When Boris Johnson became Prime Minster a little over a month ago I did not expect that it would be necessary to write another blog quite so soon, and definitely not one on the impact of the prorogation of Parliament! So many heavyweights effectively ruled it out that it was a surprising move.
The prorogation of Parliament is a typical part of parliamentary process. What was unexpected and is extraordinary is its length (5 weeks) and use in the current political climate. It curtails the ability of MPs to shape the agenda on Brexit, it stops all other debate and risks dumping legislation passing through the House. As a group of charities (led by ACEVO) have said in a joint statement, ‘the prime minister’s decision….shrinks the democratic and civic space even further’.
I have said before, Johnson is not fighting an ideological battle to deliver Brexit. He does not command a majority in the House - after the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election, his majority is just 1. Like Cameron, Johnson is being visited by the same spectres of elections past; Nigel Farage and Europe.
I think Johnson is focussed on life after Brexit and his premiership, not on a deal or no deal. That is not to say his declarations that this is normal process and that he wants to set out an exciting agenda for the future are plausible, rather that this is the most recent in a long line of tactics to navigate the almost impossible challenge of Brexit.
So what evidence do we have about his intentions? Defence secretary Ben Wallace, caught on camera discussing Brexit and the prorogation, rightly pointed out Parliament have been very good at saying what it didn’t want and not very good at saying what it did. As I’ve said before - Brexit cannot command consensus. Wallace went on to say that Johnson’s lack of a majority was central to the decision; ‘eventually any leader has to, you know, try.’ he said.
My reading of this move is twofold; to pile on significant pressure in both parliament and the EU in order to potentially secure a deal. And secondly to strengthen the message that Johnson has done everything he can to prevent the establishment from curtailing the ‘will of the people’. If we crash out - it won’t be his ‘fault’.
Despite appearances I don’t think he is angling for a no-deal. As I’ve said before I cannot see how after such unity within the EU the deal will meaningfully change. But it’s possible that I wrote off the chance of May’s deal being resurrected too soon. Might a desperate House pass through the deal it had rejected so resoundingly before in order to avoid the dreaded ‘no deal’?
The stakes are incredibly high. The chances of a no-deal departure have certainly increased so prepare for it we must, because this gamble may not pay off.
In CFG’s soon to be released second survey we asked about the sector’s preparation for a WTO exit. The short answer from the results is that we are not (75% having made little or no preparation). It’s understandable that this is the case because we all know how detrimental to planning such high levels of uncertainty and volatility are. But we must step up our preparation and government needs to provide support for the sector.
Two further occurrences are worthy of note at this juncture; and both relate to the possibility of a general election being called soon. Nigel Farage has said "If Boris Johnson was…to lead this country towards a clean-break Brexit on 31 October and if the only means of achieving that was calling a general election…we would be prepared… to help him…in the form a non-aggression pact at the election." Second Ruth Davidson’s resignation indicates that a general election is on the cards. She majored on dreading the long hours and miles of an election campaign as a mother of a young son.
I said in my last blog, the polls will be scrutinised daily in the Johnson camp. I stand by that. The most recent YouGov poll of voting intentions show that his approach might be working (Johnson’s lead over Labour increasing from 32% to 34% in a week). This data, coupled with Farage’s offer of an electoral pact, means we might be stepping closer to our third general election in less than five years!
But don’t put your money on the predicted possible Autumn timeline just yet.
In run up to the 2017 elections May was riding high with polls standing at 41-46% (UKIP 2-5%) ahead of Labour on 34-40%. Right up to the wire she expected to win a decent majority. As we know that isn’t what happened on the night. Although the share of vote was not that much adrift (Con 42.4% , UKIP 1.8% and Lab 40%) May’s party lost 13 seats and UKIP lost their only one. Johnson will be determined to avoid the same fate.
Added to that the response from across the House and from the public to the decision to shut Parliament down for around five weeks has been intense. MPs are considering their positions and talking of bringing the government down. A petition, to stop prorogation until Brexit is cancelled or the Article 50 deadline is extended, is growing at almost twice the rate of the petition to revoke (which hit over 6 million signatures).
We live in strange and difficult times.
Our advice remains the same as before but perhaps with a little more urgency. Prepare for a no deal. Prepare for a possible general election. Keep an eye on the polls and what happens when MPs return from recess.
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