29/08/2019 00:01 BST | Updated 29/08/2019 14:57 BST

How Boris Johnson’s Plan To Prorogue Parliament Became The First Shot Fired In The No-Deal Brexit War

No.10 has 'wargamed' the procedural, legal and political hurdles facing its Commons critics. But the rebels still think they can stop him.

It was a tightly kept secret, despite weeks of careful planning and intensive ‘wargaming’ within No.10. 

Only a handful of cabinet ministers were in the loop about Boris Johnson’s Queen’s Speech-prorogation plan, with a strict ‘need to know’ list of insiders primed for the bombshell announcement on Tuesday.

The first that some of the cabinet knew of the idea was when they were tipped to expect a conference call, while some ministers only learned of the news when it leaked out into the political Twittersphere.

Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan had just 24 hours earlier gone on Radio 4 to declare that “Downing Street have made it very clear that claims of any sort of prorogation in September are utterly false”.

Fast forward to Wednesday morning and Johnson was on the TV news channels, confirming in a pooled broadcast clip that he had indeed asked Her Majesty for permission to suspend or ‘prorogue’ parliament for nearly weeks - the longest since the second world war.

The first move began early, with a breakfast phone call from Johnson to the Queen, who is staying at her summer residence at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. He informed her of his intention and said he would like to convene the Privy Council to formally approve the plan.

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Just after 8.45am, Privy Council members Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, Lords leader Natalie Evans and chief whip Mark Spencer then boarded a flight to Aberdeen, before being driven the hour-long journey to the Monarch’s home.

While Rees-Mogg and his team were up in Scotland, a conference call between Johnson and the rest of the cabinet followed and ministers surprised some of the PM’s allies by being thoroughly enthusiastic about the Queen’s Speech plan.

There had been a slight worry that some ministers would greet the idea with trepidation, but instead there was a warm welcome, one source said.

After months of inactivity under May, departments would get to work on their bills and other priorities. “The entire machinery of government likes having direction,” one insider said.

When the ‘Order in Council’ was finally published mid-afternoon, even opponents knew that it was now a procedural fait accompli. With the Queen’s consent, there was no way within parliament to stop it. Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson’s request for meetings with the Monarch were instantly made effectively redundant.

The move was also straight out of the Vote Leave playbook from the EU referendum, when attack was seen as the best form of defence. 

PA Wire/PA Images
Dominic Cummings in Downing Street, London.

Many of the No.10 inner circle, from adviser Dominic Cummings to others working in communications and policy, earned their spurs on the 2016 campaign and believe that a pre-emptive strike against rebel MPs will help them seize the narrative in parliament.

The prorogation plan could have been held off until Monday, the day before MPs return. But in securing early the Queen’s assent, Downing Street believes it can work on wavering Tory backbenchers by stressing the time for Brexit debate is still sufficient and by playing up the pluses of brand new doorstep-ready policy messages for voters.

Extensive focus groups and internal polling for Johnson shows that police, schools and the NHS top the public’s priorities and the new legislative agenda together with extra cash in the spending round due next Wednesday are designed to further target any Conservatives worried about no-deal.

In a TV clip, Johnson denied that there was any Brexit link, or any intention to hold a snap election if he failed to get his way. One insider put it more bluntly: “This has got fuck-all to do with Brexit.”

prorogation of parliament

Few MPs will believe that, concluding that the Queen’s Speech is at the least indirectly about Brexit and squeezing the time available to stop an October 31 exit.

To keep backbenchers on board, it was decided that a new Withdrawal Agreement Bill would be part of the programme, allowing the focus to shift to the October 17 EU summit when any breakthrough, however remote, has a last chance to occur. 

Johnson’s letter to MPs was very carefully drafted to avoid legal challenge and No.10 is in fact looking to pick holes in any legislation drafted by opponents. “We know it’s got to be watertight,” said one opposition source. 

The tactic appeared to have worked at least on some MPs on Wednesday. Former minister and avowed anti- no-dealer Tobias Ellwood went on the airwaves to say how pleased he was there would be one last attempt to get a Brexit deal with Brussels. 

He also repeated No.10’s line that in fact the prorogation move was only removing four days from the parliamentary timetable.

Anti-no-dealer, Tobias Ellwood.

That appeal to the innate reasonableness of moderate Tories is why the prorogation is focused on an October 14 Queen’s Speech.

If Cummings and Johnson had tried to prorogue through October 31, the backlash would have been much stronger and the Queen put in a difficult position. Sticking to Queen’s Speech convention makes the sell to MPs easier.

The whole plan nearly went awry at the weekend when the Observer published a story revealing attorney general Geoffrey Cox had requested legal advice on the prorogation. Yet as attention focused on Johnson at the G7 summit and with the key plan for a Queen’s Speech less prominent in the coverage, the ‘big reveal’ was kept intact.

Furious senior staff ensured a full inquiry got underway into the leak, and with a tight circulation of the original advice, a senior mole is suspected. Critics in turn were angry that No.10 had appeared to deny the prorogation advice move.

Johnson and Cummings have worked closely with No.10’s reinstalled director of legislative affairs, Nikki da Costa, and other procedural experts in government to wargame all the possible routes to blocking no-deal.

Despite possible legal challenges mooted by Scottish MPs and even former PM Sir John Major, there is a strong belief in No.10 that it will be very difficult for a court to rule that Johnson’s advice to the Queen on prorogation was unlawful.

In terms of parliamentary tactics, however, Downing Street is finally fighting back after years of May being outfoxed and outflanked on issues like meaningful votes and humble addresses to force publication of secret documents.

Unlike his predecessor, Johnson is happy to run the clock down and eat into MPs’ available time in coming weeks.

When the Commons returns on Tuesday, there will be a long statement by the PM on his G7 summit, then a statement on no-deal preparation from Michael Gove, and then probable urgent questions on issues like the demise of Bury football club. Commons leader Jacob Rees Mogg is expected to simply deliver a business statement, which won’t need a vote.

The following day will have a chunk of time taken up by the Chancellor’s spending review and it’s even possible that an emergency Budget could be staged in the days before October 31, another parliamentary event that takes up days of debate.

Johnson also knows the huge power that prime ministers have in the UK’s unwritten constitution. Monarchs simply cannot refuse reasonable requests to suspend parliament for Queen’s Speeches.

Other hurdles will be put in the path of the rebel MPs. Constitutional expert and former government aide Chris White points out that ministers are sure to point out at the second reading of any EU Extension Bill (as it may be called), a ‘money resolution’ will be needed because taxpayers’ cash will be spent on paying more to the EU.  

To avoid this, MPs may have to not only tear up the rules on Standing Order 24 motions (which are not usually amendable or binding) but also on Standing Order 48 on money resolutions.

PA Wire/PA Images
Tory former Cabinet minister Lord Forsyth of Drumlean speaking in the House of Lords during the debate on the Commons motion passed Wednesday which sought to ensure there was a legal requirement on the Prime Minister to seek an extension to Article 50 to prevent a no-deal over Brexit.

Similarly, in the House of Lords, government insiders have wargamed the chances of Brexiteer peers like Lords Forsyth and Howard filibustering any EU Extension Bill. Earlier this year, Yvette Cooper’s bill trying to stop no-deal was met with delays in the Lords and that determination will be even stronger. 

The only way to avoid such moves to ‘talk out’ the new bill would be to change the standing orders of the Lords, which currently don’t allow any debate to be cut short or ‘guillotined’.

As for a vote of no confidence under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, even that has its limits. First, politically it’s difficult to see how even rebels like Philip Hammond would go back on their word and choose Corbyn as an alternative PM. 

But more importantly, now that prorogation has been approved by the Queen, even some opposition MPs think it’s possible that the 14-day period in which to appoint another PM would simply run out as the Commons won’t be sitting.

Some allies of the PM even suggest he would simply ignore any vote of no confidence because only he has the power to make a recommendation to the Queen to try to pick a successor.

Labour is naturally furious at the suggestion. “Think of all the abuse Gordon [Brown] got from the Tories for being ‘a squatter’ in Downing Street in 2010, even though he was trying to form a government,” one source says. “Johnson really would be squatting in No.10 though.”

There’s a bigger obstacle No.10 is erecting too. Johnson knows that the power to set the exact date of an election rests only with a prime minister, not with parliament.

There are some around him who want him to set any snap election in November, only after the UK has quit the EU with or without a deal on October 31.

Still, while some were shocked by Johnson’s Queen’s Speech gambit, many in Labour were not surprised.

Shadow chief whip Nick Brown has been telling colleagues for weeks he expected a new legislative programme attempt, complete with a suspension of parliament to go with it. Only the timing on Wednesday was a slight surprise.

“The fundamentals don’t change. We have a very tight window to stop no-deal and the government have made it even tighter. But rather than a sign of strength it all looks like a panic,” one Labour source said. 

And while the opposition is often divided on who should be caretaker PM, government figures are also divided on whether a snap election would be a stroke of genius or another May-like act of hubris - with an even smaller majority to defend.

A protester depicting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson demonstrates with a spade outside Downing Street. Source: PA via AAP

Meanwhile, No.10 is prepared to play hardball with the Speaker and rebel MPs. One ally of the PM said: “John Bercow has seen seven Queen’s Speeches as Speaker and far more, 19, as an MP. There’s nothing different about this process.” 

Conservative HQ attack ads on Twitter and Facebook have already accused opposition leaders of trying to defy the will of 17 million Leave voters.

Even TV footage of stop-Brexit, ‘stop-the-coup’ demonstrations in Parliament Square is seen as not unhelpful by some in the Johnson team.

First, the ‘overreaction’ of the protestors could make Tory MPs take fright at being associated with Corbyn-style direct action, they believe. But second, many viewers outside London will see the protest as a capital once more ignoring their wishes.

Some in No.10 are much more worried about protests outside Bury FC than they are about a million signatures on a website objecting to his prorogation.

With the demise of local football clubs yet another cause of the Leave voters’ unease with the world, there are even plans afoot in government to draft policy to help community clubs get better financial protection from bad bosses.

Which brings us back to the reason the UK is facing its no-deal exit in October. For some in government there is no small irony in that it was a David Cameron Queen’s Speech back in 2013 that had a key amendment that led the country to where it now is. Rebel Eurosceptics attached plans for a referendum.

Back then, a certain Boris Johnson - well before he came out as a fully-fledged Brexiteer - said for the very first time that withdrawal from Europe would not be “cataclysmic” for British jobs.

If he somehow wins the coming few weeks of parliamentary warfare, that claim is sure to be tested to the limit.

(Infographic supplied by Statista)