What happened on day one of parliament’s shock return?
A bitter day in parliament culminated with a bullish, controversial performance from Prime Minister Boris Johnson
The bombast and fury continued long into the night, as yesterday’s reconvening of parliament saw the battle between the UK’s legislature and executive reach bitter new heights.
Far from cowed by what many analysts have called a “humiliation” at the hands of the Supreme Court, and the calls to resign that have followed, Boris Johnson arrived late in parliament from the UN in New York, and went on the offensive.
He goaded opposition MPs, calling on them to call an early election by triggering a vote of no confidence, and stuck to criticising without quarter the Supreme Court’s decision to declare prorogation “unlawful” - just not the judges themselves.
“We will not betray the people,” declared Johnson. Pointing his finger at Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, he asked: “Is he going to dodge a vote of no confidence in me as prime minister in order to escape the verdict of the voters?”
The PM added: “The people outside this house understand what is happening... The leader of the opposition and his party don’t trust the people. Instead of facing the voters the opposition turned tail and fled from an election. Instead of deciding to let the voters decide, they ran for the courts... it is absolutely no disrespect to the judiciary to say I think the court was wrong.”
The tone of Johnson’s dramatic late show in the Commons should have come as no surprise, after his attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, took to the stand earlier in the day. In what Robert Shrimsley at the Financial Times describes as a “hammy baritone”, Cox snarled at MPs who questioned his legal advice that the extended prorogation of parliament was legal, saying that it was a “dead parliament”, with “no moral right to sit”.
Responding to the bullish Johnson, Corbyn called his statement “ten minutes of bluster from a dangerous prime minister who thinks he is above the law but in truth is not fit for the office he holds”.
Speaking to Robert Peston on ITV late in the evening, MP Dominic Grieve, who was kicked out of the Tories by Johnson, said the prime minister’s performance was “terrifying”. He added: “This is somebody who’s a pathological liar - one can watch him do it in the House of Commons... He has no moral compass of any kind at all.”
Joanna Cherry, a Scottish National Party MP, told parliament: “I thought we were coming to hear a statement on the Supreme Court judgment. But instead we’ve been treated to the sort of populist rant one expects to hear from the leader of a tin pot dictatorship or perhaps the current president of the States.”
However, The Telegraph stood fully behind the prime minister, and his performance yesterday, saying: “He attacked the disgraceful and anti-democratic antics of the parliamentary Remainers, who have sought to bind his hands in negotiations in Brussels. And he exposed the hypocrisy of politicians who think that the voters are blind to their tawdry machinations in Westminster. Is it any wonder that so many of them are scared of an election?”
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The rancour engulfing the chamber reached its peak after impassioned pleas from a series of MPs over Johnson’s use of language, which many saw as an effort to energise the Leave electorate ahead of a “people vs. parliament” election.
“The prime minister has continually used pejorative language to describe an act of parliament passed by this house,” implored Labour MP Paula Sherriff, raising the murder in 2016 of her friend MP Jo Cox. “We should not resort to using offensive, dangerous, inflammatory language for legislation we do not like. They often quote his words, ‘surrender act’, ‘betrayal,’ ‘traitor’: we must moderate our language and it has to come from the prime minister first.”
A nonchalant Johnson dismissed Sherriff’s concerns as “humbug”.
There were gasps from the opposition bench as he told Labour’s Tracy Brabin, who was elected to her seat after the murder: “The best way to honour the memory of Jo Cox and to bring this country together is I think to get Brexit done.”
“They are words that will surely haunt him forever,” said Tom Peck at The Independent.
Any movement on the backstop?
In a pre-recorded interview with Peston on ITV, Johnson was asked if he truly believed there was any prospect of movement from the EU on the issue of the Irish backstop
“Yes, I do,” said the prime minister. “And they already genuinely have moved in the sense that they’re willing to consider other ways that allow us to work with our Irish friends to accomplish several things. Number one, we need to avoid any kind of border checks.”
The Financial Times doesn’t share his confidence. “Both sides are far apart, with no progress at all on the big outstanding issue of a future customs arrangement for Northern Ireland. ‘We have been asking them to build a fireproof home, and he’s offering an inflammable tent,’ said one EU diplomat.”
Can anything break the logjam?
The FT’s Shrimsley summarises the current Conservative objective: “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’.”
Johnson is “calculating… that this week’s defeat in the courts can be leveraged into a much bigger victory at the polls”, opines Martin Kettle in The Guardian. “To be savaged by the judges is indeed humiliating. But if it helps to fire up enough Leave voters in enough places to give Johnson some sort of electoral victory under Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, and with the anti-Tory opposition deeply split, it will all be deemed to have been thoroughly worth it.”
However, the Fixed Term Parliament Act means Johnson cannot force an election and Labour wants no-deal Brexit taken off the table before agreeing to one.
“The Supreme Court in Britain… [has] reasserted the right of legislators to write the political script and control political events,” writes Anne Applebaum for The Washington Post. “But with this reassertion comes an enormous responsibility. The British Parliament, now that it has been reconvened, must come up with a clear solution, either for a sensible Brexit or against it. If it does not, then Parliament’s reputation might never recover.”