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The dark night rises
For his admirers, it’s the end of an era. For his critics, it’s the end of an earache. Either way, John Bercow’s decision to step down as Commons Speaker confirmed that even he can’t compete with the brute force of Boris Johnson’s gambit of seeking an autumn election.
Bercow, inevitably, had one last tweak of the government’s tail, deciding to stay on until October 31, the planned day of Brexit itself. He also ensured that the next Speaker would be elected by the current hung parliament, increasing the chances that his successor will continue to be a thorn in the Tories’ side whatever the result of the next election.
The Speaker has of course been a crucial facilitator of the anti-no-deal majority of MPs in the Commons since 2017. His tearful farewell was pure Bercow, peppered with attacks on the media, on the whips, on Johnson’s handling of the Nazarin Zaghari Ratcliffe case. He even (perhaps a nod to his cult following in the US) had dig at Donald Trump’s racist ‘go back’ remarks.
His enemies are already muttering about the unresolved bullying allegations against him and his refusal to give up his £1m pension pot. The race is already on to succeed him, with Lindsay Hoyle, Harriet Harman and Chris Bryant all tipped for the job (Eleanor Laing is the safe choice of many Tories).
The tributes to the Speaker took a full 90 minutes and he added that “we would have more time if we weren’t disappearing for a rather excessive period”. And for many MPs that’s the real issue tonight - the five week suspension of parliament entailed by the prorogation order expected to be enacted later.
In a back-handed compliment to both Bercow and the Tory rebels, Johnson’s decision to prorogue the Commons seems to be the only way he can stop them inflicting yet more defeats. And those defeats - his fifth in 6 days tonight thanks to Dominic Grieve - prove he really is in office, but not in power.
The Liaison Committee of senior select committee chairman had been due to quiz Johnson for three full hours on Wednesday, his longest grilling yet in the job. That won’t now happen, despite a plea by chairwoman Sarah Wollaston asking the PM to still give evidence, outside parliament.
The PM’s gameplan seems obvious: carry on with a pseudo snap election campaign, with daily cash and policy announcements that won’t breach Purdah rules - but without any Commons scrutiny. Michael Gove may well supply weekly no-deal preparation updates, for example, yet no MP will for weeks be able to probe the detail. And with no Commons sitting, how can they enforce their will on things like the Grieve motion?
Johnson’s critics think the Grieve motion tonight was crucial because they think it will prove beyond doubt that he lied to parliament and to the Queen for his reason for prorogation. There are others close to the PM who think that even that won’t hurt him, and will be seen by Leave voters as yet more procedural machinations far away from their everyday lives.
As we wait for Lords to doff their tricorn hats and deploy Norman French later tonight (or the early hours of tomorrow at this rate) in the prorogation ceremony, there are rumours that Johnson may have a surprise up his sleeve. He won’t get his snap election tonight, but he will get one sometime soon in November, and you can bet he’ll blame Labour for holding polling day when the nights are dark.
Even more than Theresa May ever was, Johnson is a now zombie PM in a zombie parliament. Unlike her, his answer is to shut down the graveyard (the Commons and Lords). Yet like May, he thinks he can get a new lease of life through a general election. Let’s see if the script is more The Walking Dead than Carry on Screaming.
Quote Of The Day
“At the 2017 election, I promised my wife and children that it would be my last.”
– John Bercow reveals the private family pledge that means he will now step down on October 31, ahead of an expected snap election.
Monday Cheat Sheet
The Hilary Benn bill, forcing the PM to seek an EU extension beyond October 31, received Royal Assent and became the ‘European Union (Withdrawal) (No.2) Act’.
Dominic Grieve succeeded in his bid to get the publication of documents assessing the impact of a no-deal Brexit and any advisers’ communications about prorogation. His humble address was passed by 311 votes to 302.
Boris Johnson said a no-deal Brexit would be a ‘failure of statecraft’ by his government, the Irish government and the EU. Irish premier Leo Varadkar warned ‘there is no such thing as a clean break’ Brexit. Johnson rolled his eyes as an Irish journalist said his phrase ‘dead in a ditch’ proved he didn’t understand Irish border sensitivities.
The Duke of Wellington, Charles Wellesley, resigned the Tory whip in the Lords and now sits as a non-affiliated peer. Wellesley is not just a hereditary peer, he is a former Conservative MEP and strong anti-Brexiteer.
Richard Benyon, the Tory MP for Newbury who was among the 21 rebels who defied the PM last week, announced that he too would not be standing at the next election. Benyon made clear that despite rumours of a ‘path back’ to the party, even contemplating no-deal meant he could never rejoin.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady warned Donald Trump to ‘take your tiny hands off our NHS’ as union leaders threatened to strike over any post-Brexit trade deal that includes the health service.
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