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Bojo Johnson’s Latest Scurvy Trick

Photograph Source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office – CC BY 2.0

Boris Johnson (“BoJo”) has long had a reputation for seedy opportunism and rampant dishonesty— principles and scruples being as unfamiliar to him as sleeping on a bed or using a flush toilet was for Crocodile Dundee in that eponymous film.

Brexit is due to come about on 31st October.

MPs are now on their summer recess, and due to return to Westminster on 3rd September. The traditional break for the political-party annual conferences is scheduled to begin on 13th September, and should have lasted until about 8th October.

BoJo’s wish, which the queen approved pro forma since she can’t overrule parliament or “her” government, is for this break to begin a few days earlier, and continue until 14th October when the Queen’s Speech is scheduled to open the next parliamentary session.

Given that a full week (i.e. 5 working days) is devoted to debates on the Queen’s Speech– in which the government sets out its legislative agenda for the new parliamentary session– no significant attention will therefore be paid to Brexit business until 21st October.

This leaves only 9 parliamentary working days before the 31st October deadline, and since the UK’s Brexit plan (if there is to be one) will have to be solidified at least a few days before and sent to Brussels for consideration, this means there will hardly be any time for MPs to iron-out any such Brexit proposals.

BoJo’s clear aim is thus to leave no time for anything but his No Deal Brexit, even as he lies unconvincingly that he is still working to get a deal with Brussels. He’s even told his cabinet there was a 50/50 chance of a deal!

Angela Merkel gave him a 30-day deadline to deliver his proposed alternative to the hard border in Ireland, and although only 20 days are left of this deadline, Johnson has not met any leaders from the north and south of Ireland to hash-out something that can be put to the EU on the border issue– despite having been told by Brussels he will get no deal from the EU if he does not have an adequate resolution of the Irish “backstop” problem.

However the above-mentioned parliamentary timetable is not cast in stone. The estimable Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, has called Johnson’s move a “constitutional outrage”, and will certainly be supportive of any procedural moves to slow-down or impede what BoJo has set in motion.

While the Speaker can’t initiate these moves himself, he could shepherd through any initiatives taken by MPs.

There are moves afoot for MPs to pass a “Standing Order 24” motion as soon as parliament reconvenes (Tuesday night). This would allow them to take charge of the timetable on Wednesday, thereby making room for rebel MPs to pass a bill forcing Johnson to seek an extension of the UK’s EU membership beyond the 31st October deadline.

The parliamentary schedule may have to be altered in any case because an appeal on the official UK Government and Parliament Petitions website that secures 100,000 signatures has to be advanced to the petitions committee who will consider it for debate by MPs. 1.4 million people signed this petition on the first day alone.

While MPs can’t overturn the prorogation, challenges to it can be made through the courts, and a number of these have already begun, in the north of Ireland, Scotland, and London.

Even without recourse to the legal system, the Labour opposition can call for a “no confidence” vote on Johnson when parliament reconvenes on 3rd September.

If Johnson loses this vote, there are 2 likely outcomes: (i) Johnson resigns and calls immediately for a “people vs the parliament” general election; (ii) Johnson resigns without calling for a general election, in which case Corbyn is then invited by the Queen to form a new government, and he will call a general election to secure a mandate for Labour. The latter seems less likely than the former.

The problem with option (i) is that Tory MPs may be reluctant to risk a general election in which many could lose their seats in a public backlash against the prime minister and his hardline base.

Johnson has done much to bring back to life the independence movement in Scotland, which has 13 Tory MPs.

Losing half of these Scottish seats would make it almost impossible for the Tories to remain in office, unless they pick up seats elsewhere in the UK (which is unlikely, given the fact that the Tory lurch to the right under BoJo will make it harder for them to attract voters from that proverbial “middle ground” in electoral politics).

The leader of the Scottish Conservative party, Ruth Davidson, has resigned from that position in protest at the prorogation, while also citing family reasons.

Another imponderable in any attempt to bring down the Tories in a “no confidence” vote will be the intentions of the 27 Labour MPs who are committed to a divorce from the EU. While few of these 27 are likely to support a No Deal Brexit, any abstentions among their number in this vote will make it harder to topple the Tories.

The Tories are clearly preparing for a snap general election, having loosened the austerity noose in recent weeks by a series of opportunely timed announcements on new spending– £1.8bn/$2.2bn for the NHS, £4bn/$5bn for schools, £7bn/$8.5bn to raise the income tax threshold, £1bn/$1.22bn for more police officers, and tens of billions on free ports, fibre-optic broadband, and the HS3 rail link between Leeds and Manchester.

This is an astonishing reversal from a government which only a few months ago was saying there are “no magic money trees” for more spending on health and education.

BoJo is now claiming there is “fiscal headroom” for this largesse and for another round of tax cuts for the rich, and the government is poised to borrow more in a situation in which global growth is faltering and Brexit uncertainty is exerting a drag effect on the UK economy.

BoJo’s strategy is evident.

Given the high probability of an election in the coming weeks or months, the only way his party can win is for it not to have Tory voters defect in large numbers to the even more hardline party on the right of the Tories on Brexit, namely, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

Farage’s party is a one-man show, pledged to support a Brexit come what may and at all costs, with no proposals of any kind on how this this can be accomplished without severely disadvantaging the UK’s economy, and all that ensues from the almost certain subsequent tanking of the economy.

Any wavering by BoJo’s Tories on a commitment to an “at all costs” Brexit could induce the party’s hardliners, most of whom are Little Englander ideologues barely in touch with political and economic reality (shades of Trump’s supporters), to give their votes to Farage in a general election.

Farage has already given a signal of his intentions by asking BoJo for a “non-aggression pact” in an election.

Such a pact would of course be on Farage’s terms, that is, a commitment to a No Deal Brexit regardless of any consequences.

BoJo’s strategy is thus determined almost entirely by domestic politics, with Brexit as the background on which this will be played out.

For now Farage has BoJo hostage to electoral fortune, and all the latter can do is show he has the balls to match, step by step, the former’s reckless prospectus for a forthcoming election.

The only way for BoJo to survive is thus for him is to match the mirage represented Farage and his Little Englander fantasist supporters.

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Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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