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The Father of Lies and his children

‘THE MOTHER OF PARLIAMENTS’, it was rather breathlessly argued in the Supreme Court on Wednesday, ‘is being shut down by the Father of Lies’.

Boris Johnson may argue in his defence that lies were almost certainly knocking about the place for some time before either he or the Vote Leave campaign showed up, and that however lax his control either of his language or his zip, he couldn’t possibly be the progenitor of them all.

Diversions like Aidan O’Neill’s florid advocacy on behalf of the Scottish Government aside, three days of legal argument in the Supreme Court have told us little that we didn’t already know about Boris Johnson’s motivation in closing the House of Commons for business until 14th October. Not least because Boris –possibly anxious that doing so might involve siring one or two more gorgeous, bouncing little lies– declined to provide any evidence to the Court.

With or without Boris’s possibly unreliable evidence on the point, inferring the Prime Minister’s motives for the prorogation from his prior and subsequent conduct shouldn’t be much of a challenge to their Lordships. What the Justices will find harder is deciding what to do with this information.

There is scope for the Supreme Court to take an easy way out in its ruling; to steer between the Scylla and Charybdis contradictory decisions of the English and Scottish Courts.

The exercise of the power of prorogation, they may conclude, is one which can be subject to judicial review, but not in this case; dissembling or deception would have to be truly egregious before a court is entitled to step in and say it undermines the whole basis for exercising a prerogative power.

A prorogation is a tool granted to the executive, and like any such tool, it would be extraordinary if the executive didn’t consider questions of political advantage in its exercise. Politicians are not and never have been expected to spell out to the public the basis on which they intend to outmanoeuvre, bluff or trap their opponents. Furthermore, would it be an unlawful exercise of the Royal Prerogative to close down business in a Parliament that in any event had no useful business to do?

If Boris Johnson has been disingenuous in his stated reasons for sending MPs back to their constituencies to prepare for Brexit, his Parliamentary opponents have been just as disingenuous in their attempts to thwart him from carrying out Government policy. Incapable of the agreement as to the correct approach; having collectively chickened out of offering a second referendum, the opposition is clearing the decks for an election. It has fallen back on a strategy of tricks and mischief, intending to inflict the maximum political damage on Boris before it the election is held.

Parliament has repeatedly ducked the question of whether or not Brexit itself still commands public consent, but has now legislated three times to stop ‘no deal’. The first go was April’s Cooper-Letwin legislation, successfully compelling Theresa May to seek an Article 50 extension she would have willingly sought anyway.

In August, Parliament inserted a tricks-and-mischief requirement for the Government to report at fortnightly intervals on progress in re-establishing the Northern Ireland executive; the intention is to make it impossible to prorogue Parliament. The Government found a way around that trick, though nobody now quite remembers how.

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Undeterred, Parliament has enacted trick three; a riff on Cooper-Letwin to the effect that, if no deal is in place by 19th October, Boris must abase himself before the Euro-panjandrums and humbly request a further extension to Brexit.

This is only a particularly cunning plan if an extension is likely to be forthcoming. As things stand, it’s very hard to see what possible appeal it holds for the EU 27, who are utterly exasperated with the chaos across the channel. Another extension that decides nothing will be refused.

It probably won’t be Boris who asks for the futile extension either. Resigning –and inviting Corbyn to be the patsy who prostrates himself before Michel Barnier– would be the more obvious course. It would deflect onto Labour the damage Labour intends for him, and leave the party reeking with unpopularity amongst its core voters in the run up to an election.

When the possibility of prorogation was first mooted, Conservative leadership contender Rory Stewart advanced the bold/ eccentric idea that Parliament would simply reconvene itself somewhere else and carry on regardless. Even if Rory doesn’t immediately get on the blower to the conference and banqueting manager at Methodist Central Hall, the Remain majority needs some way of effectively deciding its strategy before it reconvenes on 14th October, or (with luck) sooner.

If Parliament is reposing all its confidence in getting another extension with nothing to show for it, MPs should be revising that plan with some urgency. The current strategy has not removed the possibility of any deal exit. Thinking otherwise is foolish complacency.
With the departure from the Tory whip of 21 pro-European Conservatives, the Parliamentary balance on Brexit may finally have shifted. The last General Election produced no clear answer to Brexit and no party at present has a commanding lead in the polls. The only sure way to persuade the EU 27 to agree to a further extension is to legislate, quickly, for a second referendum, unless MPs want to add to Boris’s prolific record of paternity and hand a big cigar to the proud Father of Brexit.


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