After a string of failed votes and cabinet resignations, Boris Johnson’s luck hasn’t improved this week as his motion for an early election was defeated in the commons. The prime minister then faced more bad news on Wednesday at the hands of Scottish judges who ruled that his decision to prorogue parliament was unlawful.
With the possibility of parliament being re-called, no-deal Brexit looking increasingly unlikely, and no immediate chance of a general election, Boris is running out of options. The question is, does he have a final hand to play or has he lost his poker face?
Prorogation: you be the judge
The early hours of Tuesday morning saw a chaotic and controversial prorogation of Parliament. The suspension of parliament until 14 October was met with distain by many MPs, with some shouting ‘shame on you’ at Tory frontbenchers, whilst others held signs describing themselves as ‘silenced’. In a memorable attempt to stop proceedings, Lloyd Russel-Moyle MP went as far as to physically hold down the speaker, in what he described as a display of the public outcry surrounding prorogation.
Whilst the prorogation of this Parliament was never uncontroversial, the decision to suspend Parliament has come under renewed legal scrutiny. On Wednesday, Scottish judges ruled that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament was unconstitutional, suggesting the prime minister intentionally mislead the Queen about his reasons for dismissing parliament.
This decision has caused huge upset, with many MPs demanding parliament is recalled with immediate effect. That said, English judges such as lord chief justice Lord Burnett of Maldon have come out in opposition to the Scottish ruling. Lord Burnett, alongside other senior English judges, has said the decision of the prime minister to advise the Queen to prorogue parliament is not justiciable. It seems we are a not-so-United Kingdom after all.
Business minister Kwasi Kwarteng has also caused controversy over the Scottish ruling on prorogation. In an interview with the BBC, Kwarteng suggested “many people” think judges are biased in relation to Brexit. Whilst distancing himself from the accusation, critics have accused the government minister of planting seeds of doubt about the impartiality of the judiciary. This is of course a hugely controversial move, and is viewed by some as an extension of the ‘people vs parliament’ narrative being used to gather support for the government’s Brexit policies.
The legality of the prorogation will be settled on Tuesday, when the Supreme Court has its say. This will be a hugely important moment not just for the prime minister, but for future discussions around the power of prorogation. However, whether the prorogation is upheld or not, it is likely that both protests on College Green and Boris’ legal wranglings over Brexit are far from over.
Operation Yellowhammer: preparation or prediction?
In addition to mounting hostility over the suspension of parliament, this week the government also received huge backlash in response to the publication of Brexit contingency plan ‘Operation Yellowhammer’. Despite attempts to resist the publication of the report, following a leak to The Times earlier this month, the government was compelled by parliamentary vote to release the documents.
The impact papers outline some of the key consequences that could come as a result of a no-deal Brexit, including price rises, civil disturbance and medicines shortages. Jeremy Corbyn has described the report as evidence that Boris intends to ‘punish those who can least afford it’ through a no-deal, as the documents showed that low income groups would be disproportionally affected by price rises in food and fuel.
Whilst the government insists Yellowhammer is very much a ‘worst case scenario’, critics have cited the document as an admission of the inevitable chaos of a no-deal exit. The government’s credibility on the matter was knocked however by labelling of the document as ‘worse-case’ in England but as a ‘base-case’ in copies sent to Scotland.
Michael Gove has been adamant in his public defence of the document as the ‘absolute worst case’ scenario. However, with Scottish documents and the original leaks presenting Yellowhammer as a base case scenario for no deal, Gove has come under increased scrutiny by those who believe he is downplaying the consequences of no-deal to the public.
Bye bye Bercow
Finally, in amongst the parliamentary chaos, John Bercow announced this week that he will step down as speaker of the house on the revised Brexit date of 31 October. In an impassioned and somewhat tearful speech, Mr Bercow stated he would not stand in the next general election and that his decision to resign his position as speaker next month was due to it being the ‘most democratic and least disruptive’ time.
However, in true Bercow style, the departing speaker also used the opportunity to state that his departure date was chosen so that the current parliament is able to select his successor. This is due to his concerns that new MPs may be at risk of being ‘whipped senseless’ by senior parliamentary figures, in a not-so-subtle reference to the expulsion of 21 Conservative MPs earlier this month.
So, who are the front runners tipped to follow Bercow’s 10-year tenure? The bookies’ favourite at the moment is deputy speaker and Labour MP for Chorley, Lindsay Hoyle. However, also in the running are Harriet Harman, the longest-serving female MP, Eleanor Laing, also a deputy speaker, and Chris Bryant, a self-professed commons procedure buff.
There is an important legacy left behind by John Bercow that will no doubt impact whoever is selected as his replacement. After years in post and a prominent role in keeping order in the house throughout the Brexit bedlam, many MPs will hope that whoever is next to sit at the top of the house will also strive to be a ‘backbench backstop’ against the government of the day. Bercow’s ability to command authority in the house however has been aided by the minority governments and political divisions that underpinned his time as speaker. The opportunity for future speakers to hold such presence in the house will no doubt rely on similar circumstances.
So what’s next in this Westminster whirlwind? The potential re-call of parliament could provide a huge blow to the prime minister, but even if he manages to keep a re-call at bay he is already looking ropey. With no-deal becoming increasingly unlikely and Boris refusing to ask for an extension, last hopes of progress in October rely on his ability to strike a deal with the EU and get it passed in time for Halloween. This is no simple task, and it remains to be seen whether it is even possible. However, what can be known is that Brexit is far from over, and this year’s conference season is likely to be a hotbed of Brexit anxiety and attempts to reconcile party members ahead of the impending general election.
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