Turns Out Suspending Parliament Wasn't Such a 'Genius Move'

Dominic Cummings' and Boris Johnson's masterplan has spectacularly backfired.
Simon Childs
London, GB
September 4, 2019, 8:15am
boris johnson annoyed
Boris Johnson in Parliament on Tuesday night. 

Ever since Boris Johnson entered Number 10, political journalists have salivated over the supposed tactical nous of his chief strategist Dominic Cummings. Everyone loves to read about a Machiavelli, and Cummings likes to see himself as one. Proroguing Parliament was supposed to be his master-stroke – "the political equivalent of the Cruyff Turn" (a football move "leaving a befuddled opponent wrong-footed in his slipstream") raved former Express editor Patrick O'Flynn in the Telegraph.

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Given how this week is going so far, it's not clear that suspending Parliament was quite the genius move it was cracked up to be. So far, it has united the opposition, which then tabled a vote against no-deal, which the government hyped as a confidence vote and then lost. None of which would have happened without prorogation. The government's strategy is looking more like a League One defender trying to do the Maradona.

On Monday, Johnson's speech outside 10 Downing Street – in which he failed to call an election, as expected – was broadcast with audible boos. A few hundred protesters chanting "Stop the coup!" was hardly the storming of the Bastille, but was enough to make him look like he couldn't help but imagine a bunch of revolutionaries battering down the doors to Chequers. Given that we have an Etonian Prime Minister used to running away from his problems, backed up by a narcissist who likes quoting Sun Tzu, it should be no wonder that neither of them have been able to take into account the agency of anybody else.

On Tuesday in Parliament, Johnson was clearly still shook by the protesters outside his front gates. He avoided any of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn's substantive points on Brexit, to accuse him of having been "converted, by the Momentum hordes trying to take over the streets, into the agent of those who would subvert our democracy and overturn the will of the people!" A bold attempt to cast populist movements as villains by evoking the popular will. To paraphrase David Gauke MP, it would be very helpful if the government could clarify whether they believe in the rule of the mob.

Still, it was good to clear up Johnson's position: suspending Parliament because it might disagree with your kamikaze Brexit policy for which you have no mandate? That's democracy. Some protesters chanting and waving banners? A deeply sinister affront to our political traditions. The assured words of a Prime Minster at ease in his position these were not.

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On Tuesday night in Parliament, Corbyn was able to capitalise on a newfound coherence among those against a no-deal, saying, "Whether people voted leave or remain, they did not vote to shut down democracy." It's a better line on Brexit than anything he's come up with until now.

You could almost start to feel sorry for Johnson, whose day in Parliament got off to a bad start when he lost his parliamentary majority while right in the middle of his statement on the G7 meetings. As the Prime Minister tried to speak about exports to the US, pro-remain and now-ex Tory MP Philip Lee rose from his seat and walked across the floor of the house to sit with the Lib Dems. This in turn caused some defections from Lib Dem members, who weren't too happy with Lee's 2014 amendment to an immigration bill that would have forced migrants to be tested for HIV, or his 2013 abstention on same-sex marriage. Not all Lib Dem heroes wear capes, or ascribe to even the most basic liberal values.

Still, it had its intended effect. As Johnson is known for his affected prat-falling incompetence, it makes it all the more noticeable when he really is struggling to concentrate on his lines, looking distractedly across the benches as he realised his majority of one was being dismantled by an unknown weirdo. "I wish my honourable friend all the best," he said, reaching for an easy humour that had deserted him under pressure.

Displaying no such vulnerability was Jacob Rees-Mogg, Brexit ultra and leader of the House of Commons. The man who was touting prorogation before anyone knew what it meant claimed with a straight face that the bill to block a no-deal Brexit is "constitutionally irregular".

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"We should recognise that the people are our masters and show us to be their lieges and servants, not to place ourselves in the position of their overlords," he said in a refreshingly modest rehash on the old "17.4 million voted for Brexit three years ago, so now the rest of democracy has to shut up" line of argument. He ended by urging his colleagues: "I hope all members will contemplate the current constitutional confusion and consider the chaos this concatenation of circumstances could create."

Truly, he is the very model of a modern major dickhead. The overblown democratic flourishes masked the substance of an overlong, repetitive speech, which involved a lot of fussy parliamentary technicalities, self-servingly interpreted and smugly deployed in order to justify suspending Parliament as "not in any sense an abuse". He patronised Labour's Hilary Benn, one of the key sponsors of the rebel bill, for instance, over the difference between something being "improper" and "irregular" in parliamentary terms, as if anyone cares about pedantry when we can all see the abuse of power happening right before our eyes.

He then spent the remainder of the debate lounging across the commons benches in the manner of an eccentric tech billionaire having to listen to a long-suffering flunkey explain why it's not a good idea to invest in holidays to Mars.

Surprisingly, Mogg's appeals fell on deaf ears. By the end of the day, Cummings' plans were looking altogether less cunning than they had. The results came through: 328 For, 301 Against. On day two of Boris being in charge while Parliament is sitting, he had lost a major vote. "Not a good start Boris!" shouted a Labour MP. Today, Parliament will vote on stopping a no-deal, and Johnson may lose again. Twenty-one Conservative rebels are having the Tory whip removed, meaning Johnson has a majority of minus 43.

Responding to the result, Johnson vowed to table a motion for an election. Having called for an election for months, it looks like Labour will only back one if no-deal legislation is guaranteed – to stop Johnson pulling a fast one and moving the date until after Brexit. It's unclear what that would mean, other than Johnson having to lie in the mess he's created for a little while.

There's no need to turn to any of Cummings' cod psychology to appraise the situation. This is simply what happens when you try to be too clever when you've always been a clown.

@SimonChilds13