Boris Johnson returned overnight from New York to face the inconvenience of a parliament he thought he had dispensed with two weeks ago. Another politician might have been suitably cowed by the unprecedented Supreme Court ruling that his suspension of parliament had been unlawful. The prime minister, however, was merely irritated by its impertinence.
A combination of his overnight flight and other urgent House of Commons business meant MPs had to wait several hours for Mr Johnson to come to face them. But lest there be any doubt about how he intended to handle the matter he sent in his attorney-general Geoffrey Cox to offer a foretaste of his new and chastened approach.
Mr Cox, whose hammy baritone would ensure him a solid middle-order billing at the Torridge and West Devon Players amateur drama night, channelled his best Oliver Cromwell. The lord protector once told parliament it had “sat too long for any good you have been doing”. Mr Cox was similarly conciliatory: “This parliament is a dead parliament,” he bellowed at former Conservative leadership contender Rory Stewart. “It should no longer sit. It has no moral right to sit on these green benches.” Warming to his theme he berated the MPs who had dared to force him back to the Commons despatch box. “This parliament is a disgrace.”
Around the chamber MPs sat astonished. Surely if any organisation has lost its moral authority it was not parliament but the government.
MPs had returned to Westminster with the slightly dazed look one associates with survivors emerging from a collapsed building. You could tell they were happy to be there but still wondering what happens next.
But there was one thing that they did know was going to happen. They knew they were going to enjoy a day of beating up the government, hounding the attorney-general and lambasting the prime minister. In general, opposition MPs are against blood sports but on this occasion they were prepared to make an exception.
First they were going to duff up Mr Cox; then they were going to have some fun with the curious case of the government grants to the woman who said she gave Mr Johnson some private technology lessons. There would be serious discussion on the collapse of Thomas Cook and on Iran, as well as scrutinising the state of Brexit preparedness after a statement by Michael Gove, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. And then, gloriously, finally, they would tear into the prime minister in time for the early evening news.
By the time Mr Cox had finished, however, MPs were beginning to sense the government was not going to give them their fun. Fortified by an RAF English breakfast on the flight home and several hours of plotting with the geniuses who had come up with the prorogation wheeze in the first place, Mr Johnson was going to come out fighting. It was a stance that would get him through the day, which was probably all that mattered to him, but there was a price to pay and the mood darkened as MPs grasped the extent to which he intended to try to rouse public fury against them.
A subdued air fell over the chamber as MPs worked their way through other business. They may have been unlawfully prorogued, but the truth is there is a limit to what they can now do. They can plot further punishments for Mr Johnson, tie him down with more legislation but they know Mr Cox is half right. Fairly soon they are going to have to go to the people in an election.
The questions to Mr Gove were serious and important. Yet one could sense the irritation as their inquiries were dead-batted away. The Supreme Court may have prevented ministers proroguing parliament but emotionally the government has dispensed with the legislature. They are now talking only to their voters. Their answer to every reasonable inquiry or angry assault is “give us an election”.
Finally, a mere seven hours later, the big moment arrived. A cynic might suggest the Commons Speaker John Bercow rather enjoyed dragging out the previous business to keep Mr Johnson waiting and to make a point. The benches filled, the buzz returned, but by now MPs knew that contrition was not on the prime minister’s menu.
The Supreme Court ruling was dismissed in one sentence. The judges were “wrong to pronounce on what is essentially a political question”. The prime minister had no time for such trifles. “The people of this country can see perfectly clearly what is going on.” MPs were “running to the courts” to block the people’s will. His own side cheered as he denounced this “paralysed parliament” and goaded the opposition that refused him an election.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn drew cheers when he denounced a “dangerous prime minister who thinks he is above the law”, but he was confronted by an unrepentant premier.
Mr Johnson cannot escape this parliament but he was clear he has no time for it: a curious attitude if he still harbours hopes of securing some opposition votes for a Brexit deal.
The coming days will see MPs trying to find new ways to tie him down but the die is cast. Mr Johnson no longer stands for the legitimacy of this parliament. For him, the mandate of the Brexit referendum supersedes all other mandates and justifies almost all methods.
It did not all go Mr Johnson’s way. While his own side applauded and cheered his performance Labour MPs voiced their horror at his incendiary tone which, they argued, could incite violence against politicians. The mood turned ugly and Mr Johnson drew gasps and jeers when he dismissed as “humbug” the powerful and plaintive appeal from Paula Sherriff, a Labour MP, to dial down his rhetoric and remember how the language of betrayal had underpinned the murder of Jo Cox. Other female MPs rose to echo her emotional call. Mr Johnson stomped on regardless, too far down his path to turn back and seemingly impervious to their appeals.
But the warnings about the government’s increasingly inflammatory rhetoric should be a sobering thought even for his allies. Mr Johnson has broken the law, questioned the courts and now stands before MPs denying even their right to be there. He argues that, by seeking to honour the referendum, it is he who is defending democracy and his cavalier rhetoric may have carried at least half the Commons. But you have to ask whether he is really ready for the forces he is unleashing.
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