Tuesday 10 September 2019

The Miserable Last Day

By now, it's become almost customary to write about Boris Johnson using words like 'shambles', 'disastrous', 'incompetence' and phrases that convey a sense of permanent and deepening crisis. Not wanting to follow the press pack as they herd around these tasty morsels, one cannot help be struck by how bad the government's final day before prorogation was. We know from the beginning Johnson set the bar pretty low, but he keeps on confounding us by sinking further into the mire. Following what was probably the worst week any government of my lifetime has suffered, Johnson bombed at his press conference with the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and he bombed twice in the Commons last night - one for his utterly doomed attempt at dissolving parliament and securing a general election, and the other concerning the release of text messages, WhatsApp messages and the like from Dominic Cummings and the Downing Street back office operation. Neither the press conference and the Commons shenanigans are not without political significance.

Yes, there was weird body language enough to power a thousand memes, but Johnson's comments that a no deal Brexit was bad and would represent a "failure of statecraft" certainly got my ears standing up. Testing the waters of a climb down ahead of a hasty, last minute bargain with the EU? Well, it didn't sit well with Nigel Farage, who days earlier was lavishing the Prime Minister with praise and boasting about a Brexit Party/Tory pact that would secure them a majority of triple digits. More interesting, however, is the shape of a putative deal condensing out of the Johnson hot air. And ... it looks a lot like Theresa May's deal. As forecast on day one of his premiership, the realities of his position would compel him to reach to the ready-made deal cooked up by May and the one, lest we forget, he resigned from the cabinet over. Except his preference appears to be the proposal May quickly abandoned; of solving the problem of the Irish border should the backstop come in to play by moving the custom posts into the Irish Sea. In effect, Northern Ireland remains in the EU's economic jurisdiction while the UK mainland is (self) excluded. If this is going to be Johnson's deal, if this pig's ear is what he brings back to the Commons when it reconvenes then expect to see fireworks on the right of the party, with well-known Brexiteers jumping ship from cabinet and one or two resigning the whip and signing on with the Brexit Party. If there is any justice ...

Moving onto the evening's double defeat, the motion from Dominic Grieve that called on Downing Street to publish all communications regarding prorogation and documents on no-deal planning, the heirs to the notorious Operation Yellowhammer leaks, went through 311 votes to 302. Yes, some of the so-called Tory rebels the Liberal Democrats are desperate to strike an electoral pact with preferred to vote with the government. As the deadline for publishing is tomorrow, seeing what the government does next is going to be interesting. Expect a few days of headlines about the rather frank language, to put it euphemistically, Dominic Cummings uses to describe Tory colleagues. Their cynicism exposed, the clueless Johnson desperately grasping for advice, and their plan to lie to the Queen over the reasons for prorogation is sure to be great theatre. Grab the popcorn and the chocolatey treats, it's going to be entertaining.

Yet there is something that doesn't sit right about this. Yes, it's another thing for the Johnson government to panic over. And if they hadn't been so reckless and stupid perhaps this withering friendly fire would never have left the barrel. Leaving aside the no deal preparations which are fair game, surely politicians have the right to seek advice and have private, strategic discussions away from the media glare with their lackeys and spads. I'm mindful of this because now Grieve has established that this, in principle, can happen, what is to prevent the Commons from tying up and hamstringing the decision-making processes of a future Corbyn-led Labour government? How, for example, might the new left wing Treasury team work out strategies for overcoming opposition of senior civil servants as the government moves to take on the overweening power of the City if, in less than a month, communications can be commandeered by a simple majority vote and published for all to see? It sounds like a recipe for paralysis and timid government that never tries to change anything. It would behove the leader's office to think about the consequences of this, how it can be used against us, and what can be done to evade similar traps.

And so, as parliament shuffles off for five weeks its final day simultaneously reveals the even stickier position of the Prime Minister, and a device that might give Labour a headache. A blast from the past and a warning for the future, the last day was a preview of calamities and challenges to come.

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

"How, for example, might the new left wing Treasury team work out strategies for overcoming opposition of senior civil servants as the government moves to take on the overweening power of the City if, in less than a month, communications can be commandeered by a simple majority vote and published for all to see? It sounds like a recipe for paralysis and timid government that never tries to change anything."

This was exactly the argument Tony Blair used to disown the Freedom of Information Act!

IMHO this is an extraordinary time, with an extraordinary parliamentary situation, concerning extraordinary information. Whether or not the "slippery slope" is a logical fallacy, we shouldn't worry about it as a result of this development.

The last time anything remotely like this happened was when there was a hue and cry over Lord Goldsmith's advice to Blair concerning the invasion of Iraq. Again, extraordinary times breed extraordinary outcomes.

Any Government that commands a convincing majority in Parliament would be able to brush off frivolous demands for publication of sensitive documents; and surely any Government that doesn't command such a majority would already be "paralysed and timid" to some degree!

Unknown said...

I think that Grieve was able to win Parliamentary support for this measure because of the gap between the claims over the reasons for prorogation, and the gap between the claims on the state of no-deal planning and the perceived position. The legality of prorogation decision was also relevant, as was the sense that it was being used in an arbitrary fashion by the Executive against Parliament (and may therefore have constitutional questions.)

The Freedom of Information Act gives enough cover for policy makers having policy discussions, more so when these are covered by a manifesto statement by a party that has won an election.

Boffy said...

Yet, the Tories standing in the polls continues to rise, whilst Labour continues to wilt. Given Corbyn's reversion to his reactionary pro-Brexit stance, now with the added lunacy of the idea that Labour would negotiate a Brexit Deal, which in advance it has said it will call on voters to reject in a referendum, whilst we have another section of labour following Tom Watson in ridiculously demanding a referendum before a GE, which could then result in the invidious situation where a Labour government elected after that referendum had to implement a No Deal Brexit that voters had voted for in a referendum that Labour insisted be held by Boris Johnson, whilst another fraction of Labour around its reactionary nationalist right-wing axis of Kinnock/Flint,Snell et al demand neither a refernedum nor an election, but implementation of May''s Deal its safe to say that Labour seems to be doing everything in its power to encourage its voters to vote Liberal, SNP, Green, Plaid, or simply to hold their head in their hands in despair at this exercise in insanity.

Dipper said...

these are dangerous times.

Its easy for Parliamentarians to drone on about The Rule of Law when you own the Law. They have ripped up the constitution to make them an elected dictatorship and are no passing laws at a rate of knots, so everything they want they just pass a law and say this is the law you must obey. There is no scrutiny, no restraint. As pointed out here, once you decide to publish mails and communications, what next? I personally am looking forward to the full listing of Ollie Robins mails and the complete set of communications from Dominic Grieve on his meetings with Barnier.

Going after Johnson because you suspect the real reason for the prorogation is Brexit is highly dangerous. If it is not actions that are illegal but intentions, then we are very close to introducing a thought-crime.
What if the communications go something like this: We want to prorogue parliament to get a No Deal: You cannot do that, you need a reason such as a Queen's speech. Well we need a Queens speech anyway, lets do that. How do you interpret that? Guilty because he wanted to do it for Brexit? Not Guilty because he wanted to do a Queen's speech which is a valid reason?

At the heat of this crisis is a Parliament that made solemn and clear promises and has now ripped them up. Until that is addressed we will be in crisis.

Anonymous said...

"the Tory standing in the polls continues to rise"

Stop telling lies, Boffy.

Do you ever do anything but lie?