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Both sides must share the blame for this failure of politics… and the voters too

'The Slippery Slope' in Westminster is a failure in which both sides are to blame. Illustration: Martin Rowson - Credit: Illustration: Martin Rowson

MICHAEL WHITE on where the blame lies as Britain descends into dangerous times

Yet another rollercoaster of a week in which the words which did it for me were not “dictatorship” or “coup”. They weren’t even “constitutional outrage” or any of the other angry epithets thrown around by frustrated opponents of Boris Johnson’s Brexit zig-zag. That included those who poured into city streets to protest the prorogation of parliament and those who stayed at home to worry quietly, both groups impudently accused of faking their “candyfloss” indignation by Jacobin Rees-Mogg.

After Tuesday night’s impassioned three-hour debate, the combined opposition, led by brainbox Oliver Letwin and bolstered by Dr Phillip Lee’s defection to the Liberal Democrats during Johnson’s G7 statement (whoops, bang goes his notional majority) prevailed. By a thumping 328 votes to 301 they voted to take control of Wednesday’s business and pass a bill seeking to prevent a no-deal Brexit by extending Article 50 to January 31. Has any other PM lost his first Commons vote or resorted so quickly to vulgar, mindlessly bellicose abuse?

Twenty-one Tory rebels had proved undaunted by threats to have ex-chancellors and Churchill’s grandson kicked out of their party by shrill sectarians of suburbia, the whip immediately removed. As MPs self-consciously headed into unknown territory in both the Lords and the courts Johnson signalled an October 15 election and Jeremy Corbyn – showing leadership for once – said he would vote for one only when the no-deal bill had first been secured. “Scared,” taunted Johnson. In truth, both have much to fear.

This is all extraordinary stuff. All the same, the phrase which got under my skin was less hyperbolic than some deployed by Leave zealots and by diehard adherents to Remain and Reluctant Leave-with-a-Deal pragmatists. It was the milder notion that we are all on a “slippery slope”. It is amplified by the widely-noted observation that the ‘good chap theory of politics’ – in which your opponents are rivals, not enemies, their motives misguided, but honourable – is being further eroded. By what? By ‘hardball politics’ where “traitors” betray their country in defence of foreigners and foreign interests.

When the prorogation bombshell dropped last Wednesday, I confess to being surprised after all those watertight denials of the Observer’s earlier scoop suggesting it would happen, but also torn. For the first time since David Cameron botched his 2016 referendum campaign, and both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May compounded his mistakes by all-round feebleness, here was a leader taking a bold tactical step to break the Brexit impasse, albeit by breaking some windows of international cooperation that someone will eventually have to re-glaze. Who was it who invoked “the smack of firm government” in the 1950s? It is not the same as tyranny.

Like his threat of an October 15 election (or is the plan really November 14?) made on Tuesday night, the move was opportunist and cynical, but it was surely constitutional in a legal sense. An incumbent prime minister asks the monarch for a prorogation and the monarch grants it. None been has refused since Queen Anne did during an invasion scare in 1708. It should rightly be tested in the courts, as Gina Miller, John Major and co are doing. But my hunch is that the UK Supreme Court will do what the Edinburgh courts seem to be signalling and recognise that Johnson’s corner-cutting impropriety has been political, not constitutional.

What Johnson – is he morphing into Dominic Farage? – is up to is bending the rules, not breaking them, in order to prevent the legislative branch of government from thwarting the executive branch’s declared determination to leave the European Union on October 31. Bending, of course, was also what Dominic Grieve and Yvette Cooper did when they took control of the Commons order paper – a government prerogative for centuries – to frustrate May’s Brexit timetable. So did Mr Speaker Bercow when he went along with it, defying the precedent-bound advice of his clerks. They all did it again on Tuesday, “constitutionally irregular” as Jacobin Rees-Mogg prissily put it, languidly horizontal on the government front bench. Talk about pots and kettles. Both sides feel ill-used.

When I was a press gallery new boy back in 1976, Michael Foot, then Leader of the Commons, once guillotined an unprecedented five bills in one day. Uproar! But nowadays debates on all bills are guillotined (‘timetabled’ is the gentler euphemism), increasing the government’s power at the expense of backbenchers – who have since fought back.

The battle for dominance is ceaseless. And Tory loyalists should constantly ask themselves: “Would I like a Corbyn cabinet to do the same to us?” In Washington, Democrat senators, frustrated at Republican obstruction of Obama appointments, tweaked the rules in ways Donald Trump now finds very helpful in getting his dodgier nominees confirmed.

This is how systems adapt, but also how they decay. The rule of law is the critical variable. Michael Gove has sounded equivocal about whether the cabinet would obey a backbench MP bill, backed by the Lords. As I write I have yet to hear or read if Bozzie Bear would be in his rights to advise the Queen not to sign such a bill. British sovereignty – about which we now suffer so much hot air – technically resides in ‘the monarch in parliament’ meaning a fusion of both government and legislature. It is the model widely used in the Commonwealth, in contrast to the USA which deliberately separated the powers of governance, law-making and justice after its version of Brexit in 1776. When pressed on Royal Assent, Boris, Mogg and Co shiftily equivocate. If the bill gets through a pro-Brexit weekend filibuster in the Lords (no guillotine in their rules!) we will find out on Monday. Trust is at a startlingly low ebb, taking their cue from the boss, ministers have repeatedly been less than frank.

Thus, in autumn 2019, the prime minister publicly insists that Brexit Britain would preferably leave with a revised Withdrawal Agreement (WA), but without one if necessary. No-deal is what close associates like Dominic Cummings – plus the Jacobins of the European Research Group (ERG) and their Home Counties gilets jaunes – would not-so-secretly prefer. Johnson claims to be making “progress” in renegotiating Theresa May’s WA, as he must.

When I bumped into Lord (David) Owen this week the former Labour foreign secretary predicted the EU27 could and would move to fix the Irish border. The man who broke with Labour over its anti-Europeanism insisted that the last £10 billion tranche of that £39 billion divorce bill can and should be withheld until Britain gets a future trade deal.

Owen is a political bully, but not a knave. He is neither a fop like Mogg nor a fool like IDS, who is still claiming that David Cameron’s warning in 2016 that leaving would mean no single market/customs union now justifies a no-deal mandate. Wasn’t it dismissed at the time as Project Fear stuff by people like you, Iain? Michel Barnier is not yet blinking. Brussels was incredulous at Boris’s “progress” claim on Tuesday. But serious people still feel Johnson’s strategy will deliver if MPs let him.

Are we victims of a great deception, being taken for a ride towards the Brexit cliff by cabinet ministers who voted three times against Theresa May’s effort to take Britain out, yet now threaten (no, not you, Amber) deselection against colleagues who do the same? Is this deliberate provocation designed to justify a purge of moderates, the Gaukes, Stewarts, Ken Clarkes and Nick Soameses?

Philip Hammond and his rebel Tory group suspect we might be. On Tuesday the meticulous Letwin spoke more cautiously of a “willingness or intention” to do so after the Telegraph reported the incendiary Cummings calling the renegotiation a “sham”.

“There is no progress… there isn’t even a negotiating team,” says Spreadsheet Phil. He promises the “fight of a lifetime” to save his party from “incomers and entryists” like Cummings who aren’t even Tory party members. Hammond’s defiance recalls Sir Geoffrey Howe, another dull-but-determined ex-chancellor, fatally sticking it to Margaret Thatcher after being pushed too far in 1990. Are our self-styled Thatcherite plotters about to experience a revival of The Dead Sheep’s Revenge?

One third of Angela Merkel’s 30-day window has already gone. Yet ministers have not published their revised backstop plans or even the updated version of the leaked Operation Yellowhammer assessment of the impact of no-deal on ordinary lives. Why? Apparently it is still too gloomy. That’s a pretty serious deceit and contrasts with Mogg’s airy assurances to that irate medic on LBC radio. In response the EU is contemplating emergency no-deal funding for Ireland and other members states, as if a hard Brexit was the equivalent of a Bahamas hurricane.

Alarmed by Cummings’ high-handed sacking of Sajid Javid’s spad, Sonia Khan (now that almost certainly was illegal), Whitehall civil servants are said to be taking legal advice on questionable orders they can legitimately refuse to implement, especially if election purdah rules kick in to prevent abuse of government spending. No wonder.

It’s not just foul-mouthed, career psychopath (as David Cameron described him), ‘Reign of Terror’ Cummings either. Boris is said to get stroppy when baffled officials protest: “But that’s the opposite of what you said last week.” The perpetual columnist replies: “They were merely words.” No wonder pollsters report voters mistrust him too.

That the most important peacetime decision that Britain has taken for decades should be manipulated by backstairs improvisation and intrigue (shades of the Suez invasion conspiracy in 1956) in an atmosphere of such mutual mistrust is the real scandal. It represents a failure of politics for which both sides must share the blame, voters too for backing lazy or complacent options on Europe and the economic implications for losers in the wider globalisation. The poison has been visible for decades. So this is an overdue showdown where those nominally in charge look hell-bent on taking us down a potentially disastrous path, orchestrated by what French diplomats – who know a bit about revolution – are apparently calling Maoists. They mean you, Dominic, silly Jacob and comically sinister Nigel, fomenting unrest from behind his sofa.

This is where the slippery slope matters. In a fast-changing world, states, with or without written constitutions have to adapt. That means adapting conventions as well as formal rules to new situations, unexpected imperatives, different values in society. Necessary but risky, because careless or cynical expediency may turn out – too late – to have upset fundamental balances which protect competing interests, especially minority ones, temporary political minorities as well as the more permanent kind. We call in the Law of Unintended Consequences.

The Fixed Term Parliament Act (FTPA) of 2011 is one such. Passed in a hurry by the coalition so that neither Cameron nor Nick Clegg could double-cross the other by pulling out of their agreement, Salvini-style, it has boxed Johnson in. No longer a PM’s decision alone, the FTPA requires two-thirds of MPs to back a Johnson dissolution. But will Labour vote for one? Corbyn, who has long gone through the motions of demanding an election (he yearns for that allotment), suddenly risks his bluff being called. Labour is 8% behind the shambolic Tories in this week’s polls, Corbyn himself out of sight, and facing a deluge of tasty public spending bribes which frighten the sober Institute for Fiscal Studies almost as much as his own do.

It’s not just Tony Blair – remember him? – warning against the “elephant trap” of a single-issue Brexit election, but cannier shadow colleagues. They have realised that it would also be legal – though duplicitous – for Johnson to use his discretion to switch election dates once a dissolution has been voted. Instead of the declared date of October 15 – two days before the crucial EU summit, a postponement to November would allow a Halloween crash-out to occur by default mid-campaign. That scenario might swing pro-Leave Labour stalwarts towards the Tories in the north – a crucial election target group. It might do the opposite among stalwart Remainers in Scotland and the south.

So when shifty Johnson spoke at the Downing Street podium of “an election I don’t want and you don’t want” he was right on both counts, though not honest as to what exactly he meant. The thuggish gamble is a huge risk for him too and Farage – sounding understandably nervous on air next day – is not signed up. He claims to fear that Boris “is intent on re-heating Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement” that would keep us locked in forever. “We might as well stay as members,” the flighty rascal claims to believe. Would you lend either a fiver?

So Farage’s Brexit pop-up party could yet out-populist No.10’s snap ‘People vs Parliament’ election. Or No.10 could prevail, only at the price of turning the Tories historic ‘One Nation’ broad church into a narrow, nationalist one, a “Brexit Party rebadged” (as Ken Clarke puts it), purged of its liberal wing.

Johnson could try and trigger an election by engineering a no confidence vote and losing it. Corbyn could vote against it to prevent him. We simply don’t know – and nor does Bozzie Bear, who is winging it as usual. His conflicting signals confuses opponents and demoralises voters, as they are intended to. The World King does not seem to mind where the train takes him as long as he is the engine driver.

In a week which is marking the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War this is especially tragic. London mayor Sadiq Khan invokes the lessons of the 1930s to warn against whipping up fear and resentment against minorities. A far-right extremist is convicted of “Punish a Muslim Day” hate campaign, which included our Protestant Queen among its targets. Tensions mount on the Irish border and a sectarian clash takes place on the streets of Glasgow. The justice system is under pressure. These are feverish times, made much more so by unruly social media, which will need the smack of firm but fair government to master.

Yet the government’s driving narrative, the one which devours the energy it says it wants to commit to better schools and health care, is nostalgia for a non-existent past dressed up as a vision for a non-existent future. The real lesson from the nostalgic reverence for the heroics of Dunkirk and D-Day is not that ‘Britain can go it alone’, but that we couldn’t then and certainly can’t today. Russian sacrifices, American might, the wealth and manpower of the empire, all made victory possible in 1945.

Until recently the Germans seemed to get the point, their president has just apologised to the Poles. But the weekend surge for the nostalgic AfD party in regional elections in Saxony and Brandenburg suggest creeping amnesia there too. Dangerous times all round.

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