Sean Walsh provides us with a humorous but much needed insight into the decision yesterday to prorogue parliament in early September.
So the Prime Minister has committed a “constitutional outrage” by doing something that is constitutionally normal, and which is probably constitutionally overdue? Maybe his critics are correct: it could indeed be considered outrageous to implement a procedure which, in ordinary times, would be just part of the normal rhythm of parliamentary life. The current state of mind of our political representatives requires expression not by a Commons sketch writer but by Ken Kesey or William Burroughs. It seems almost cruel to ask them to deal with a small dose of sanity. Not before Nurse Ratched has done her rounds, anyway.
It’s tempting to assess the importance of yesterday’s prorogation in terms of the collective hissy fit of the Euro fanatics. Anna Soubry has demanded to see the Queen, presumably to scold our monarch for having ideas above her station. Guy Verhofstadt, who looks to some of us like a man perfectly happy to recline in a chair made from human skin, has said that “taking back control has never been so sinister”. Dominic Grieve once more has the air of a man being presented with a Chateau Margaux 2010 when quite clearly he ordered the 2012. If these people are upset -or more upset than usual- then clearly something has gone right?
But the temptation is best resisted. This was not an Indiana-Jones-nonchalantly-shoots-the-sword-wielding-assassin moment. At best this was a significant recalibration of the context in which the next few months will be played out. The possibilities resolve into two scenarios, one pessimistic and one far less so.
Brexiters worry that Johnson is setting us up for the possibility of a cosmetically altered “Withdrawal Agreement” being represented to the Commons at some point in mid-October. Why cosmetic? Because the current mood music is arranged to the tune known as “dropping the backstop”. Pessimists fear a stitch up. They rightly point out that the WA without the backstop is just as carcinogenic as the WA with it. The suspicion is that the backstop provisions were only included so that they could at some point be dropped. The public, some of whom are unreasonably unwilling to devote a year of their life to reading the thing, will not have noticed that May’s Treaty contains carefully placed mechanisms of continued EU membership from start to finish.
I am no Pollyanna- ask anyone who knows me (actually don’t) – but I find this scepticism misplaced. The stitch-up might have worked a year ago but the public has cottoned on. If this was the plan all along, if Johnson was always Gerald the Mole recruited by the Establishment for insertion into the Leave campaign, then the timing is awry. Most people didn’t read the WA not because they were too stupid but because they were too sensible. But they know enough now to know not to trust a word of it. The bad faith of its authors was put on display when they turned a sitting Prime Minister into a London-Brussels-London frequent flyer. All that footage of May at RAF Northolt was a visual affirmation of a PM who had embraced the status of supplicant.
Here’s a caveat: it could be that the PM genuinely believes that the deletion of the backstop could be just the opening act, and that if the EU concede this then he might be able to extract from what’s left the outline of a genuine Brexit. Maybe he could. In the same way that an apprentice chef might be able to serve up a non-fatal fugu dish. It’s going to be some task to drain that document of all the poison which defines it.
The more optimistic interpretation of yesterday’s announcement is that prorogation is a deliberately placed constraining mechanism in a trajectory towards no deal. In this scenario the emphasis on the “backstop” proves only that its removal is a necessary condition of any deal, not a sufficient one. It’s where the conversation starts. And the conversation has no time to reach a satisfactory outcome. A deal presented to Parliament after the EU summit in the middle of October would require ratification not just by that crucible of insanity but by the parliaments of the other EU 27 – all in about ten days. It would be like insisting that a speed date could settle the future careers of any subsequent progeny; more likely than not is that both parties to the chat would make all the right noises before going their separate ways.
But a romance could blossom anyway, when the two would-be suitors find themselves in a different situation. If we exit on 31st October without a “deal” then all manner of things become possible. Including, most importantly, a deal. When Remainers claim that “we were told that we would be leaving with a deal” then they need to be corrected: we were never told we’d need a deal to leave, but it was argued that once we left there’d be a deal.
Remainers want to insist that a deal is offered to Parliament because they want another opportunity to vote against one. The best time to offer them such an opportunity will be after we have left. Let’s see what they say then.
The Prime Minister’s intervention yesterday was no more than a statement of intent. But what a good intent!