The important thing for Johnson is to have someone else to blame. If a withdrawal agreement isn’t signed before the end of October and he provokes the EU into refusing another extension, then he can blame them for the turbulence that ensues. If he finds himself obliged to seek and accept an extension, then he can paint himself as the standard-bearer of Brexit, having offered a harder deal than May’s, but with his hands tied by a sinister cabal of Europeans, parliamentarians and spider brooch-wearing judges. Johnson calculates that a clear history of confrontation will keep the bulk of Brexit Party votes behind him, and deliver the ‘People v. Parliament’ election he believes he can win.
This week’s nadir came with the prime minister’s wholesale importing of the language of the alt-right into his performance at the despatch box: over and again he spoke of the ‘Surrender Act’ passed before prorogation; his attorney general, in the warm-up slot, bellowed that this ‘dead Parliament’ had forfeited its ‘moral right’ to sit. When reminded that the language of ‘surrender’ and ‘treachery’ was associated with the murder of Jo Cox, Johnson gave little more than a sneer. It was hard to watch the malevolent pantomime without thinking of the earnest anxiety of some of the Labour Conference debates, or the distraught and unvarnished message delivered by Greta Thunberg to the UN two days earlier: ‘You are failing us.’
The major announcement in Jo Swinson’s closing speech to conference on Tuesday, much trailed, was that the Liberal Democrats – were they to form a majority – would revoke Article 50 on their first day in government, ending Brexit overnight. She decried both Labour and Conservative as ‘tired old parties’, and suggested that Boris Johnson – somewhat perplexingly – was acting like a ‘socialist dictator’, while linking Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage in a feat of rhetorical contortion. As if to prove the Lib Dems’ moderation in all things, she unveiled a lukewarm climate policy, aiming for net-zero emissions by 2045, knocking five years off the government’s goal but giving themselves far more wiggle-room than the target of 2030 due to be debated by Labour next week.
Beyond the theatrics, and the justified outrage, three major changes now affect the next two months of British politics. First, the prorogation means the government avoids parliamentary scrutiny until October: Johnson escapes not only the pantomime of Prime Minister’s Questions tomorrow, but also avoids the more forensic questioning of the Liaison Committee, to which he was due to give evidence afterwards. During prorogation, government statements on Brexit will endure only the haphazard interrogation – or adulatory stenography – of the British press.
Boris Johnson announced last week that Parliament is to be prorogued days after MPs return from their summer recess: both Houses of Parliament will stand empty for five weeks. A new session will begin on 14 October. A Queen’s Speech debate typically takes a week of parliamentary time, which leaves just over six sitting days until the Brexit deadline. Across the press, opposition politicians have described Johnson’s power grab as an affront to democracy. The speaker of the House of Commons said it was a ‘constitutional outrage’. The thousands of people protesting in cities and towns across the UK on Saturday were clearer and bolder: they called it a coup.
Eighteen months, one government and two Brexit secretaries ago, David Davis promised that a post-Brexit Britain wouldn’t gut agricultural standards or workers’ rights: we were not entering ‘an Anglo-Saxon race to the bottom, a Britain plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction’. Last Sunday, details were leaked from Operation Yellowhammer, outlining the Civil Service’s ‘base scenario’ for a No Deal Brexit: port and border chaos is expected, along with food and fuel shortages and disruption to medical supplies; there is a ‘plan to evacuate the queen’ in case of civil unrest. Priti Patel, the home secretary, has promised the immediate end of free movement on the first day of a No Deal Brexit, threatening the status of EU nationals resident in Britain and British nationals abroad, but tickling the bellies of the Tory base. Lobbying from the backbenches, Iain Duncan Smith praised thinktank proposals to raise the state pension age to 75 as ‘removing barriers’ to work.
Boris Johnson is on a law-and-order kick. Since coming to power, he has promised to recruit 20,000 new police officers, create 10,000 new prison places, and restore blanket stop-and-search powers. It’s a headline-grabbing reversal of the cuts to police numbers made by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and continued under May; it also does away with May’s reforms to stop-and-search, one of the few unalloyed goods to have come from her otherwise authoritarian Home Office, though already substantially reversed under Sajid Javid. Alongside his new home secretary, Priti Patel, who spent a significant part of her early career agitating for the return of the death penalty, Johnson promises a culture of fear for criminals.
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s greatly overestimated aide, promises that however Parliament tries to constrain the prime minister, even by toppling the government, he will force through Brexit on the promised departure date. The hope is to turn Brexit into a runaway train, with Vote Leave cadres guarding any access to the driver’s cab.
When Britain’s insular political class thinks of Italy, it is usually as a byword for instability or venality – an unwarranted form of self-congratulation. Britain had no Tangentopoli: its forms of corruption are more sedate and domestic, and, if not always entirely legal, usually occupy a grey zone of establishment omertà.
Boris Johnson has mugged and gurned his way into Number Ten, through a leadership contest with a virtually preordained conclusion. It is hard to imagine how he could have lost – perhaps a hostage video with the queen in a grimy basement would have swung the needle away from him a few points – but harder still to imagine how he might govern.
Energy and optimism have been the watchwords of Johnson’s press ambassadors since his victory was announced; the man himself continues to duck press scrutiny. The stress on sunshine and optimism makes Tory politicians and hangers-on sound improbably like wide-eyed Californian acolytes of The Secret, but without any solution to the problems that felled Theresa May it is hardly surprising that his defenders fall back on voluntaristic brio.