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Under judgment

26 September 2019

AS IF it were a small thing. . . The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, reacted on Tuesday to the Supreme Court judgment with his customary bluster: the judges had come to an “unusual” judgment (that, at least, was right), one that he strongly disagreed with; it had been brought by people determined to frustrate the will of the people to have Brexit delivered on 31 October. “Of course” Parliament would reconvene; but it was business as usual. This was not a man, seemingly, who had been caught attempting to manipulate Parliament for his own political ends. A statement from a 10 Downing Street source compounded the view that Mr Johnson’s team intended to present this as another attack on the people’s will. “As always”, the source said, the Government would respect the law — then immediately accused the judges of making serious mistakes.

In almost any former time, a prime minister found to have acted so dishonourably would have felt the hands of his party’s grandees in the small of his back — why use a knife when a gentle push will do? — and the next moment find himself on the steps of No. 10 reading out a letter of resignation. But many of those grandees have been denied the whip after earlier disputes about Brexit.

The remarkable thing about this episode is that, unless something occurs between the Church Times’s going to press and its publication, Mr Johnson has a good chance of getting away with a stance of this kind. A vociferous group — albeit a minority, according to every reputable poll — has stayed loyal to the Brexit enterprise, and appears to concur with the come-what-may, no-deal bravado of Mr Johnson and his advisers. Assuming that he can rally his friends in the press, Mr Johnson has a good chance of retaining his supporters, and convincing them that Parliament is being obstructive rather than diligent. Again, in almost any former time, a vote of no confidence would have seen him off; but, wary of triggering an election process that might allow Mr Johnson to slip through a no-deal Brexit, MPs were this week sitting on their hands — although using their voices.

In the short term, Mr Johnson has lost ground. Parliament is back, and capable of engineering an extension to the Brexit negotiations — assuming that the other EU leaders agree. But Mr Johnson and his advisers continue to rely on the disarray of their opponents, and will look to exploit this once a General Election campaign is under way. Whether they succeed in swatting away this week’s extraordinary judgment as a minor, politically motivated irritation will depend on the willingness of critics to speak out about the irreconcilable paradoxes of Brexit. This group includes moderates in all four of the main political parties (including the SNP), but also those who have a voice beyond party politics. Will the Bishops stand up? If not now, when?

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