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Why Johnson May Come To Regret His 'Surrender Act' Rhetoric

HuffPost UK logo HuffPost UK 25/09/2019 Paul Waugh
Andrea Leadsom, Boris Johnson, Sajid Javid standing next to a person in a suit and tie: Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at the parliament, which reconvenes after the UK Supreme Court ruled that his suspension of the parliament was unlawful, in London, Britain, September 25, 2019, in this screen grab taken from video. Parliament TV via REUTERS © Reuters TV / Reuters Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at the parliament, which reconvenes after the UK Supreme Court ruled that his suspension of the parliament was unlawful, in London, Britain, September 25, 2019, in this screen grab taken from video. Parliament TV via REUTERS

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Minding your language

It was as if they had never been away. The arguments - for and against a no-deal Brexit, for and against a prorogation - were largely the same. 

But what was markedly different was the extra anger, and venom, that had poisoned the body politic. Tory frustration with Labour’s refusal to grant an early election spilled over on the front and backbenches, and Boris Johnson was more than happy to lead the emotional charge. 

Geoffrey Cox set the tone early on with an extraordinary performance (and that’s what it was) in which he lost his temper and lashed out at his opponents lack of “moral guts”. Cox said Lib Dem defector Sarah Wollaston had not just staged a “chicken run”, she had done a “rat run”.

The Attorney General (yes he’s the most senior lawyer in the government) then went further and said “this parliament should have the courage to face the electorate, but it won’t” because many MPs were Remainers. Cox added parliament was “dead” and had “no moral right to sit”. Note, he didn’t say ‘the opposition’, he said ‘parliament’. And that was very deliberate indeed.

Of course many MPs were outraged, but this government is now clearly determined on its ‘Parliament v the People’ narrative. Just as Donald Trump spat ‘Washington’ like a dirty word, it’s clear that Dominic Cummings thinks ‘Westminster’ can be similarly toxic among the public.

Former cabinet minister John Whittingdale doubled down as he joined Cox in shrugging off the Supreme Court verdict: “There is a judgement which is superior to that of any court. That is the judgement of the British people.” In a remark he may live to regret, Cox said he agreed.

But all that was trumped by Boris Johnson himself in his own statement. Corbyn was trying to ”overthrow the referendum”. “The people at home know that this parliament [that word again] does not want to honour its promises to respect the referendum,” he said.

The Incredible Hulk used to say “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”. The PM was not angry, however, he was coldly calculating as he repeatedly attacked “the Surrender Act” ie the Benn Act that seeks to force him to delay Brexit beyond October 31 if no deal has been found. And as Labour MPs grew increasingly appalled at the phrase, Johnson went even further.

He accused Paula Sherriff of “humbug” as she warned him that dangerous talk led to the murder of Jo Cox. An unrepentant Johnson then said: “The best way to ensure that every parliamentarian is properly safe, and we dial down the current anxiety in this country, is to get Brexit done.” 

At one point, the PM tried to ridicule Jeremy Corbyn over reports that his colleagues had stopped him from calling an election. “He’s being held captive by his colleagues. I say free the Islington One!” 

Yet the fact is that ‘the Downing Street One’ is the real political captive right now. Johnson is imprisoned in a purgatory where he is not allowed the election he craves, and has no majority to carry out any of his election-winning pledges. The Hilary Benn Act is an extra high prison wall around that jail block, with Corbyn confirming he will only agree an election once the EU has granted a Brexit extension.

The holders of the prison cell keys are showing remarkable solidarity, with the SNP, Lib Dems, Plaid and others refusing to break with Labour by taking up his offer tonight to separately trigger a confidence vote. Johnson thinks he has cunning plans to tunnel out of his current predicament but it’s far from clear how he can do it.

When Johnson was running for Mayor of London the first time, I’m told he once vetoed a Tory attack line against Ken Livingstone. Why? Because “I hate being mean” he told colleagues privately. He’s come a long way since then. And the real problem with his ‘nice constituency you’ve got there’ threats tonight is that Labour MPs like Lisa Nandy, Lucy Powell, Caroline Flint and others who knew Jo Cox may think he’s now just beyond the pale.

It all raises the suspicion that he really doesn’t want a Brexit deal, and that an election is his only objective. The long-term damage to his party and his own reputation seem like collateral damage he’s happy to inflict.

Quote Of The Day

“This parliament is a dead parliament. It should no longer sit. It has no moral right to sit on these green benches”


Geoffrey Cox vents his frustration with MPs refusal to agree an election

Wednesday Cheat Sheet  

On its final day, Labour’s party conference voted for a motion to ‘maintain and extend free movement rights’ and to give all UK residents full voting rights in future elections and referendums. Given there were three million EU residents excluded from the last referendum, could it swing the next one?

Jeremy Corbyn suggested Labour’s conference motion to ‘integrate’ private schools into the state system was more an aspiration than a policy. “There is an issue about land ownership..but that is not the immediate issue,” he said. His priority was scrapping charitable tax breaks for Eton and others. 

Geoffrey Cox hinted that parliament could fast-track the Domestic Violence Bill. Urged by Labour MP Alex Norris to bring the bill back, Cox said: “We might as well do something while we are waiting for them to make up their minds to go for an election.” That wording sparked a backlash. Later, he also had to apologise for using the phrase ‘when did you stop beating your wife’.

Fresh questions have been raised about how Jennifer Arcuri, a “close friend” of Boris Johnson, was awarded more than £100,000 of public money meant for UK businesses after phone calls to her company’s 0208 number were apparently answered in...California. 

Arcuri broke her silence to tell “friends” that Johnson only visited her flat for private “technology lessons”. Twitter wags joked that she had perhaps turned him on and off again.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps appears to have used a cut-and-paste version of predecessor Chris Grayling’s words in a Commons statement about the collapse of Thomas Cook, the Guardian reported. It was startlingly similar to a Grayling statement about Monarch Airlines two years ago. Some civil servant/spad is set to get a rollicking.

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