Why Boris Johnson Is Playing Fast And Loose With The Law

Paul Waugh

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Kami-kwasi politics?

When the Commons and Lords were prorogued in the small hours of yesterday, some Tory MPs hoped it would signal the start of a nice period of calm. The PM would go on making his daily election-style policy announcements and that pesky parliament wouldn’t get to interrupt his glide path through the party conferences to a Queen’s Speech next month.

Well, today’s ruling by the Scottish Court of Session certainly smashed that schedule. In ruling that Boris Johnson’s five-week prorogation was unlawful, the clear implication was that the prime minister of the UK actually lied to Her Majesty the Queen about his reasons for suspending parliament. It wasn’t really about his legislative plans, it was about not wanting scrutiny, the judges suggested.

The case will go to the Supreme Court next week and as its deliberations are televised (and live-streamed online) the story will be bigger than ever. Many at Westminster believe that the very reason Dominic Grieve demanded publication of private communications about the prorogation is precisely because he knows there is a smoking gun that shows Johnson or those around him lied.

Tonight, Michael Gove effectively told Grieve to hop off, saying his request was “inappropriate in principle and in practice”. In another unabashed bit of defiance, he also published a six-page Yellowhammer document that told us nothing new at all about no-deal impacts beyond what the Sunday Times had published last month.

No.10 insiders were delighted today by the English High Court ruling on the separate Gina Miller case It found that it was perfectly legal to prorogue for ‘political advantage’ and that it was ‘not territory in which a court can enter’. Still, even if Johnson told the Queen a legal lie, it’s still a lie, his critics will say.

Ironically, it is the courts that could also gift Johnson his biggest prize of all - swerving round the Benn Act that requires him to seek a delay to Brexit beyond October 31. If there is a judicial review of that act next month (and some in government believe it breaches international law by binding a PM’s hands in a treaty negotiation), it could last for some time, allowing the clock to be run down to Halloween.

Perhaps the biggest problem today is once more a political one rather than a legal one. No.10 sources started the day by suggesting the Scottish court was biased. That led to a swift denunciation by Labour, the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland and the PM’s spokesman (who insisted Johnson “has total confidence in the independence of the judiciary”).

Then along came cabinet minister Kwasi Kwarteng on Andrew Neil’s show to put rocket boosters under claims that this government really doesn’t give a Geoffrey Boycott toss about the law, parliament or the courts. “The extent to which lawyers and judges are interfering in politics is something that concerns many people,” Kwarteng said. “I’m not saying this, but many people are saying that the judges are biased … many leave voters, many people up and down the country, are beginning to question the partiality of the judges.”

It may seem like kamakazi politics to fuel the fears of moderate Tory voters worried that this is an administration out of control. But many will suspect that Kwarteng was deliberately, cynically pushing the line that this is now not just a battle of ‘People v Parliament’ but ‘People v The Judges’. Tory sources said today they will never have a pact with Nigel Farage. Maybe that’s because Johnson really is now Farage personified. Or at least so scared of the Brexit party leader that imitation is his only form of battery. 

Quote Of The Day

“It’s Tom’s view. I don’t accept it and I don’t agree with it.”

– Jeremy Corbyn rejects his deputy’s plea for Brexit referendum to come before an election, and for Labour to be ‘unequivocally’ pro-Remain

Wednesday Cheat Sheet

No.10 rejected demands for an immediate recall of parliament after a Scottish court ruled that the PM’s five-week prorogation of parliament was unlawful. The case goes to the supreme court next week for a final ruling. Downing Street published a Yellowhammer document on no-deal preparation but refused to release private communications about the prorogation.

Boris Johnson took part in a 15-minute Facebook “People’s PMQs” but ducked most questions. He did however say that talks with the EU on Brexit showed that the mood in Brussels was changing and “the ice-floes cracking”. Which kinda suggests he was wrong to warn last week the Benn bill would ‘destroy’ his negotiating position.

Any hopes of an electoral pact between the Tories and the Brexit Party appeared to disappear as No.10 said the PM will not be doing a deal with Nigel Farage. A Tory source added: “Neither Nigel Farage nor Arron Banks are fit and proper persons and they should never be allowed anywhere near government.”

Jeremy Corbyn slapped down his deputy Tom Watson for calling for any snap election to wait until after a Brexit referendum. Unite’s Len McCluskey said Watson was on the ‘fringes’ of the party. Sources also said McCluskey told John McDonnell yesterday to ‘toe the line’ and stop advocating a pro-Remain stance.

Shopkeepers who sell children high-energy drinks face being spied on by investigators using anti-terror surveillance laws, under radical plans drafted for health secretary Matt Hancock.

Hancock underlined his public health credentials when he appeared to criticise a Treasury ad campaign to promote duty-free cigarettes and alcohol under a no-deal Brexit. “I don’t think that the return of duty free was really seen from within a public health context, shall we say … certainly, I didn’t see it before publication.” 

Luke Tryl, an ex-special adviser who was blocked by No.10 from taking a job with Nicky Morgan (because of remarks that he was ‘ashamed’ of the direction of the Tory party), has got a job with public affairs firm Public First. “The Government’s loss is very much our gain,” said founding partner James Frayne.

What I’m Reading

The Man Who Broke Britain - New Statesman 

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