Parliament may be reluctant to allow Boris Johnson to fulfil his goal, but it appears to be desperately eager to prove his point.
What has been the Prime Minister’s consistent message during his first months in office? That he and his party are the only force in Westminster willing to obey the instruction of the people and leave the EU, both promptly and with a deal. All others are arrayed against the instruction of the people, doing their damnedest to delay and disrupt that process, regardless of the damage done to public faith in democracy, or to the reputation of Parliament and the UK.
The Commons could barely do more to illustrate and underline that argument. Yesterday was just the latest example, and Johnson can point to Bercow, the SNP, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Letwin and co and even perhaps the DUP to declare that none can be relied upon to stand up for democracy and get Brexit done. That the protestations of principle at each stage keep turning out to be flags of convenience.
We only want Parliament to have a hand in approving Article 50. Oh no, wait, we want its role to be to vote against.
We just want a referendum on the type and terms of Brexit. Actually Remain must be an option but No Deal may not.
All we want to do is to prevent No Deal, because we really want a deal in good time. But we’ll do it by undermining your negotiating position, and if you still manage to get a deal we will postpone voting on it.
Presumably the Opposition, the Speaker, and Letwin believe that they can get away with this approach because it worked before, against Theresa May. If so, it feels like they making a miscalculation. For a start, Johnson is not May, and the Downing Street is not the previous Downing Street. The Prime Minister has already proved more robust and combative than his predecessor, fortunately, which is a major reason why he has got so far despite expectations.
Then there’s the cumulative effect of performing the same tactics in public over and over again. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for the electorate – and for a fair few MPs – to start to conclude that maybe these principled wagers of lawfare and rewriters of the Commons rulebook might simply be untrustworthy, given their increasingly implausible invention of reasons why they need to delay further.
And finally there are reasons to believe they are misjudging the public mood about Johnson’s deal. This, remember, was a deal that was never meant to be. The idea was touted – largely by those now trying to avoid voting for the deal – that Johnson only wanted No Deal, that talk of progress and agreement was not just impossible but an outright lie. They unwittingly created the conditions for a lot of people to feel sympathetic to and relieved about the agreement.
For two days the national discussion was all about the fact it was feasible that Parliament could approve the new deal and get Brexit done. Put to the test, plenty of voters who were no Brexit enthusiasts found themselves willing to think “Okay, let’s get on with it.”
That the Commons has now opted for even more delay will baffle, frustrate and disappoint those people, not just the majority of Leavers who want this deal approved. It’s perfectly clear who is responsible for yet more delay, and possibly even for another extension.
Johnson’s response to the Benn Act – those three letters – reinforces that. He has done as Parliament insisted in its legislation (even habitual legal critics agree), as he is obliged to do and as the Government promised. But he has made clear that he still holds to and pursues his policy, and his promise to voters.
Parliament may pass laws to change someone’s actions, but it is not able to use the law to change someone’s beliefs. That applies to you and me, but it also apples to the Government. Obviously a Prime Minister may hold a policy that he disagrees with a law – otherwise, Governments wouldn’t be able to change the law. Johnson has simply made even more clear that, yet again, he wants to get Brexit done but Parliament is trying to get in the way.
Seen as part of the story I recounted above, the Remainers celebrating yesterday are making a mistake; they might get their way in a letter being sent, but doing so further hammers their standing and helps Johnson’s in terms of the eventual sanction, which is the inevitable General Election.
There is one other audience which Johnson’s opponents appear to have lost contact with: the EU and its member states. They might once have been able to claim they were playing their games in service of the EU’s ideals, and the UK’s relationship with Brussels. Or to protect Ireland from the wicked, wrecking ways of a British Tory government and its right-wing backbenchers. They were only trying to compel London to act in co-operation with Dublin, and thereby not to threaten the GFA, and so on, and so on.
This argument, too, is now visibly untrue. The EU, Ireland and the UK government now want this deal. Boris Johnson now has a rare window in which he may be able to work with them rather than be pitched against them, to get it through. It’s evident from his letter that he hopes that at minimum they won’t give an immediate answer to the Benn Act’s extension request – and perhaps they might eventually only offer a short extension, or none at all (as Macron continues to teasingly imply). Where would his opponents go then?
Looked at from a step back, yesterday was a frustration but was a tactical, not a strategic, victory for Remain.