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25 September 2019

“The people versus Parliament“ isn’t working for Boris Johnson

And other lessons from his first statement to MPs since the Supreme Court overturned prorogation.

By Patrick Maguire

Boris Johnson’s big strategy isn’t working…

It’s become a truism in Westminster that the entire point of Boris Johnson’s premiership is to engineer an election in which he would frame as a battle between the people and Parliament. 

And, as wearying as it to hear it over and over again, the prime minister’s statement made clear that framing the opposition as an anti-Brexit blob is indeed his strategy. 

Again and again he accused MPs of seeking not only to thwart no-deal, but thwart Brexit altogether. He cast himself as the man who wanted to “get Brexit done” — a message that is by far the most popular among voters — and cast the opposition as cowards (Johnson likes to call the Benn Act that binds him to seek an extension of he does not get a deal by 19 October as “the Surrender Bill). 

“This Parliament must either stand aside and let this government get Brexit done or bring a vote of confidence and finally face the day of reckoning with the voters,” he said. He invited them to table a motion of no confidence, which he knows they won’t – something his spokesman later added would be taken as an indication of confidence in the government’s Brexit strategy.

Yet as much as many people believe that this sort of gambit will inevitably pay dividends at the ballot box, there is a problem: it unites the opposition, and not just rhetorically. 

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With every demand for Labour, the Liberal Democrats, SNP and others to give him the election he wants, he reminds them that they are in control – a dynamic that is only reinforced by No10’s refusal to table a confidence motion in itself.

And that gives the opposition parties a stronger incentive to work together to do the one thing they all want, and have a clear majority for: stopping a no-deal Brexit on 31 October, and refusing to let him dissolve parliament until that objective has been achieved. 

…but with the opposition divided, another tactic might

The irony of Johnson’s knack for uniting the opposition parties is that there are no shortage of wedge issues. Ian Blackford, the SNP’s leader at Westminster, pointed to the open goal before Johnson in his response to the prime minister. 

Blackford called for Johnson to resign immediately, so that the opposition could table a motion of no confidence and install an interim prime minister “without delay”. 

Labour and the Liberal Democrats have plenty of disagreements with both halves of that strategy. Yet Johnson has proved singularly unable to exploit those divisions. 

Blackford’s call for opposition parties to “show real leadership” and pursue a course of action he knows they will not agree to also provides a clue of how the SNP intends to package this week’s drama for the Scottish electorate. 

Boris Johnson knows how he wants to fight Jeremy Corbyn

Responding to Corbyn, Johnson went out of his way to highlight some of the bolder pledges approved by delegates at Labour conference earlier this week: John McDonnell’s proposal for a four day working week, and plans to abolish private schools. 

Add to that the prime minister’s familiar lines about Corbyn’s supposed friendships with the “mullahs of Tehran”, and Nigel Dodds’ attack on his historical links to the IRA — both of which were applauded by the Tory benches — and you can already see the basic components of the line the Tories will take on leadership in an election campaign.

Most of the candidates to succeed John Bercow are keeping quiet on Brexit

Johnson’s statement drew the first full chamber since the Commons returned from prorogation this morning. 

As such, anything any MP said would have a big audience. For candidates to succeed John Bercow, that meant any intervention was fraught with risk: no subject is as divisive as Brexit. 

So it was telling, if unsurprising, that no would-be Speaker able to speak in the Commons — that is, everyone but Lindsay Hoyle, who as deputy must remain impartial in the chamber — sought to make an intervention. That held for everyone from no-hoper Shailesh Vara to Harriet Harman, with one exception: Meg Hillier. 

The differences of approach speak to the tricky calculation every candidate is making: do they burnish their profile, show off their ability to command the attention of the house, and risk alienating one half of the debate, or do they keep quiet and risk anonymity?