24 Sep 2019

What now for Boris Johnson after landmark Supreme Court ruling?

Political Editor

The Prime Minister will want to stay in office but he’s been brutally exposed as not in power. As of 11:30 tomorrow, Parliament will be back in session.

The tremors from the Supreme Court decision are rocking the Prime Minister and his team in New York. “What now?” is the still unanswered question blasting through calls to the team back in No 10. We may hear from him soon.

The Prime Minister will want to stay in office but he has been brutally exposed as not in power. Others are making the big judgement calls in this country right now and as of 11:30 tomorrow, Parliament will be back in session trying to pin the PM’s room for action down even more.

They now know they have the Supreme Court at their back as they do so. The ruling read out by Lady Hale emphasised Parliament’s supremacy, and it knocked back every argument the government’s lawyers had put to the Supreme Court with a confident and unanimous swipe of the bat.

How will Tory MPs react to this moment? Will they hold firm to a strategy that is being tossed around like a rowing boat in a storm? Will they go for the advisers? That must include not just the chief aide Dominic Cummings but also figures like the Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox.

The governing goal of the Boris Johnson government was to deliver Brexit on 31st October. How realistic does that now look?

Have prospects for a deal by 31 October just been badly damaged?

If you were an EU leader pondering whether a deal is worth the candle, wondering if Boris Johnson can get any deal through Parliament at all, you would have to think that, right now, he couldn’t get a Bill proclaiming Christmas is in December through the Commons.

That could shift EU calculations on whether to grant a delay to the Brexit date – only a few hours after Boris Johnson was expected to have pleaded face-to-face with Chancellor Merkel and President Macron at the UN to close down that option to help him focus MPs’ minds on passing a rewritten deal.

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision against the government is, amongst other things, a mighty warning on future action. If Boris Johnson were able to hold on to office and tried to prorogue Parliament again (something he repeatedly refused to rule out in interviews yesterday here in New York) he can whistle.

The Court is on his case and will act firmly and unanimously and, you might surmise, quickly.

If Boris Johnson tried to defy the stipulations of the Benn Bill (which are “plain as a pikestaff” in the words of one Cabinet minister who has probably been on the phone calls to NY this morning) he can expect to be over-ruled by the Supreme Court. The Court might suggest someone else’s signature on the letter requesting a delay to Brexit will suffice. What it won’t do is pull back from judgment.

And then there’s the electorate to ponder.

Despite so many challenges, the Tories have until now held a lead in the polls. Labour’s conference just rose to its feet to applaud the Supreme Court decision as Jeremy Corbyn told them the Prime Minister should “consider his position.” But they have looked confused, divided and ill at ease this week. Where will voter sentiment go?

Does Boris Johnson now double down on his ‘People versus Parliament’ rhetoric or tone it down? Which one works with voters? Where is their queasiness threshold? Does the need for some for Brexit trump all other concerns and are they persuadable it’s all an establishment conspiracy?

We are not at the end of this play yet but we just had a major twist that few could’ve predicted – and how the leading characters respond in the coming days could determine much in British politics for years to come.


UPDATE: Boris Johnson has answered questions about the Supreme Court’s decision. Here’s what he said:

“Obviously this is a verdict we will respect – and we respect the judicial process. I have to say, I strongly disagree with what the justices have found. I don’t think that it’s right, but we will go ahead and of course parliament will come back.

“I do think there’s good case for getting on with a Queen’s Speech anyway and we’ll do that, but I think the most important thing is we get on a deliver Brexit on October 31st. And clearly, the claimants in this case are determined to try and frustrate that and to stop that. I think it would be very unfortunate if parliament made that objective which the people want delivered more difficult, but we’ll get on.”

Speaking about the judges’ ruling, Mr Johnson added: “I think that they certainly thought that the prorogation that we chose was not something that they could approve of. It’s an unusual judgment to come to, in my view… The prerogative of prorogation is a very old one, and it’s not, I think, been contested before in this way.

“The main thing is look, we’re going to get on and deliver Brexit on October 31st. Yes, of course, parliament will now have to come back, but we’ll respect that and get on with it.

“I don’t think that the justices remotely excluded the possibility of having a Queen’s Speech, but what we will certainly do is ensure that parliament has plenty of time to debate Brexit. Parliament has been debating Brexit for three years solidly. Now is the chance for us to get a deal, come out of the EU on October 31st and that’s what we’re going to do.”

The PM gave these comments while on his way to addressing business figures in New York. He said he still disagreed with the Supreme Court but would obey their judgment. Parliament will come back and the suspension before the Queen’s Speech will now be very short. He respects the court, he says, but attacks individuals who want to frustrate Brexit.

This quote particularly stands out and suggests the PM still has no intention of obeying what the Benn Act seeks to do, forcing him to seek a delay to Brexit if there is no deal at the October EU summit: “As the law currently stands, the UK leaves the EU on October 31st, come what may.” He could – and often did – say that before the Benn Bill passed but how can he say it now?