The Shine Comes Off Boris Johnson By Stephen Barber
There is a broad agreement that Boris Johnson miscalculated his strategic approach to Brexit in the early weeks of his premiership. For a prime minister with no real mandate and now no Commons majority, his stance has been aggressive and bordering unconstitutional. And the upshot this week is that Parliament has defeated him in unceremonious fashion. A big battle it might be, with Boris looking like a loser, but the war is far from over.
The starting provocation was the use of prerogative powers, that is power exercised at the discretion of the PM on behalf of the Queen, to prorogue Parliament (shut it down) so that MPs are prevented from debating and interfering with his government’s Brexit plans. This in the crucial approach to the 31 October deadline when Britain is due to leave the EU. ‘We’re leaving on 31 October do or die’, Johnson had promised supporters.
As it became clear that angry MPs would attempt to seize control of the order paper, the PM vowed never to seek an extension from Brussels, goading the opposition into a snap election on 15 October. Furthermore, he threatened MPs on his own side with loss of the party whip (effectively being ejected from the party) if they supported the motion which would pave the way for Parliament to order the PM to stop a no deal exit with another extension.
This aggressive stance proved a colossal misjudgement. Twenty one senior Tory MPs, on the moderate wing of the party, lost the whip including Winston Churchill’s grandson Sir Nicholas Soames and the Father of the House Ken Clarke (an MP since 1970). They might now be unable to stand as Conservative candidates in any forthcoming election but their action on Tuesday meant that legislation passed instructing the government to prevent a no-deal exit. Far from strengthening Johnson, events have only served to raise questions about the new PM’s judgement. Many were quick to point out that the 21 were amongst the most loyal Tory MPs with some never having defied the whip in their lives. By contrast Boris had been incapable of maintaining collective responsibility when a member of Theresa May’s Cabinet and his ‘Edwardian mini-me’ Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, had voted against his own whip nearly 100 times.
His debut Prime Minister’s Question’s on Wednesday will be an episode Johnson will try to forget. His clash with Jeremey Corbyn placed him firmly on the back foot. Corbyn, for once clear and confident, was able to speak for the whole opposition (not just his favoured Labour faction). This included the 21 ejected Conservatives who had deep scepticism that the government had put any effort at all into renegotiations with the EU. The government’s strategy, it seems, was to run down the clock to the 31 October deadline in the expectation that Brussels would offer up some glorious last minute concession. If not, it was willing to see the UK leave without agreement, whatever the consequences.
On Monday former prime minister Tony Blair warned against the ‘elephant trap’ set by Boris Johnson of a ‘rapid’ snap general election. This would, Blair said, allow the PM to mix up issues of Brexit and the threat of a left wing Corbyn government and claim a popular mandate for no deal. And so it was with additional ignominy that opposition parties worked together to resist and reject Johnson’s motion to dissolve Parliament. Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, two thirds of all MPs need to approve this and on Wednesday night most sat on their hands.
Johnson has not yet given up. He wants an election which he thinks he can win and there are other ways of getting it. The forthcoming party conference season will be an opportunity for easy populism. His Chancellor has promised billions of pounds for health, education and law & order. The war is far from over and Johnson is determined to get his way. But so early on, the shine seems to have come off this unlikely prime minister. While writing, Jo Johnson, brother of the PM who held a ministerial post in his government, has resigned, ‘torn between family and national interest’. Can it get any worse?
Boris Johnson has liked to portray himself as a winner and a unifier. But in his first Commons test as Prime Minister he is a loser and divider. He lost his first vote in Parliament (and in doing so making history), he lost a significant chunk of his moderate MPs, he lost in his first PMQ clash, he lost in his bid to force a snap election, he has lost his brother from government and he has lost control of his Brexit agenda.
Stephen Barber, (@StephenBarberUK) Assistant Dean for Programmes, Regent’s London University