Boris Johnson (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Well, I am afraid I really have [no politics]. I am a Liberal Unionist.

— Jack Worthing, The Importance of Being Earnest

Your correspondent passed out sometime around 4am with the House of Commons Parliament playing on the black mirror, minibar scotch acting as a sedative. Thus he dreamt of being chased down the corridors of power by a monster called BoJo, Picasso-faced, its eyes to the right, nose to the left, shouting like 600 men and women.

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No less a nightmare appears to have gripped the Boris Johnson government as it attempts to govern without a majority, and with the Conservative Party having split de facto. The 21 Tories who voted with the procedural motion to take control of the order paper, having had the whip removed weeks before a potential election, have effectively been constituted as a separate group by a process of semi-expulsion: another sign that the Conservative and Unionist Party has taken on the political styles of the radical left.

Those de-whipped, and thus open for deselection include two former chancellors (Kenneth Clarke and Philip Hammond), as well as Winston Churchill’s grandson (Nicholas “Fatty” Soames). The number of rebel votes — 21 — was about one-third higher than many had expected.

Some on the right have expressed hope that, as earlier, the votes for a procedural opening up, would not automatically translate into a substantive vote against the government. That seems wistful, given the imposed cost of rebelling on the procedural vote, and the terrible, no-good day that PM Johnson had. The PM lost his majority (even with the DUP in the mix), with Tory member for Bracknell Phillip Lee joining the Liberal Democrats, even as Johnson was giving his G7 report.

Essentially, the Liberal Unionists who made the modern Tory party in the late 19th century are departing, and it has become something new.

In a Scottish court, it was revealed that the PM and cabal had planned proroguing parliament a fortnight before it was officially announced, or put to the Queen. In a separate action in English courts, petitioner Gina Miller — whose earlier case had established that parliament must sign off on any departure, and who now argues that a no-deal exit is illegal — was joined in her case by Sir John Major, former Tory PM. Finally, the EU exposed said cabal as liars, saying that they had presented no new proposals during final “negotiations”.

The situation for both major parties is now white-knuckle brinkmanship. The mass of Tories — 280+ voted, de facto, to crash out no-deal in this vote — are now letting the party’s political challenge from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party determine the action of government. Though Jacob Rees-Mogg tried to mount some conservative Victorian case for parliament seeing itself as expressing a popular will, it was as bad as his universally panned book on the Victorians themselves. But it was a measure of the perceived need by the “High Tories” in the party to find a legitimacy for their obeisance to a referendum result.

Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings has no care for that. A residual right Thatcherite, he wants the maximum confrontation. But that tests Conservative politics to the limit, exposing the core contradiction of the whole process: that a popular sovereign decision was sought to return power to an elected parliament, which now rejects that decision in the only form of it on offer. With the commitment to no-deal — and the aired suggestion that the PM, as executive officer, might ignore parliamentary rulings — that contradiction has become more damaging to the Tories, than Labour’s particular contradiction.

Labour’s dilemma — a Leave-voting base led by a Remain party membership — is solved by the Tories’ actions. Boris and co have turned Corbyn’s Labour into the “sensible” option, in the Pythonesque “sensible/silly” dialectic which runs through UK politics.

Things move fast for the next 25 hours, with a lot of stuff on the fly. Another paradox of a referendum in an “unwritten constitution” state: the only people who can act effectively are those with a highly specialised knowledge of constitutional history and parliamentary practice. They’ll be hurtling down the corridors of power tomorrow, as the Remain alliance tries to nail down a withdrawal delay act, before consenting to Johnson’s tabling of an early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (which requires a two-thirds majority, and hence Labour consent).

Their terrible dilemma is whether Johnson — whose performance at the dispatch today was dire, blustering and unfocused, worse than May, and establishing Jeremy Corbyn as statesmanlike — will go with his cabal and refuse to send the EU a delay request letter as instructed by a Commons vote. Any attempt to map current events onto precedent becomes wobbly indeed.

There could be a no-deal crash-out and an election, with a Tory drubbing. Johnson, hailed as a hero last week, is now being measured for “shortest-term PM ever”. What then? Perhaps he will take up smoking. A man should have some occupation. British politics is now being played in earnest.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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