MICHAEL WHITE: Just who has been most ensnared by the week’s events?
- Credit: Martin Rowson
Britain finds itself in a dark web. MICHAEL WHITE wonders who has become entangled by recent events.
If I were the Queen I'd be more worried about what my son, Andrew, may have told me about his dealings with upmarket Manhattan pimp Jeffrey Epstein than about predictable shiftiness from Boris Johnson over his prorogation motives. If I were Jeremy Corbyn I'd stop thinking I was the Queen floating above the Brighton Brexit shambles, "present but not involved", as the Labour leader once put it. What a self-indulgent, wasted opportunity this pre-election conference week has been. Are they so determined to lose an election which should now be Labour's for the taking?
As for those sober Supreme Court judges, well, no fancy lawyer or constitutional expert predicted that 11-0 verdict couched in such condemnatory terms by mild-mannered Baroness Hale, president of the court, on Tuesday morning. Another defeat for the experts, eh! And for my own prediction. One more unexpected, Brexit-driven change to conventions and rules underpinning the way we have all been governed for centuries, but abused by Team Boris. Lady Hale's spider brooch has spun a restraining web around these desperadoes.
Judicial restraint towards the traditional activities of politics has increasingly given way to interventionist judicial activism, well before Labour's creation of the Supreme Court in 2009.Even allowing for self-serving hyperbole from talking heads on the telly, this is big stuff, as big as Brexit, arguably bigger. "Mission creep," as assorted European courts are often accused of. Labour's conference delegates cheered when Jezza broke the news from the podium. But if we are to take its manifesto pledges seriously - a big "if" - a Corbyn-McDonnell government would quickly find itself on the receiving end of similar judicial review.
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Not only was the prorogation unlawful in its "extreme effect on the fundamentals of democracy" but it never happened, it was void, "a blank sheet of paper," declared Lady Hale. Just like one of those 'non-papers' the government has been submitting to Brussels, you might say. Wow! MPs were free to go straight back to work, those not too busy plotting in Brighton or calling on Boris Johnson to resign immediately, called to account by the judges as no previous prime minister has ever been. Speaker Bercow settled for 11.30am on Wednesday.
Why were my own feelings uneasily mixed, even before World King Boris - rudely awoken on his climate change trip to New York - and his ministerial minions belatedly put together their counter-attack? Even before Jacob Rees-Mogg showed what a cad he is beneath those double-breasted suits when he invoked tabloid talk of a "constitutional coup."?
Despite outward respect for the verdict Downing St whipped up the posh rabble. Its partner in demagoguery, the Daily Mail, ran a "Boris declares war" and "Who Runs Britain?" headline. Brass- necked Michael Gove was shamelessly unapologetic about breaking the law.
Yet, as that fearless litigant, Gina Miller, put it on the rain-sodden steps of the court, this was a victory for parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law. "No one is above the law, not even Boris." It could not happen to a more slipshod rascal, running a shabbier, accident-prone administration. What's not to like about that?
Nothing at all. But when talking heads on TV add that it's also "a victory for democracy" or Miller insists "this is nothing to do with Brexit" they highlight the dilemma into which Richmond's Brenda Hale (that's Richmond, Yorkshire, where she still lives, not Richmond, Surrey) has plunged her football team of judges. Our supposedly unwritten constitution, mostly written into many laws and judgements, but not codified into one document, rests on respect for political conventions.
They have evolved under our constitutional monarchy, whose executive functions and prerogatives are now exercised by the prime minister of the day. It is not a legally-based constitution in the way many countries are, most obviously the US, where the Supreme Court can strike down laws (as ours can't). Strictly speaking, Britain does not have such separation of the powers and parliamentary sovereignty lies with 'the Monarch in Parliament'. In normal times that means a government with a Commons majority, executive plus legislature. Our own times are no longer normal.
What Hale's Eleven have done is move the boundaries further in their own direction. The expanding process of judicial review has been doing this for decades, but overruling a prime minister's right to have the monarch prorogue parliament - no questions asked - is the biggest hostile take-over yet. It is accountability, judicial accountability from one elite to another, but not democratic accountability. Parliamentary sentiment - as repeatedly voiced by a majority of elected representatives - is at odds with the direct democracy which David Cameron conceded in the referendum. That is the core Brexit dilemma.
You do not have to be an overpaid QC, even one blessed with a mere mortal's common sense, or a politically savvy citizen, to see how the scruple-lite people who run Johnson - Yes, I mean you, Dominic Cummings - might expand their "People vs Parliament" election strategy into a People vs Bercow and Brenda election, Brenda Hale, not Brenda from Bristol. People vs Gina too, she's another "Enemy of the People." If I were looking for a silver lining in all this it would be that the Edinburgh court's verdict has prevailed in London's highest court against a lower English court ruling. A naïve hope? We shall see. But overnight Tory MPs who should know better were reporting "stand up to the Establishment, Boris" calls from voters. Straight from the Trump playbook.
Up to the moment when Lady Hale spoke, the World King might have been tempted to review the week and open the prosecco (while stocks last) to celebrate his good fortune with any wholly legitimate American businesswoman, preferably blonde, who happened to be passing within reach. "Here's to the incompetence of my enemies, long may they get me off the hook," Johnson could have said in an impromptu toast before discussing tech start-ups which quickly start-down again.
True, his climate change initiative had been overshadowed - like everyone else at the UN's conference - by the mesmerising condemnation of grown-up hypocrisy and inertia by Greta ("How dare you!") Thunberg, whose prominence in the climate debate is another symptom of our dysfunctional times. There was also the not-so-small matter of Thomas Cook's collapse with the loss of 500 high street shops and 9,000 jobs in Britain, not to mention misery for stranded holidaymakers.
But even the crisis at Thomas Cook could be worked in Johnson's favour, devouring limited media bandwidth which might otherwise be devoted to Brexit or Jennifer Arcuri. At 178, the much-loved travel agent is even older than Donald Trump and his main Democratic challengers and as adaptable as Jeremy Corbyn (70), but not Greta (16).
A £200 million taxpayer bung wouldn't have fixed Cook's problem, though earlier attention by Brexit-distracted ministers might have made a difference. So the WK isn't yet out of the woods over the firm's liquidation or his dealings with Arcuri and allegations of an abuse of public funds. Even the loyal(ish) Mail is calling her a "pole-dancing ex-model". A powerful prime minister might easily shake off past misdemeanours. It is not as if Johnson's troubles with women are not priced into his reputation - or that his admirers care. Much easier to target is a PM at risk of becoming our shortest-serving if he can't last until November 21. Anything might happen.
Labour activists and trade union baronets may shake their collective fist at the Lord of Misrule in conference this week and cheer Jeremy to the rafters. But they are kidding themselves. The crisis in government is their fault too. They have tolerated four years of self-indulgent policy pipedreams under a weak and divided leadership which takes one step forward, then retraces its step for greater obfuscation.
Only when facing an opposition front bench as hopeless as this one would their equally irresponsible Conservative counterparts risk picking a priapic chancer as dodgy as the Johnson-with-a-Johnson-problem to lead them at this critical hour. Only because he faces Team Corbyn across the Commons Dispatch Box would the World King dare to behave in the feckless fashion he does. As every toddler learns, you can't make a see-saw work if there's no weight at one end. The Supreme Court's weight rightly constrains Johnson, evidence of a flexible system hitting back against an abuse. But it is politically unhealthy.
Forced to choose between adopting the Remain stance that most of them favour and supporting the leader's fence-sitting ambiguity in Monday afternoon's chaotic voting, delegates opted to be loyal to Corbyn. It looked a close-run thing in the hall and conference chair Wendy Nichols initially declared it a win for the Remainers until general secretary Jennie Formby changed her mind. No card vote - a conference equivalent of a VAR appeal - was allowed.
"No stitch-ups here, move along," says Unite's Len McCluskey. Next morning Corbyn himself condemned Boris by saying "a Labour government would want to be held to account, we would not bypass democracy". Everyone cheered. Cynical or self-deluding? You decide. Before you do, look at this week's manoeuvre by that perpetual political student, Jon Lansman. He was a party to Tony Benn's ill-judged bid to unseat Denis Healey as Michael Foot's deputy at the 1981 conference. Its defeat signalled the decline of Bennism, as Lansman later realised.
It took the party's right 15 years to regain control - ie to win another election - so next time let's make it 30, a pal heard Lansman tell an audience on last year's Liverpool conference fringe. Has Student Jon learned anything in the intervening 38 years? About as much as Thomas Cook management by the sound of it.
Tom Watson, the Healey of the moment, duly saw off his "drive-by shooting" (unusually Corbyn seems to have been "not present, but involved" in this plot). More significantly, as the New Statesman's Stephen Bush and others noticed, anti-Corbyn MPs have been seeing off bids to deselect them ahead of the likely November election.
So after absorbing the resignation of Corbyn hardliner Andrew Fisher (dismayed by Team Corbyn's private behaviour), much of the media's attention - delegates too on the Brighton seafront, its crowded pubs and restaurants - has been about the succession. John McDonnell, a serious politician and the one trying to build bridges to political reality and the wider electorate, is too old. The other "big names" (as one BBC reporter put it) are not encouraging. Let's pass on them for now, but the aura of already-conceded defeat is not a good campaign launch point for a party 10% behind in the polls.
So would-be next leaders are on the march and Brexit is their battleground. Corbyn's Brexit fence has fallen over, persuading neither Remain nor Leave voters that it is solid: promise a referendum, but only after a Labour government has been elected and (in six months) negotiated its own deal which stays close to the EU in all sorts of unspecified ways? No wonder that not even the highly articulate McDonnell can explain it on radio and TV.
That might matter less if the flow of Labour policies unveiled or proclaimed this week offered voters a credible, even uplifting vision of a reshaped and revitalised Britain once the distraction of Brexit - and that new trade deal we keep forgetting - is finally dealt with.
There are lots of good ideas in the mix along with the daft, expensive and hopelessly impractical ones. Lots of extra money for the NHS (except that £500 million it will cost to give free prescriptions to the English middle class), for personal care of the elderly, for the police, for schools and student fees and all the rest.
An FT estimate, supported by assorted think tanks, this month put a £26 billion tax bill on top of Labour's 2017 commitments if the shadow chancellor's pledge to keep cutting the debt burden is to be upheld. Why? Because McDonnell has already committed the £25 billion a year to infrastructure spending. That's all very ambitious and expensive. But it is likely to be overshadowed by legal battles over confiscatory policies towards renationalisation of the railways, the seizure of £300 billion worth of assets of large firms on behalf of their workers, of private school assets and the rest. Lady Hale is unlikely to be cheered by Labour activists then.
The tragedy is that Britain, like the divided US and other states riven by cultural division and inequality, is eager to do things differently, to create gentler, fairer societies after the excesses of finance capitalism which still continue despite repeated failure. Even the major US corporations have just created a 'Business Round Table' intended to replace the discredited doctrine of shareholder primacy with something wider that addresses the needs of stakeholders, staff, customers and society as a whole.
There are opportunities here, but Corbyn-McDonnell Labour shows few signs of paying more than superficial attention. In any case, they first have to win. The Johnson administration is down, but not yet out. The Hale judgement makes it all but impossible for him and Cummings ("sack him" cry the Faragistas) to prorogue parliament again. Nor can they try and sidestep the cross-party Benn Act which requires him to seek an extension of Article 50 if he fails to get a deal, surely not.
No 10 says the World King won't resign, though that is hardly a bankable guarantee and remains a way of forcing a high-risk election which the combined Opposition otherwise have the power to deny him until no-deal is off the table. Better by far would be for Johnson to cut some sort of deal with Brussels which could be presented as stronger than Theresa May's thrice-rejected deal. Implausible on several counts, I realise.
But if the DUP is using the banned word 'flexible' we cannot rule out that assorted partisans on both sides of the Brexit chasm may feel it's time to compromise and move on to whatever happens next.
Most likely that would be a triumphant "I did it" election which shameless Johnson ought to lose, but just may win emphatically.
Hale's Eleven have upheld the rule of law. Excellent. But the danger to our politics, economy and constitution is far from over.
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