WESTMINSTER REFLECTIONS: Sir Bernard Jenkin says that despite rocky relations with MPs, it is Brexit that cements Boris in power
Boris Johnson’s government has found to its political cost that it has lost a great deal of the confidence of its MPs. This is reflected in the open rebellion of many who have lost their faith in the government’s response to Coronavirus and are resisting the new measures to reverse the rise in virus infections. The Prime Minister himself is in no danger, but the team in Downing Street is having to learn the hard way that the UK government can only govern with the active consent of the House of Commons; that the support of Conservative MPs for every measure the government wants passed cannot be taken for granted, even with an 80-seat majority.
When Boris Johnson first became Conservative Leader and Prime Minister, it came as a surprise to most people that he finished up excluding so many of the Conservative euro-sceptics and yet embraced Michael Gove, who had abandoned the Boris leadership campaign in 2016. The administration also included a constellation of ministers, many of whom voted Remain, and a cadre of political advisers more associated with the Cameron ‘modernising’ era. There was also a surprisingly powerful contingent of key people from Vote Leave.
Thereafter, the Number Ten team exuded contempt not just for Conservative MPs, but particularly for the long-standing Conservative euro-sceptics. This was in part because they thought it would advantage Boris to be distanced from a group of MPs which the mainstream media had always caricatured as ‘extreme’ or ‘headbangers.’ It was also because throughout the life of Vote Leave, the relationship with Leave-supporting backbenchers was always bad, not least because many at Vote Leave bought into a notion that the Conservative Eurosceptic MPs were part of the problem, not part of the solution. The Number Ten team also showed little respect for Parliament or the norms of the UK’s largely unwritten constitution. This was most evident in the attempt to prorogue Parliament to avoid accountability. Above all, MPs have felt that Number 10 had little time for them and took no account of their views.
MPs are showing more open anger against Downing Street advisers than I have ever known, and an increasing number now express this anger in the only way that makes ministers sit up and listen: by threatening the ability of the government to obtain its business on the floor of the House of Commons.
Perhaps the worst example of the wanton disregard of Parliament’s sensibilities was the Northern Ireland Secretary’s astonishing statement that the UK Internal Markets Bill, ‘does break international law in a very specific and limited way.’ This was a needless provocation inspired by the Prime Minister’s advisers, perhaps intended to create opportunity from confusion. Readers should be completely reassured by the fact that the statement has never been repeated or re-endorsed. It is clear that nearly all governments, and the EU, regularly break the letter of international agreements. This is not necessarily ‘a breach of international law,’ which is a more arguable concept in its application than the domestic law of sovereign states adjudicated by their own courts.
The Prime Minister himself and his most loyal supporters in government have reacted to this change in mood against him. There is now a sense that he wants to ‘take back control’ of his administration. There is no sign yet of a government reshuffle, but the signs are that different ministers, such as Chancellor Rishi Sunak, are beginning to hold more sway, and those who are seen as responsible, for the breakdown in relations between the Prime Minister and his MPs, are being regarded with less trust.
This has a long way to go. The government is beset by challenges. We are entering upon a second wave of Coronavirus. The economy is in a more dire state and is more threatened than after the 2008 banking collapse. But it is the approaching end of the Brexit transition period that cements the Prime Minister in position for the time being. At the time of writing, it appears that the government is refusing to compromise on the fundamental proposition that 31 December should mark the day that the UK takes back control of its laws, its borders and its money. This is the basis of the Prime Minister’s credibility and power.
In the minds of most of his MPs, particularly those who captured so-called ‘red wall’ seats, his position is no more than a reasonable insistence that leaving the EU should
mean that the EU must respect the UK’s national sovereignty in the same way that it respects the national sovereignty of other non-EU states. The Withdrawal Agreement negotiations ended in chaos and a compromise, which a Boris Johnson government with an 80-seat majority would never have signed. A recent paper by the Centre for Brexit Policy explains how the ‘Canada plus’ agreement which M. Barnier at one time seemed to be offering is impossible, if the Withdrawal Agreement is enforced as the EU now insists. The Withdrawal Agreement is itself an attempt by the EU to continue its influence in the domestic affairs of the UK, despite the fact that we have left the EU.
If the EU insists on its implementation beyond what both the UK and the EU can agree is necessary, Brexit will never be ‘done.’ Were Mr Johnson to abandon his Brexit promises, then his future would be in doubt. There is no sign that he will do so, so Conservative MPs will continue to back him.