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MICHAEL WHITE: Boris Johnson suspending parliament should come as no surprise

Michael White says Boris Johnson's move to prorogue parliament should come as no surprise. Picture: Martin Rowson - Credit: Martin Rowson

Michael White says the suspension of parliament has echoes of Charles I, and we know how badly it ended for him.

Well, that was a surprise, wasn’t it? Even though it shouldn’t have been. Parliament to be prorogued to prevent MPs blocking a no-deal Halloween Brexit. This is bold, dangerous stuff and many will cry “Charles I”. We know how badly his attempt to shut down parliament ended for him.

Up to Wednesday morning’s BBC scoop, the week had been an anti-climax. Was that it, I had thought? I was only just gearing up for the preliminary skirmishes of the G7 summit in the faded Edwardian splendour of Biarritz when someone said on the radio that it had already finished. What’s more, it had done so without even an attempt by the event’s emollient French hosts to draft a communiqué on which the heads of western governments could agree – or stage a tantrum as You Know Who did at last year’s Ottawa G7. Instead, Emmanuel Macron more or less babysat Donald Trump and Boris Johnson helped out by making funny faces.

Excellent, though the summit’s quest for mere common ground – not the traditional consensus – was further proof that the post-1945 international order is increasingly fragile as populist, authoritarian nationalism undermines more cautious and courteous norms of behaviour. Even by Trump’s benchmark standards Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro’s social media jibe at Brigitte Macron was a low blow, though – we shouldn’t forget this – it will amuse his core supporters and distract them from those forest fires, the ones which make them cough.

At least the Bolsonaro-promoted arson under way in the Amazon rain forests gave G7 summiteers a chance to unite in condemnation and dispatch some small change to help pay the firefighters. This was deemed “colonialist” money which the exploitative heirs to the empire of Brazil (1822-89) felt compelled to reject.

Macron later claimed that, after he’d tutored him in a long, in-depth session, even Trump was “fully engaged” on the existential threat posed by the fires (which are also raging in central Africa). Of course, France’s own retaliatory threat (backed by Ireland) to veto the EU’s South American trade deal just might have something to do with French and Irish agricultural protectionism. It’s a wicked world out there.

But the top takeaway from Biarritz was that the summit hadn’t been another disaster. President Trump flew home in a good mood that would be inexplicable to anyone who hasn’t yet grasped that disruption is what he likes best. Next year, when it’s the US’ turn to host the session, he wants it held in a Trump resort in Miami with Vladimir Putin allowed down from the naughty step where he’s been since ‘liberating’ Crimea. With Trump running for re-election in what may then be a global recession that could be lively.

Will Angela Merkel still be in power then? Italy’s Giuseppe Conti certainly won’t. Will Canada’s Justin Trudeau, facing a tough election in the week before Dominic Cummings’ decreed Brexit day? Of greater immediate concern to TNE readers is “Will Boris still be in Downing St next summer?” He is certainly winding up the Blather-ometer and seems to have persuaded his EU “friends and partners” in Biarritz that he really will take the negotiations right to the wire, to the EU’s October 17 summit and beyond. EU business as usual perhaps, but it has implications for the promised Brexit showdown at Westminster (to which we will return) – Wednesday’s suspension bombshell confirmed that.

And Johnson’s debutant performance on the big stage? Unlike most summit novices in their first pair of big boy’s long trousers, the PM’s problem is that everyone at the G7 knew who he is, the joker in the pack, the “known liar” of the Brussels press corps (copyright Channel 4 News’s Dorothy Byrne). A disruptive Berlusconi with much better jokes and less Bunga Bunga. Trump’s vassal, as Macron hinted – a revival of General de Gaulle’s obsession with Britain as the Anglo-Saxon Trojan Horse inside the future EU.

Except it didn’t quite work out that way, did it? I have little patience with Johnson apologists or explainers who insist that he is different from Trump because he’s read the Iliad and the Bible in Greek and is engaged in an elaborate act of self-caricature to disguise his clever, devious nature. All true, but insufficient. What the pair have in common is more important: both are narcissists (“You only care about yourself”), elite populists who crave to be popular above everything. Both are “known liars” (copyright Dorothy Byrne), both punch down in language which Johnson at least knows to be deplorable. I could go on, but you know this.

That said, Boris seems to have decided to go along with needy Trump’s conceit (“we really like each other”) that he is a protégé whom The Donald spotted as touched with fellow genius as early as 2013. That must have been even before the future “great prime minister” remarked that the reality TV tycoon betrayed “a quite stupefying ignorance” that made him unfit to be president. As with Trump’s denial in Biarritz that his G7 allies condemned his protectionist trade war with China – “No, I haven’t heard any of that” – he hears what he wants to hear.

Johnson is at least as meritocratic an elitist as Macron. He just plays it for laughs and is far less high-minded. Not un homme serieux in the way self-important French Republican elites see themselves. At the summit dinner his jokes lightened the tension. Yet in Biarritz observers also glimpsed a more serious Johnson. He sided with the majority on climate change, even promoting biodiversity, perhaps in the confident knowledge that Trump wouldn’t know what it is. Likewise on the Iran nuclear treaty and the Sino-US trade war. Phrases like “well behaved” and “not selling out to Trump” were conceded by summit media briefers.

His conduct was in keeping with Britain’s traditional post-Suez role as the bridge – not a Trojan bridge either – between Washington and Europe, a bridge that Brexit is about to blow up, the briefers also pointed out. Nor does it much change the metrics of Brexit. Before and during the summit Merkel and Macron went out of their way to be welcoming. After the awkwardness of Theresa May it must be a relief to face a breezy optimist who speaks good French, Italian and Latin. But only Fleet Street’s toady wing pretended to celebrate the Franco-German offer of a 30-day “chink of light” to fix the Irish border impasse.

It hardly amounted to the withdrawal of the backstop which Johnson had once made a prior condition to face-to-face talks. But it was treated as if his dazzling intellect and effervescent personality had made him the political equivalent of Headingley hero, Ben Stokes. Nothing has really changed except another week gone. In the tussle not to be labelled ‘Mr No-Deal’ – Boris or his other Donald, Mr Tusk – this was polite buck-passing back to London. Does Johnson have a viable border plan? MPs Greg Hands and Nicky Morgan claim to have one. So does retired Eurocrat, Jonathan Faull – definitely a Brussels homme serieux – who wants border smuggling criminalised (isn’t it already?).

But from Whitehall not a peep so far. Thirty days to go… 29, 28, 27… Even the toadies are uneasy. Like Jeremy Corbyn but worse, Boris is accused (not just by Dorothy Byrne) of ducking serious accountability to MPs, voters or the media since becoming PM a day before parliament went to the beach. But without having to be Paxmanned he is offering up bus-loads of hostages to fortune. Not just a serious trade point that misfires. Dressed up as a joke, his list of would-be exports were intended to highlight ‘Free Trade America’s’ protectionist barriers that stand between hungry Americans and Melton Mowbray pork pies. The witticism bombed because it was immediately denounced as factually wrong by pork pie makers and trade buffs. Slapdash columnists can get things wrong as slapdash PMs can’t, even in 2019.

More dangerous was Johnson’s “guarantee” that there will be no shortage of medicines in the event of a hard Brexit and that Britain will face bumps in the road – even Nigel Farage is now admitting that – but will cope. The “million-to-one” of risk of no-deal became “touch and go” on Sunday, adjusted to a “marginally more optimistic” on Monday. On Saturday he was warning the EU27 that they wouldn’t get most of that £39 billion divorce money if they didn’t give Britain a better withdrawal deal. By Monday he was fudging that threat too. Had the lawyers finally got through to him?

Despite the backstop-sensitive US Congress having a veto over trade deals, Trump is promising Johnson sectoral ‘mini deals’ at great speed, as is Australia’s new Tory PM. Spikes in the Boris Blather-ometer suggest he now realises no such magic wand exists. Something like ‘mini deals’ will probably keep planes flying and travellers travelling to and from the EU after a no-deal. But threatening to block divorce obligations that international courts would uphold is disruptive bluff. The 27 may have enough wriggle room to allow Johnson to try and claim victory (as Harold Wilson shamelessly did after the 1975 “renegotiation”), no cash means no talks on what remains the biggest trade deal: one with the EU.

Back at the No.10 ranch Dominic Cummings is having none of this. At the weekend someone (can’t imagine who) briefed the Sunday Times in detail on a pep talk he gave to ministerial advisers (spads) about staging a general election – backed by billions of feel-good public spending projects and billionaire campaign funds – on October 17. That’s the day the EU27 meet to discuss terms. I don’t know what Dom’s on (the same stuff as Ben Stokes?), but this is transparently fantasy. Not least it is because any pre-Brexit election risks the Johnson project being squeezed to death by anti-Brexit defectors to the Liberal Democrats, Greens (etc) on the left and by Faragista hardliners on the right. The proffered pact with Farage is a gamble too. “Can you trust Boris?” the old rogue asked an adoring audience mid-week (again) as he nervously upped the ante (again). Wednesday’s decision to hold the next Queen’s Speech on October 14 seems to kybosh that – unless it’s a bluff.

Paris and Berlin know that domestic vulnerability is uppermost in Joker Boris’s calculations. If they give him an inch can he deliver? Creating a few Brexit peers (another of this week’s wheezes) will generate 24 hours of headlines and much ill-will, but not what Johnson has taken to calling “facts of reality” – as opposed to fake facts of unreality, I suppose. It is grasping at plastic straws. Can the combined opposition do better?

Ahead of cross-party opposition talks and parliament’s September 3 return, Keir Starmer conceded on Tuesday’s Radio 4 that a government of national unity (GNU) or Jeremy the Caretaker aren’t going anywhere. Stopping no-deal is now the priority. Sunday’s Observer reported what is now confirmed – that ministers have obtained (disputed) legal assurances that they can prorogue parliament for five weeks in early September.

The idea is to stymie backbench legislation designed to prevent no-deal by requiring an Article 50 extension and an eventual referendum. Polls now point consistently to a pro-Remain majority, but as Liz Gerard wisely wrote in last week’s TNE, polls can be made to bolster all sorts of wishful thinking, including “let’s just get it over with”.

Starmer also states categorically that Jeremy Corbyn is finally off the fence and pro-Remain. Yeah, right, Seumas. Both Starmer and Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson adopted an accommodating tone towards potential allies, even Labour defectors. But talk of an early no confidence vote is now postponed (again) as the Merkel-Macron 30-day offer gave Johnson cover and Tory rebels an excuse not to help bring down their own government. But Number 10 was clearly taking no chances. It has pulled the rug from under its opponents’ feet.

Private talks had been going on during the August recess, but Tuesday’s opening session doesn’t seem to have delivered much beyond the hope they can again seize control of the Commons agenda.

That and a declaration, signed by 160+ MPs that they would meet in Church House, Westminster, in an alternative ‘people’s parliament’ if the World King tried anything tricky – as he has now. That prospect goaded the toady press into attack mode, smears against the “Rabble Alliance”, “Bercow nearly defected to Labour”, the usual stuff. Sajid Javid’s promise to bring forward his “people’s priorities” spending review to next Wednesday initially fuelled speculation about that October 17 election. Prorogation in a few days changes all calculations and again shatters opposition solidarity.

Tory strategists privately argue that if The Saj can pour money into schools, the NHS and police (a May weak spot) they can win over a group crucial to victory: those pro-Leave Labour voters in the north who couldn’t bring themselves (“my dad would turn in his grave”) to defect last time. Would such a blatant, self-contradictory offer as public spending plus an impoverishing no-deal Brexit work? I don’t believe it. But Cummings doesn’t listen to me.

In an increasingly centrifugal global order, one which Gordon Brown is bleakly calling a “leaderless world”, more spending is one global trend Team Johnson has working in favour of its plans to bribe voters with their own money by opening the public spending taps. The risk of recession is making even austerity-minded Germany wonder if it should spend its budget and trade surpluses to help hard-pressed allies. For its part, the Brussels priesthood is contemplating easing the eurozone’s tight budget deficit rules – the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) – which exacerbate stagnation in countries like Italy.

This isn’t thanks to the anti-austerity eloquence of John McDonnell or the threats of Rome’s firebrand populist, Matteo Salvini. It’s because the technocrats know that they used up all the weapons in monetary policy – interest rates slashed to zero and then some – after the bankers crash of 2008. Next time they can only ease fiscal policy to stave off a slump: that means higher taxes or, more likely, borrowing from the global glut of cheap money to fund needed infrastructure projects or social care. Unlike Trump – whose premature tax cuts merely fuelled the boom – Austerity Phil Hammond has bequeathed Sajid Javid a modest war chest.

But what to do? Team Johnson would have to take decisions, some unavoidably unpopular somewhere. Cut whose taxes exactly? Build that third Heathrow runway, the one Boris once promised to block with his own body? Build or dump HS2, which so many MPs and experts dislike? Raise long-frozen fuel duties and raise £9 billion to pay for the above and please his Green-First girlfriend, Carrie Symonds? Or let Javid slash fuel duties to please motorists, especially in regions which won’t get better trains if over-budget HS2 goes ahead?

Decisions and details. “Oh Crikey,” as the old Boris used to say. Even pie makers are less concerned about the US export market than keeping the EU’s ‘geographical protections’ rules which shield Parma ham and Melton Mowbray pies from cheaper imitation.

To avoid becoming the briefest holder of the office, Britain’s 77th prime minister has to hang on for 120 days, from July 24 to November 21. Two thirds still to go and the hard Brexit ‘Spartans’ on the Faragiste Tory Right are getting twitchy that the World King might betray them too. Gambler Boris’ throw of the prorogation dice frightens us all – Farage included, if that makes you feel any better.

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