06:07, September 25 44 0 theguardian.com

2019-09-25 06:07:04
Johnson faces political humiliation, but that will play well with some voters

The supreme court judgment that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament was unlawful has been met with a mix of anger, disbelief and concern in the Conservative party. Although government figures had been pessimistic ahead of the verdict, they were still taken back by the fact the ruling was unanimous.

On hearing the news, Brexiteers were quick to take to the Tory MP WhatsApp group to query the judgment. A number pointed out that in reading the judgment, Lady Hale – president of the supreme court – had wrongly named Conservative MP Mark Harper as chief whip when in fact it is Mark Spencer. If she got that wrong, they contended, what else?

The official party line is to question the judgment but not the judges who made it. During a cabinet call on Tuesday night, the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, said colleagues ought to refrain from criticising the motives of the judges. As for the ruling, the mood in government is unapologetic. Michael Gove has publicly said he believes the government did nothing wrong.

Expect more non-apologies in the coming days as Johnson and his ministers find themselves forced into the Commons and unable to avoid awkward questions. With no working majority – it’s currently in the region of -40 – the government will be the subject of ritual humiliation for weeks to come.

While Labour remains unwilling to go for an early election until no deal is definitely off the table, Johnson is stuck in the Commons against his will. Opposition MPs – with some help from Tory rebels – have a host of measures planned to try to strengthen their anti-no-deal plans and to force Johnson to face scrutiny on a range of issues, and ask for an extension from the EU next month.

As for Johnson, there are limits to how he can respond. He could try to prorogue again – but it could only be for a couple of days this time. Until opposition MPs agree to an election, the most obvious route out is for the prime minister to resign – something he has repeatedly said he will not do. Senior Tories worry about the implication of a resignation in a subsequent general election campaign. He would be expected to recommend someone to lead in his place. It’s much harder to argue that Jeremy Corbyn is unfit for the office of prime minister if you have suggested to the Queen he could be your stand-in.

“We are trapped,” laments one member of government.

A growing number of Tory MPs are blaming Johnson’s senior aide, Dominic Cummings. They believe No 10 miscalculated the appetite among opposition MPs for a general election and have now antagonised MPs to the point that the atmosphere in the Commons could not be more hostile. Few believe they will be able to pass a recess motion for Conservative party conference next week. Instead, MPs and ministers could be ferried from London to Manchester. The bigger worry, however, among senior Tories is that the rebel alliance manages to agree to a second referendum before any general election.

Those remaining Tory moderates hoping the judgment will force the government to regroup and have a rethink over its Brexit strategy will likely be left disappointed. While the practicalities of Johnson’s current predicament are stark, politically speaking, figures in No 10 remain optimistic and believe they are on the right track.

There’s been much talk in recent weeks about Johnson’s plans for a people vs parliament election. The idea is the Conservatives would run on an anti-establishment ticket – pitching their party as the radical choice that is actually listening to what voters want. They would depict Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour – alongside the Liberal Democrats and SNP – as ignoring the will of the people.

The supreme court judgment could play into this narrative. Anything that adds to the view that Johnson is the prime minister committed to delivering Brexit at whatever cost is something that can be used to the Tories’ advantage. The voters Johnson and Cummings are pitching to in any snap poll are different to those that gave David Cameron his majority in 2015. The Tories this time hope to pick up seats in traditional Labour heartlands that voted heavily to leave – from the Midlands and north to Wales. Current polling has proved encouraging to government figures that their plan is working. “It’s very messy but I am getting a lot of supportive messages from constituents,” says one Conservative MP of the current political chaos.

But even if the message is landing, there is unease about the long-term implications. “We’ve already trashed big business now we’re trashing judges. It might win votes but where does it end,” asks a Tory party insider.

The crux of the matter, however, is that the bulk of Tories see no viable alternative to the current strategy. The Conservatives are so far down the Brexit “by any means necessary” track that even MPs who would prefer a different approach broadly accept this is the only route left to success in a general election – whenever it eventually comes.

Katy Balls is the Spectator’s deputy political editor

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