During the last week or so, it has become evident that Boris Johnson, confronted by a choice between breaking his word, resigning or breaking the law is ultimately likely to yield to the first option.
That is not the settled view of Downing Street, let alone the Cabinet. A few within both seem willing to see the Prime Minister hauled off to Wormwood Scrubs. But opinion in Number Ten has been moving towards an extension. Proof of this claim can be unearthed in the explosive briefing given yesterday to the Spectator – if one is not distracted by its incendiary threats of hostile action against uncooperative governments abroad, of ending all talks with the EU, and of issuing a No Deal Conservative election manifesto here at home.
The briefing begins by suggesting that Johnson may flout the Benn Act, claiming that “different lawyers see the ‘frustration principle’ very differently especially on a case like this where there is no precedent for primary legislation directing how the Prime Minister conducts international discussions”. But it ends by saying that “we’ll either leave with no deal on 31 October or [our italics] there will be an election”. In other words, in that last circumstance there will have been a further extension.
The tone of the briefing, plus other signals emerging from Number Ten, suggest that Johnson will not surrender, as he would put it, without a fight. If he is prepared in the last resort to send an extension letter, as required by the Act, expect him first to refuse; to claim that the Act is defective; to seek to get the letter sent by someone else; to then be dragged before the courts (or maybe go himself). By then, the Government’s law officers may have quit,
And only then is he likely to bow to the seemingly inevitable, send the letter, and echo the words in the briefing: “This is not our delay, the government is not asking for a delay — Parliament is sending you a letter and Parliament is asking for a delay but official Government policy remains that delay is an atrocious idea that everyone should dismiss.”
If all this happens, the Conservatives’ poll ratings can be expected to fall. There will be frenzied speculation that they will stay at roughly the level to which they have then dropped – or go lower still. In those conditions, Labour may go with its leader’s instinct, and support an immediate election after all. Or it may stick with the likes of Keir Starmer, who want a second referendum instead.
Either way, Johnson would be lose his sole real gain to date: namely, the way in which he has reversed at least some of the catastrophic collapse in Tory poll ratings under Theresa May, and made an election win possible. You may well ask why the Prime Minister is considering this perilous course. And why, if he is doing so, Dominic Cummings (for it is surely he) is briefing the media about it.
On that last point, there is a certain logic in Cummings acting as he has presumably done. Ministers can scarcely go on the record to prepare the Westminster Village and eventually the voters for a climbdown. But the Government cannot afford let its opponents make all the waves – through lawsuits, Commons debates, leaks, reported rifts and making common cause with foreign governments in the EU negotiation.
Hence Cummings’ intervention recently at a book launch, his briefings to SpAd meetings that end up being reported, and his public presence when at Vote Leave. This is not to say that every idea he throws out, like sparks fizzing from an Catherine Wheel, is workable, or likely to be acted on by Johnson. For example, the Conservatives won’t fight an election on a No Deal manifesto without it dangling the fig leaf of a proposed deal at the very least.
It will be said that Cummings has been premature; that a Brexit deal may be agreed this week after all; or that he is deploying PSYOPs, in order to throw his enemies off balance. But the talks look deeply mired as we write. The Prime Minister has moved on Northern Ireland and the Single Market; the EU won’t budge on Northern Ireland and the Customs Union.
Hence yesterday’s very Cummings-like move to ensure that Angela Merkel takes the rap in the court of British public opinion for a breakdown of negotiations. Where Theresa May’s Government would have allowed its interlocuters to set the terms of reporting, Johnson’s strives to ensure that it does so itself. Nonetheless, there was a weakness near the heart of the briefing. The Prime Minister does not have the power to force an election. His attempts to do so have twice been defeated in the Commons. His opponents are gearing up for a push for a second referendum.
That possibility offers a glimpse of a baleful future soon – with no deal in place, an extension agreed, Tory poll ratings lower, Johnson’s Government becalmed, the Cabinet openly split (Julian Smith assailed the briefing on Twitter yesterday) and the Commons denying an election in order to force a referendum, or try to. It follows that there is a case for the Prime Minister picking the option he is most reluctant to choose – namely, resigning rather than send the extension letter, and thereby risking the same fate that overwhelmed his predecessor.
The counter-case, of course, is very strong. Don’t take the gamble of putting Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street, thereby legitimising him. Once he got in he might be very hard to prise out.
The Commons might not back Corbyn, of course. Instead, it is possible to imagine a “government of national unity” – i.e: a government of national disunity, since it would represent only Remain – under John Bercow or Ken Clarke or Margaret Beckett or whoever. Such an administration would certainly seek to force a second referendum, and could solidify into a new centre party, marginalising not only Labour but the Conservatives too.
All the same, resignation would at least enable Johnson to keep his word. He would then need only a simple majority in the Commons to force Corbyn or another Prime Minister out, rather than the two thirds he currently needs to obtain an election. And he would not himself have surrendered to the terms of the “Surrender Bill”.
All these are “known unknowns”. There will be more to come, and unknown unknowns too. Such is the pass to which we have been brought by so many factors – not least the ravaging of the Prime Minister’s negotiating position by the 21 Tory rebels who helped to get the Benn Bill through Parliament, thus making common cause with governments other than their own, at the worst possible moment for their Party and country.