland backstop. Johnson is unlike May in that he really does seem prepared to see Britain leave the EU without a deal. But he is like her in that he would genuinely prefer to see us leave with one. And what he has in mind seems to be roughly in the territory of the Brady amendment, with its support for “alternative arrangements” on the island of Ireland.
It follows that his logic must be, more or less: see off next week’s anti-No Deal revolt; thereby convince the EU that No Deal is now a real possibility; get a Brady amendment-type deal done at the EU’s October council; and then ram it through a Commons terrified of the only remaining alternative: No Deal.
Now there are many potential problems with this scenario. They include the possibility that the Prime Minister may not win out in the Commons this week; a shortage of Parliamentary time; losing a potential confidence vote in the wake of such a deal passing; putting wind into Nigel Farage’s sails – and above all the unlikelihood of the EU going for such a deal in the first place.
None the less, this is the road that Johnson is most likely to take if he really is pressing for a deal. And there is something about it consistent with his sense of confidence, his talent for improvisation, his lack of fixity – and almost boundless self-belief. In which event, his internal opposition this week may be, say, Philip Hammond and David Lidington and David Gauke. But, next month, it could turn out instead to be Steve Baker, Mark Francois, John Redwood, and so on.
We appreciate that saying so is just a bit counter-intuitive, at a moment when Johnson is squaring off against the ultra-Remainers and Soft Brexiteers. It seems a bit much to suggest that the Prime Minister and Hammond are at loggerheads as September begins, yet could be going through the same lobby before October ends. But maybe what Wittgenstein said of philosophy is true of politics, at least at the moment: that “you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there”.