I'm not sure what to do. This email has always been a preview of what's going to happen next week. Keep you informed of bills that are coming up in time for you to get involved if you want to. You could write to your MP, start making a placard, or tut loudly at your computer. Whatever level of resistance /encouragement you believe would be necessary.
Right now, and I'm always entirely honest with you, lovely reader, I have no idea what will happen next week. None. I'm not really sure what will happen today, except for a tasty sandwich I've got my eye on for lunch.
What I'm going to do, therefore, is have a little look back. Not all the way back to 2016 - you can look back at the email on 26th August for that (here) - no, I'm just going to re-cap the last couple of weeks. I hope this is going to help understand what's going on right now. I hope. We'll see.
As ever, if this all leaves you with more questions than answers, firstly, I apologise and secondly, do reply to this email and I'll do my best to clarify/answer your questions.
Let's begin at the beginning...
Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister
It was at this point that something almost unknown in British politics happened. Johnson had made it clear that he wanted to leave the EU on October the 31st. For sure. For definite. Do or die. Now he didn’t say that he wanted a no-deal Brexit, but he was clear that he would prefer that to an extension.
In the blue corner, wearing very blue shorts, with a win record of one leadership bid and no defeats (yet),Team Johnson formed. Senior fans of that October deadline, and fans of a no deal Brexit were given high profile cabinet positions. Jacob Rees Mogg became the leader of the House. Gove was put in charge of Brexit preparations. The band was back together. Even the Brexit Party were beginning to get on board suggesting an election pact.
In the red / yellow / orange / green corner, wearing multicoloured shorts and an EU flag, Team Everyone Else was assembling. This looked like something of a ragged coalition. People from The Independent Group for Change have never voted the same way as, say, Jeremy Corbyn.
On this issue, though, they were united. While nobody particularly wanted to leave on October 31st, the big, big, big thing that untied them was the desire to stop a no-deal Brexit on that day.
And there we have it. Team Johnson v Team Everyone Else. Except that Johnson runs the government and should have all the power. Except that the Commons weren’t going to lie down and roll over, and they suspected that they had the Speaker on their side. When it comes to searching for precedent for taking over, having the Speaker on your side really, really helps.
Johnson stepped into Theresa May’s lovely shoes on the final day of Parliament. No PMQs for him, just the pleasure of a summer holiday as the PM.
The summer unfolded like a tapestry. Set piece after set piece, each we were told was more historic than the last. Except nothing turned out to be historic. A melodramatic tapestry. A cold war tapestry. A tapestry that would come to an end before any of the real action was to happen. In short, a blooming useless tapestry.
Parliament Returns, the Benn Act and Prorogation
I don’t know how you spent your summer, but I spent mine looking forward to the return of Parliament and trying to make a plan to survive it all. The first week back looked to be quiet. We’d have Jonson’s first PMQs. A couple of minor skirmishes on the deal / no-deal battlelines. Some rumours being circulated in the bars and cafes of Parliament.
No, it wasn’t until the second week, with Northern Ireland updates to take control of, that action was due to resume. That second week was due to be box office and my calendar said ‘Don’t book stuff in this week.’ Crickey, dear reader, I was very excited for that second week.
Then, Boris Johnson announced that he was proroguing Parliament. That second week wouldn’t really happen. As I wiped away my tears, MPs from Team Everyone Else went into overdrive. They knew they had four days in which to get their s**t together. Four days to stop Team Johnson doing what he wanted to do.
Here was the plan. They were going to get an emergency debate on the Monday. They would then vote to take over the next day and force through what would become known as the Benn Bill.
And so it came to pass that on the second day of Parliament, the Benn Bill was passed by Parliament. This said that we can still leave on October 31st, but only with a deal. If we don’t have a deal agreed with the EU by October 19th ( that’s 22 days away calendar fans) Johnson would have to ask for an extension. The wording of the letter he would have to send was included in the bill. The extension would be until January 31st.
Team Johnson weren’t happy about this whole thing. They were angry with the Speaker for allowing it. They were angry with Team Everyone Else for suggesting it. They were particularly angry with Conservatives who didn’t seem to be on Team Johnson, or enough on Team Johnson, and voted for the Benn Bill. 21 Conservative MPs were booted out the Parliamentary Party that night. Smashing any majority Johnson might have once held, however tiny.
As I’m sure you know, the measure passed. There were suggestions of all kinds of fun and games in the Lords, but they didn’t come to pass and the Benn Act was given royal assent. It looked like advantage Team Everyone Else.
Team Johnson, though, didn’t look like they had suffered much of a defeat. The man himself doubled down on the whole I’m not extending lark. He told a press conference (held in front of fainting police cadets) that he’d ‘rather die in a ditch’ than extend.
And that’s largely where we left if before (what turned out not to be) prorogation. Both Team Johnson and Team Everyone Else claiming they were heading for certain victory. We had a bit of messing around about elections. Team Johnson wanted one or wanted Corbyn to turn one down. Team Everyone Else agreed we’ll have an election, just as soon as we’ve absolutely guaranteed we won’t leave on 31st October with no deal.
The odd period of (not) prorogation and Lib Dem / Labour conference
There was a lot of noise and a lot of light during this time. People suggested how Team J might find a way round the Benn Act. Lib Dems changed their policy to simply revoking Brexit (before criticising anyone who suggested a second referendum could be the way forward). Labour voted to stay neutral until after they’d negotiated a deal with the EU. People had strong words for each other.
Before we get to the Supreme Court, it’s worth looking at of the more credible ways around the Benn Act.
1) The EU Withdrawal Act says that before we leave the EU with a deal we need to have three things before Parliament: A statement that says we’ve got an agreement, a vote on the deal and a vote on the future relationship. If Johnson just never brings the vote on the future relationship to Parliament, we have no deal and we leave on October 31st with no deal. Now, that might not be the tactic they use, but it’s an option for sure.
2) Trying to force the EU to reject the extension (even though the Parliament has vote to accept. This could be done with a second letter, by persuading another country to veto, or by making it clear we'd veto everything we could and thoroughly disrupt the EU throughout the extension period.
3) The courts. The EU WIthdrawal Bill states we are leaving on 31st October. The Benn Act says we might extend to January 31st. These two are in conflict with each other. It might be possible for lawyers to argue that the Benn Act isn't right and therefore bin it off.
And so we come to this week. 11 Supreme Court judges unanimously agreed that prorogation was unlawful. That it was unjustified. That it had never even happened. John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, strode across the road to the green where the journalists hang out to say that the House of Commons would be open for business the following day at 11.30am.
A terrible business
MPs were busy on Wednesday. There were loads of bits and pieces.
Up first was the Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox. His job is to provide legal advice to the PM. His legal advice was, clearly, that prorogation was absolutely fine. No worries at all. Def won’t be turned over by the Supreme Court. Which is kinda awkward, because, well, you know why it’s awks. He was expected to come to the Commons and say that he got it wrong, he disagrees with the judgement, maybe make his case again and then say that he’ll respect the ruling. That’s how it started, too.
His next move was something of a surprise. He went on the attack. Big time. Big big time. Think of a big thing. It’s bigger than that. He told MPs that Parliament is ‘a disgrace’, that it’s a ‘dead Parliament’ and he called everyone cowards for not backing an election.
Yes, an election is back. Not in time to decide which PM should go to that vital EU meeting next month, but in mid November. This time the plan is that one line bill, apparently. It still won’t pass. That doesn’t matter to Team J. He wants to show that Team EE are scared of him. That’s going to play well when we eventually do get an election.
A few hours later, the man himself came to the Commons. Johnson flying solo against Team EE. This was one of the most extraordinary debates I’ve ever seen. The passion on each side. The language being used. At one point a Labour MP stood an said that all the negative language was encouraging those who threaten physical harm and death. She said she feared for her life. Johnson’s response? ‘Humbug’.
This is where we are. Johnson is no fool. He’s aware of the effect he has, but it all comes down to that Team J v Team EE. When he gets all the MPs (and the media) screaming at him, it just furthers his message to the people. I’m here trying to do what 17.4 million people wanted me to – and look at the reaction from the establishment. It’s quite a feat, the male, white, privately educated leader of the Conservative Party making the rest look like the establishment. But he’s done it.
Then, yesterday, MPs voted to not have a recess for the Conservative Party conference next week. Team J’s 7th defeat in 7 votes. Presumably they’ll move at least some of the big speeches to the weekend and just have junior ministers travel back and forth between Manchester and London. Where’s HS2 when you need it, eh?
So, where are we?
We are where we’ve always been. Divided. But worse. When the miners were striking in the Thatcher era, they hated the Conservative Party. A lot. But there weren’t Thatcherite bankers also attending their protests shouting ‘close them down!’. This division now is much closer to home. The civil war that isn’t that civil. Everyone knows if they are Team J or Team EE. You’ll also know people who are on the other side.
Parliament is sitting next week. It’s generally packed with minor bits. Nothing about Brexit, nothing at all, is scheduled. The big news is the Domestic Abuse Bill is in the Commons.
Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine. There are 22 days to get a deal with the EU, but we still feel quite far from an agreement on that Backstop issue. If we don’t have a deal? Who knows what will happen. An extension? Surely Johnson would have to resign if he goes for that. He definitely doesn’t want to resign. So he finds a way around the Benn Act? Possibly. Surely he can’t break the law and go to prison. How about if we do get a deal. Will Parliament back it? No idea, but this week's debate has surely made that less likely.
All that we can be sure of is that Team J and Team EE will continue to fight. On the benches, in the pubs, in your living room. They will never surrender.
The Week Ahead.
*This guide to next week is very much a guide. This is a week in 2019 and, quite frankly, nobody knows what will happen. Saturday - I'd love to invite you to the family comedy politics show that I do with the wonderfully funny Tiernan Douieb. We're at the Hertford Theatre today and tomorrow at 4. Unfortunately, though, we're completely sold out for both shows. You'll have to catch us elsewhere. We're coming to Birmingham, Dorchester, Chew Valley and Bristol this Autumn, with many dates being booked in for 2020, too. I'll let you know details nearer the time.
Sunday - The opening day of the Conservative Party Conference. Traditionally a quiet day, but we might see all the big hitters moved to the weekend. Poor Tom Watson had his spot taken on Tuesday at Labour when everyone realised that they all needed to be back in Westminster the next day. He was offered Corbyn's old time on the Wednesday, but pictures of an entirely empty hall that day suggest he was right not to take it.
Boris Johnson is due to be speaking at the exact same time as PMQs runs on Wednesday, so that speech at least will have to be moved. Probably.
Monday - By the looks of things, the Commons will be quiet today. Four motions on Northern Ireland are being passed without much attention. Most Conservatives will, presumably, be in Manchester. Of course, Team EE can call Ministers back to answer urgent questions. Any real action will take place at arond 3pm.
Tuesday - I love Parliament. Due to the slightly odd nature of sitting this week, there are non of the normal departmental questions at the start of the day, so they've moved the adjournment debate to the start of proceedings. Kicking off with an adjournment debate is wonderfully paradoxical.
More fairly innocuous motons today. Expect them to pass without votes.
Wednesday - This is the day. The Domestic Abuse Bill finally gets its first debate in the Commons. It's there to protect women from violence as well as provide better care for those who have been victims of abuse. Many, many campaigners have worked hard to ensure this gets time in Parliament. With cross-party support, this will defintely get through Parliament - as long as we don't see a brief prorogation of Parliament before a Queen's Speech clears all non-completed legislation.
Before that, expect a tempestuous PMQs. It's not currently in the Parliamentary calendar, but the PM has more than three days notice, so it sould happen.
Thursday - Very little in the Commons that will actually change anything for anyone, but there is a debate on women's mental health. Hopefully, all the messages of support and well-wishing end up with some kind of action in the new Parliamentary year.
One final thought...
This division and war and posturing and general ridiculousness continue. The anger levels increase, but the issues become no closer to being solved. We drift unendingly to the next day and the next day's drama. Tensions through the roof, but action thin on the ground, I've been increasingly thinking of this quote from Macbeth. Lond time readers will remember I posted it on World Poetry Day, but (esp with a tiny bit of editing) feels so pertinent.