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Paul Vallely: We are living in extraordinary times

13 September 2019

It seems as if very little is politically impossible, says Paul Vallely


The then work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street, last week. She resigned on Sunday

The then work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street, last week. She resigned on Sunday

IT DOES not seem so long ago that a triumphant Boris Johnson, after winning the leadership of the Conservative Party, wrote to party members: “I would like to make it absolutely clear that I am not attracted to arcane procedures such as the prorogation of Parliament. As someone who aspires to be the Prime Minister of a democratic nation, I believe in finding consensus in the House of Commons.”

Two months later, here we are, and Parliament is prorogued for five weeks: the longest period for decades (News, 30 August; Comment, 6 September). That leaves less than three weeks before the Brexit deadline in which MPs can achieve the consensus that has eluded them for three years. The situation would be risible were it not so deadly serious. We must, of course, hope that it does not turn out literally to be deadly for any individuals reliant on life-sustaining medicines whose importation might be jeopardised if Britain does to crash out of the EU without a deal.

We are living through extraordinary times, in which very little seems politically impossible. Rules, conventions, and traditions have been broken — and we have even been threatened with the unthinkable prospect of a British Prime Minister’s refusing to obey a law outlawing no deal. In the last five days of the parliamentary sitting, the new Prime Minister had five votes, five defeats, lost his majority after sacking 21 of his party’s most prominent politicians, and failed in his attempts to get a General Election. No wonder he has organised five weeks in which the House of Commons can cause him no more difficulties.

On the face of it, now that MPs have passed the law forbidding a no-deal exit, his only option is to agree a deal with the EU before the end of October. Extraordinarily, as Amber Rudd revealed when she resigned from the Cabinet, the Prime Minister seems to have been making no serious preparations for that. Certainly, the European politicians handling the negotiations for the EU say that they have had nothing from him.

It is difficult to know whether, as the newspapers like to suggest, Mr Johnson has a cunning plan hatched by his dark Svengali, Dominic Cummings, or whether he is simply displaying the cavalier disregard that has characterised his journalistic and political career to date.

Last year, when he was guilty of his second breach of the MPs’ rules on declaring financial interests, a Commons committee criticised his “over-casual attitudes towards obeying the rules of the House”. Nothing seems to have changed with his elevation to our most senior office of state.

Whatever the cause, the outcome is grave. That was clear, on the last evening of the parliamentary session, in the devastating indictment that the former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, delivered as he listed the Prime Minister’s various dissemblings and deceptions — and even implied that he had misled the Queen over his reasons for the prorogation of Parliament.

Mr Johnson has destroyed the trust that MPs should have in the good faith of government and the office of the Prime Minister. I suspect that he has lost the trust of a good deal of the nation, too. How it will be repaired is hard to fathom.

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