Tensions were always going to be high and MPs full of nervous energy when the Commons returned unexpectedly. But proceedings rapidly descended into a vitriolic shouting match beyond anything usually seen in the chamber.
– New depths –
The outrage built steadily through the evening with most of it focusing on Boris Johnson’s repeated use of the term “surrender bill” to refer to the Act passed by Parliament which forces him to seek an extension to Article 50.
Multiple MPs asked the Prime Minister to moderate his language, but proceedings reached their nadir when the Labour MP Paula Sherriff raised the memory of her murdered friend and MP Jo Cox and told Johnson that those who send abuse and death threats to MPs: “often quote his words, ‘surrender act’, ‘betrayal,’ ‘traitor’”, before asking him to moderate his language.
Johnson response was this: “I have never heard so much humbug in my life”
He went on to insist later that “the best way to honour the memory of Jo Cox and to bring this country together is, I think, to get Brexit done”, a response that has caused much anger.
– An entirely calculated move –
Amid the unease and rancour, it is beyond clear what the Prime Minister is trying to achieve. Throughout the evening he referred to “this Parliament”, not the Opposition, told MPs they would “face the day of reckoning with voters” and referred again and again to the “surrender bill”.
Johnson’s intention to fight the next election on a “Parliament vs the People” basis has already received acres of coverage, but last night was the most vivid manifestation of the strategy we have yet seen.
Will it work? Maybe. As horrifying as the murder of Cox was, on the whole potential Leave voters during the referendum were happy to accept that it was the doing of one mentally-ill, bad person and nothing to do with politics.
Meanwhile, politicians’ stock with the public is as low as ever. Frustrated by the perceived lack of action in Westminster, Johnson’s message may well resonate with many voters, who want an end to theatrics and for Brexit to simply be done with.
That’s the outcome Johnson and Dominic Cummings are betting on.
– What to do next? –
Still, an election is several weeks away yet. In the meantime, Parliament must decide what to do with the extra time it has been given.
The most immediate issue, and the source of the next row, is what to do about Tory conference, which starts on Saturday in Manchester.
The Government would like a very brief recess to allow it to go ahead unimpeded, in continuation of tradition. The opposition parties and at least some expelled Tories are inclined to reject the motion, on the basis that it undermines their argument Parliament must be sitting.
Instead, there is talk of a truce, where the first few days of next week will be used to work on bills that have cross-party support and have been reprieved by the un-prorogation of Parliament. Those include laws on domestic abuse and animal cruelty.
It’s abundantly clear from last night that there is no chance of that happening. Indeed, as Peter Foster reports, the EU was more than a little dismayed by last night’s row while the latest UK submissions have thoroughly underwhelmed.
But the Lib Dems’ plan has received a mixed reception, with some MPs questioning the need for it. There are other moves they can make, though, such as closing potential loopholes in the extension Act.
– Things can only get worse –
Johnson may yet move to prorogue Parliament again, this time for just a few days, so that Tory conference can proceed unhindered and he can have a Queen’s Speech and advertise his domestic agenda.
The only thing that is certain is that we are set for a grim few weeks in Parliament. When it’s finally over, it will be replaced by an even nastier election.