Sunday 20 October 2019

John Downing: 'UK court bombshell leaves only one real option for Johnson - he must get a deal'


Bad day: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives at the UN in New York for the 74th session of the UN General Assembly. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA
Bad day: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives at the UN in New York for the 74th session of the UN General Assembly. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA
John Downing

John Downing

Brexit has rendered the abnormal into the new normal. But, even by the standards of all the crazy political moments in the black farce that is Brexit, this latest twist is totally abnormal.

There is utterly no precedent for the United Kingdom's highest court delivering such a negative ruling against a sitting prime minister.

The severity of the language, and the unanimous endorsement of the verdict by all 11 Supreme Court justices, compounds a calamitous two months in office for Boris Johnson, during which he has shown very poor political judgment.

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The Supreme Court ruling, coming precisely two months after he took office on July 24, seriously limits his options to play himself out of this tightest of tight political corners. This verdict means Mr Johnson can forget about closing Parliament again to allow a no-deal Brexit happen by default on October 31 - something that was mooted by his adviser, Dominic Cummings, as early as the end of July.

Neither will Mr Johnson be able to simply ignore the law passed by MPs before he could illegally shut down Parliament. That law obliges him to formally seek an extension to the Brexit deadline beyond October 31 - a prospect which has caused him to swear he "would die in a ditch" first.

But the Supreme Court has already forcefully reminded him that, under the UK's unwritten constitution, Parliament is sovereign.

Mr Johnson and his advisers know they don't want to be on the receiving end of an answer to that issue for a second time. So, where does he go from here?

Well, there is only one real option, since Mr Johnson is not the resigning type. He must get a deal with the EU - and then get it through the UK Parliament. These are two very tall orders.

But, while they would be very difficult to achieve, they are still doable - the more so since they are now the only real solution to the Johnson-Brexit conundrum.

Now Mr Johnson's only hope is to go directly to the people in a general election - ideally having delivered Brexit as "do or die" promised.

Such an election would find the UK Labour Party seriously divided; it would outflank the Brexit Party; and render redundant the Liberal Democrats' pledge to reverse Brexit.

It remains very high-wire stuff. But 'Brexit boy Boris' could win and reset his clock again as prime minister.

An election before delivering Brexit would be harder to win. Mr Johnson's Conservative Party would lack definition and would have to share the "get-on-with-Brexit" vote with Nigel Farage's Brexit Party, among other bugbears.

But a celebratory post-Brexit election would allow Mr Johnson to own the project and even bracket the judges of the UK Supreme Court among the elite who were out to undo the will of the people, as expressed in the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016.

That is the only silver lining in this verdict for him.

A deal could turn on reverting to a 'Northern Ireland-only backstop' as envisaged by the EU and UK in autumn 2017. That would require the assent of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and some of his own more radical supporters in the European Research Group who insist they support the DUP.

Some form of "comfort political declaration" - guaranteeing the status of the North as part of the UK - would be required to allow the DUP to climb down safely from the rock on which it has clambered.

Its ill-judged insistence that Northern Ireland must exit the EU on the self-same terms as England, Scotland and Wales was at variance with all sorts. Among these was the late Ian Paisley's assertions about the North's agriculture being "Irish", first during the mad cow disease crisis in 1996, and later during the 2001 foot and mouth crisis.

Whether this five-to-midnight change of tack by Mr Johnson would be acceptable to the EU could depend heavily on what the Irish Government had to say. It is not Leo Varadkar's job to save Mr Johnson's political skin - but it is always the Taoiseach's job to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

For the Taoiseach and his Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, the devil would be in the detail. But all things being equal, allowing a belated deal may be defensible and very much in Ireland's interests.

With longer-term peace on this island being called into question, a generous gesture from Dublin could be worth making.

As so often happens to UK prime ministers, Mr Johnson was dealing with the crisis from another continent and another time zone. On November 20, 1990, Margaret Thatcher was at a European security summit in Paris when bad news landed about a leadership challenge.

Another UK prime minister, John Major, who spent much of his time also boxing off the ropes, often got new twists in an ongoing bad news story while overseas at EU leaders' summits in places such as Cannes and Corfu.

This time, Mr Johnson was attending the United Nations' General Assembly in New York and fulfilling a host of scheduled side-bar meetings, including a one-on-one with the Taoiseach. Mr Johnson got the UK court's shocker at 5.30am New York time and it's a cert he did not dodge back for a snooze after that.

Soon the official reaction from the UK PM became apparent and was entirely predictable: the man would not be resigning, he did not agree with the verdict - but he had to accept it.

When Mr Johnson later met reporters he opted for an attack - on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. "The obvious thing to do is call an election. Jeremy Corbyn is talking out the back of his neck. And he should have an election."

Unsurprisingly, there were instant calls for Mr Johnson to quit. In any other jurisdiction, or in the UK at any other time, he would be gone. But this is the post-Brexit new normal.

Irish Independent

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