Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Parliament restored with a less cavalier government might just benefit DUP

A man wearing a giant Boris Johnson mask, dressed as a prisoner, outside the Supreme Court
A man wearing a giant Boris Johnson mask, dressed as a prisoner, outside the Supreme Court
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

Where does the Government go from here? It ought to be hard for the Prime Minister, effectively labelled an 'Enemy of the Parliament' by a Supreme Court as incredulous as it was unanimous, to continue in office. The Government found itself 0-11 and it wasn't even lunch.

It was perhaps the biggest Government humiliation since Suez in the 1950s. That was followed by Anthony Eden resigning as Prime Minister. And he had only misled Parliament, not got rid of it unlawfully.

You had to feel for the Government's QC, Sir James Eadie. Bereft of statements of justification for suspending Parliament, his main line of argument to 11 distinguished judges was essentially, "you have no business here". Instead, it was a case of (Lord) Pannick on the streets of London for the Government, as Eadie's opposite number demolished the government's threadbare case. There was more chance of Sinn Fein swearing oaths of allegiance at Westminster than the Government's lawyers showing up in court for the damning verdict. They knew their fate and opted for abstention.

Now Parliament resumes the business of failing to deal with Brexit today. It has seemingly blocked a no-deal Brexit but decided nothing else - and might never. It's unclear how Parliament resumed will be any more useful than Parliament prorogued in deciding whether it will any form of Brexit.

Exhibit One in this argument is the shenanigans at the Labour Party conference yesterday. The party tried - and failed - to agree a clear policy at its Brighton conference. A show of hands - almost as archaic a method of voting as MPs trudging through lobbies - produced a close result.

The Conference Chair decided it was so close she was not sure who had won, except it was definitely the Labour leader. No card vote needed. Labour delegates had adopted neutrality on the biggest political issue for decades.

Chants of 'Oh Jeremy Corbyn' substituted for clarity on what Labour would offer on the ballot paper - or campaign for - in a second referendum. Whatever the exact opposite to the precision of Lady Hale and the Supreme Court judges is, this came close.

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Exhibit Two is all the other Opposition parties. They would cancel Brexit altogether regardless of a referendum vote. Meantime they would support a second referendum but only allow one result. Democracy in action. One party tries to bypass Parliament. The others try to bypass the people. And Labour can't quite decide.

For those Conservatives still allowed to absent themselves from Westminster, there is the small matter of their party conference in Manchester next week. Boris Johnson is due to address the gathering a week today. I'm sure there will be fulsome tributes to the judiciary. At what is invariably a rally rather than a serious debating forum, Johnson has to turn a government and party in acute crisis, with all Brexit routes blocked, into an election-winning force.

The Conservative leader's line will undoubtedly be that of PM and public united against the terrible political and judicial elites thwarting the democratic Brexit will of the people. The battle of Brexit Deliverers versus Blockers. It might work, but it is doubtful in terms of achieving a Conservative overall majority. Johnson's party faces meltdown in Remain-supporting Scotland. The Tories are unlikely to capture sufficient Labour leave seats to compensate. Labour brand loyalty in Northern England remains strong. And it might go so horribly wrong for Johnson that the Queen has to receive her 15th Prime Minister this side of Christmas.

What of the local effects of the Supreme Court judgment? Whilst it was unwise of Arlene Foster (LL.B) to have claimed the Government was "well within its rights" to prorogue Parliament, this was obviously the Conservatives' own mess.

Of much greater salience to the DUP than the Supreme Court verdict was the final act before the prorogation-that-never-was, which mandated Boris Johnson to seek an extension to EU membership. Given his drubbing in the Supreme Court, the PM might be reluctant to risk a further judicial humbling by ignoring Parliament's requirement. So, in terms of his promised Brexit 'do-or-die' by October 31, Johnson dies. He will now, presumably, seek resurrection via a general election this autumn.

Parliament restored with a more circumspect, less cavalier, government might benefit the DUP. Whether Boris Johnson does circumspect is of course questionable. Some within the DUP leadership would be happy if Brexit was cancelled altogether. The chances of the EU removing the backstop as a condition of a deal remain remote.

With Brexit delayed, its potentially severe effects will not be felt this side of a general election. When you are a party defending two Remain-voting constituencies in Belfast, plus one which only just voted to Leave and if your only possible gain is Remain-voting North Down, a Brexit-effects election would not fill DUP election campaigners with joy. An election prior to the onset of Brexit damage might be more viable. Ultimately though, the DUP's fate surely rests on whether the SDLP steps aside in North Belfast and if a Remain alliance (small 'a'?) emerges in South Belfast.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein could simply watch yesterday's debacle with amused detachment. Parliament never went away you know.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

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