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BENIGHTED KINGDOM

Doth the gas man come as Boris barges Britain into uncharted waters

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at a press conference at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, 26 August 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Neil Hall)

British politics has not been in such a muddle for a very long time, and Boris Johnson, having convinced the queen to approve a lengthened recess and shortened period for any debate over his try at a Brexit agreement, is likely to have a very painful September and October. Nobody knows how it will end.

Watching the British mud-wrestle with themselves over how best to wreck their country before someone, anyone, can manage to save it, I have been trying to identify the right metaphor or cultural reference (Shakespearean perhaps?) for what has been going on. At first, I thought maybe the plot of a classic Laurel and Hardy film, but that didn’t quite work. In their case, utter futility and failure eventually, albeit accidentally, gave way to success in the end. Wrong referent, that.

However, the patter-song kings of British comedy, Flanders and Swann, presciently depicted the utter hopelessness of the Brexit debacle with their classic of home repair disaster in The Gas Man Cometh. Imagine the various prime ministers and leaders of the opposition in the respective roles of carpenter, glazier, gas man, electrician, and painter, and it seems to fit perfectly with the goings-on in British politics, once the decision to exit the EU had been made.

Thus, as Flanders and Swann had it:

’Twas on the Monday morning

The gas man came to call

The gas tap wouldn’t turn

I wasn’t getting gas at all

He tore out all the skirting boards

To try and find the main

And I had to call a carpenter

To put them back again!

Oh, it all makes work

For the working man to do

Twas on the Tuesday morning

The carpenter came round

He hammered and he chiselled

And he said

Look what I’ve found!

Your joists are full of dry rot

But I’ll put them all to rights.”

Then he nailed right through a cable

And out went all the lights!

Oh, it all makes work

For the working man to do

Twas on a Wednesday morning

The electrician came

He called me, “Mr Sanderson”

Which isn’t quite me name

He couldn’t reach the fuse box

Without standing on the bin

And his foot went through a window

So I called the glazier in!

Oh, it all makes work

For the working man to do

Twas on the Thursday morning

The glazier came round

With his blowtorch and his putty

And his merry glazier song

He put another pane in

He took no time at all

But I had to get a painter in

To come and paint the wall!

Oh, it all makes work

For the working man to do

Twas on a Friday morning

The painter made a start

With undercoats

And overcoats

He painted every part

Every nook and every cranny

But I found when he was gone

He’d painted over the gas tap

And I couldn’t turn it on!

Oh, it all makes work

For the working man to do

On Saturday and Sunday

They do no work at all

So it was on the Monday morning

That the gas man came to call!

Flanders and Swann’s lyrics, with their spotlight on the seemingly impossible struggle to fix anything without making everything else worse, now seems a model of the way British politics has mishandled any efforts to bring an end to this never-ending Brexit shambles.

For the past three years, this Brexit process has hamstrung British politics, collapsed two prime ministerships, and may well bring down yet another one, the just-installed Boris Johnson. Along the way, it has thoroughly traduced the reputation of the Conservative Party and its deeply divided leadership core, thoroughly diminished the standing of the Labour opposition party and its leader who never seemed clear about what he wanted, undermined national respect for the “Mother of Parliaments”, and ultimately weakened respect for government itself.

For years, decades, and even centuries, the British parliament has had a virtually unrivalled reputation as the model for parliamentary democracy. In film after film about memorable politicians such as Disraeli and Churchill, parliament has been portrayed as a body of wise and thoughtful men with beautiful rhetorical skills – and nicely tailored, but subdued suits.

The Prime Minister’s Question Time, broadcast live on international television was viewed as the exemplar of how a parliament’s members can interrogate a national leader without restriction or fear of dire consequences later on. But Brexit’s poisonous influence has been felt here too as successive prime ministers’ answers to questions have become the stuff of ridicule.

When then-prime minister David Cameron promised a referendum on Britain’s continued membership in the EU, it was never expected, certainly not by Cameron and his circle, that the option of remaining in the EU would come up short, even though a smarmy, fact-lite campaign in favor of leaving the EU had promised the Moon to voters to support leaving the EU. But, post-referendum, exit Cameron and enter Theresa May as prime minister. She promised to negotiate a polite, fair, civil divorce from the other 27 EU members – even if she was seriously conflicted on the actual idea itself.

After multiple failed efforts to get parliamentary support for a negotiated exit, May’s prime ministership collapsed. A key part of the trouble was the unresolved chaos over the controversial hard backstop between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, something that would mean a reimposition of customs and other restrictions between the two halves of the island. The big fear, here, is that this might well put paid to the Good Friday Agreement that had brought an end to the “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Now, exit May after a parliamentary election that made the Tory government effectively dependent on support from the tiny Northern Irish Democratic Unionists, as well as her failure to gain support from the entire parliament for any version of a negotiated exit.

After a bruising intra-party campaign for leadership of the Conservative Party, the often clownish, buffoonish, and sometimes seriously dishevelled Boris Johnson, the one-time London mayor and foreign minister for a moment or two, emerged as the country’s newest prime minister. While not quite in Donald Trump’s league as a master of chaos, Johnson is, as one wag put it, what happens when someone like Trump gets to go to one of those ancient public schools and then on to Oxford. Better language, complete sentences, and classical allusions, but not, perhaps, more rational policies.

With Johnson in residence at 10 Downing Street, and his fancy rhetoric now having to become actual results, the reality of the now-imminent deadline of 31 October for Brexit has kicked in. Hard. Johnson effectively has a one-vote majority in parliament, meaning any defections from the Tory caucus on Brexit votes could well create a humiliating defeat for this prime minister as well. And as things stand now, several key Tories have surrendered their positions in the party, including the leader of the party’s Scottish contingent (but not their seats), thereby making Johnson’s stewardship of the Brexit process that much more complicated.

Johnson’s solution has been to prorogue the parliamentary session. Now that is a new word for almost everyone except really pernickety parliamentary historians. In effect, this means Johnson would extend the parliamentary break (used for party congresses, constituency meetings, a few days at the beach, and so forth), only allowing them to return to Westminster on 14 October for the Queen’s Speech, leaving just two weeks before the EU Brexit final deadline of 31 October.

Not surprisingly, this move has incensed large numbers of Remainers, those in politics and among ordinary citizens alike, a million-plus of whom have already signed a petition against it. Some politicians with a flair for the dramatic have even insisted this is the worst constitutional crisis in Britain since the time of Charles I, the Stuart monarch who was rather forcibly removed from the throne by Oliver Cromwell’s coup d’etat. Back in the seventeenth century, that was.

The Guardian, a staunchly Remainer paper made this case: “Boris Johnson has written many dishonest things in his life, but few as consequential as the letter sent on Wednesday to MPs explaining his decision to seek a prorogation of parliament. The prime minister says that a new Commons session is needed to enact a ‘bold and ambitious legislative agenda’. To that end the current session must be closed. His plan envisages a Queens Speech in the middle of October.

No one is fooled, although government ministers make fools of themselves by parroting their leaders line. Prorogation is a device to silence parliament during a critical period approaching the 31 October Brexit deadline. Mr Johnson cannot be sure of majority support in the Commons for a withdrawal agreement and he would certainly not have the numbers for leaving the EU without one. So he wants to dispense with legislative scrutiny altogether.

The chosen method for pursuing that goal observes the letter of the law, but in spirit it is revolutionary and dangerous. John Bercow, the Commons speaker, calls it a ‘constitutional outrage’ and opposition MPs have decried what they see as a full-frontal assault on British democracy. At the intemperate end of the rhetorical spectrum (amplified on social media), Mr Johnsons move is decried as a ‘coup’ and a step down the slippery slope towards dictatorship.”

The newspaper went on to argue, “That is what makes prorogation so devious. Like any confidence trickster, Mr Johnson knows how to leaven a deception with flecks of truth. He is correct in asserting that the current Commons session has been unusually long, that the flow of legislation dried up months ago and that a new government is entitled to set out its stall. Under normal circumstances, prorogation this autumn would be in order overdue, in fact. But nothing about the present circumstances is normal. In a matter of weeks, the UK faces a total overhaul in economic, diplomatic and strategic relations with the rest of the world. The prime minister and his cabinet have signalled explicitly that they do not care how much damage is done in the process. They would choose ruin over delay. This is a time when the checks and balances of a parliamentary democracy must operate vigorously.”

Even if not dictatorial power, the paper added, “Mr Johnson is hijacking powers symbolically vested in the crown and wielding them in aggression against his parliamentary opponents. That he does it in pursuit of a hard Brexit is distressing for pro-Europeans. That he is prepared to do it at all should alarm everyone who values the traditions of British democracy.”

Regardless, Johnson, for his part, had convinced the queen to endorse this prorogation measure, thereby throwing into question whether he had somehow cleverly hornswoggled the queen into signing on to an overtly partisan measure, even as generations of British tradition push hard against just such a thing

For their part, opposition parties are reacting angrily, with some figures saying they now want to push for a no-confidence vote which Johnson might well lose, and that such a vote would then force an election for a new parliament – and it would be one which the Tories might lose as well. That would add to the chaos as the consequent jockeying to form a new government – perhaps a coalition, perhaps even a minority government – would be taking place even as the clock ticks down to Brexit deadline day.

Johnson, certainly, is hoping the extended suspension of parliamentary activities would give him the breathing space for one last run at the EU to get a better deal out of them somehow, without having to hear the constant carping from those sitting on the green leather benches.

With less time to debate until time runs out, Johnson is probably thinking the deadline and his best effort with the EU would allow him to bludgeon MPs into supporting his deal. Still, Johnson’s fallback is that the automatically triggered Brexit, without any agreement (something certain to generate all manner of problems from the ending of British inclusion in all those EU-wide trade agreements), might just be playing to the desires of some Brexit backers anyway, voters who just want it over with, no matter what chips fall, wherever they may.

As things stand now, this is the Brexit timetable:

  • 3 September – Parliament returns and the Commons Chamber will next sit on 3 September at 2.30pm, after having adjourned on 25 July;

  • 4 September – Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid will give his spending review;

  • 9 September – Parliament likely to begin process for prorogation;

  • 10 September – Parliament is likely to be prorogued. (The queen has approved Johnson’s request to suspend parliament. During prorogation, all parliament business is closed and any remaining bills or motions are either killed or carried over to the next session);

  • 14 October – The Queen’s Speech as parliament reopens;

  • 17-18 October – European Council summit which would be Britain’s last scheduled EU summit as a member state of the bloc, and probably Boris Johnson’s first and last as prime minister; and

  • 31 October – Brexit day. The prime minister is on record as saying Britain is due to leave the European Union on 31 October, with or without a deal.

Thereafter, it will be anybody’s guess what happens next. DM

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