Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament has turned the week to a desperate dash by MPs to prevent a no-deal Brexit, and the executive is ramping up the pressure on Tory backbenchers in order to see them off.
The day of reckoning will be tomorrow. MPs will seek to take control of the legislative timetable in order to pass a bill mandating an extension.
In its bid to stop them, the government has a two-pronged message. The first is the threat, revealed by James Forsyth in the Sun, that any Conservative MP who votes with Jeremy Corbyn to seize control of the legislative timetable will lose the whip and be unable to stand as Tory candidate at the next election.
That threat is preying on the minds of some Conservative would-be rebels, but not all. The government’s no-deal problem has always been most acute among Conservative MPs who are nearer the end of the careers than the beginning, and/or are independently wealthy, precisely because the risk of rebellion has always been that to seek a softer Brexit or no Brexit at all is to risk going the way of Nick Boles, or Dominic Grieve. There are enough people in that group, combined with those MPs who think that a no deal Brexit will wreck their hopes of remaining an MP anyway, to mean that the government is going to need support from outside the Conservative parliamentary party in order to win the vote.
And that’s why the government’s second approach – to hint that it won’t necessarily follow legislation passed by MPs anyway – risks being politically self-destructive as well as dangerous and corrosive. It’s politically self-destructive because it makes it harder for Labour rebels and loose independents to bail out a government over Brexit if its wider political approach is so toxic. While threatening to remove the whip from rebellious MPs is part and parcel of political management, hinting that you might disregard votes in parliament is an entirely separate category: an irrevocable and profoundly damaging step.
It would be far worse than any potential economic damage of no deal or any potential political damage of a second referendum held by a parliament in which just 12 MPs were elected on a manifesto calling for one, because either of those can be undone by voting out MPs at the ballot box. The government disregarding parliamentary votes is more dangerous because it interferes with the only democratic lever in our system and moves politics away from the ballot box and towards other forms of political expression. And it’s a preview of what might be this week’s real political story: of just how much collateral damage the government is willing to do in order to leave the European Union by 31 October.