Amid Brexit furore, will Boris have to eat his hat?

Columnist  | Sunanda K Datta Ray

Opinion, Columnists

There was a third covering letter from the British ambassador in Brussels.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Photo: AP)

If a politician has to eat today what he said yesterday, Britain’s ebullient Prime Minister might suffer acute indigestion from too hearty a repast. First, Boris Johnson announced that he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than ask for the “do or die” October 31 Brexit deadline to be postponed. Then, after Saturday’s humiliating defeat in the House of Commons, he proclaimed: “I will not negotiate delay”. Yet, with prosecution and even jail looming ahead for defying the law, he sent not one but three letters to the European Union asking for precisely that, and then telephoned Donald Tusk, the EU Council president, and other European leaders, pleading that the request was from Parliament and not him.

“Super Saturday”, as it’s called, made history. It was the House of Commons’ first Saturday sitting in 37 years. It was democracy in action of a vibrant kind never seen in India, for all that 900 million voters queue up in the heat and rain to make their mark against a picture. That is why it would have been educative for Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh, Rahul Gandhi and all our rumbustious MPs to watch the day-long session with probably every one of nearly 650 British members of Parliament popping up to catch the Speaker’s eye. A large screen in the Central Hall projecting the BBC’s live coverage of the momentous occasion would have given them a glimpse of the difference between governance and tub-thumping.

Not that the question-and-answer parrying resolved the dilemma of a country that having lost an empire, is still seeking a role, as Dean Acheson put it. Britain remains poised in the uncertainty of no-man’s-land. But Saturday’s session ventilated public concerns and regional anxieties. The million massed protesters chanting outside the Palace of Westminster demonstrated popular support for not leaving the EU now that there is better understanding of the costs involved. John Bercow, the Speaker, was at his best as a larger-than-life version of West Bengal’s valiant Bijay Kumar Banerjee who in 1967 — when the rule of law was much stronger in India — thunderingly denounced the governor, Dharam Vira, as another English King Charles I. To no one’s surprise, Mr Johnson tried to slip dextrously through loopholes that lesser mortals didn’t even know existed, recalling that another Tory Prime Minister, fellow Etonian David Cameron, had accused him of “sharp practices.”

Gordon Brown, the last Labour Prime Minister, once predicted that Mr Johnson would be the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The cracks began to appear on Saturday when 322 MPs voted for (with 306 against) an amendment moved by Sir Oliver Letwin, one of Mr Johnson’s 21 rebel Tories. The purpose was to compel the Prime Minister to obey the similarly defiant Benn Act — the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019 — requiring him to seek an extension to avoid a no-deal crashout on October 31, thereby delaying Brexit well beyond the deadline. Neither law may have been thought necessary if parliamentarians had trusted Mr Johnson. The absence of trust was highlighted when Ian Blackford, the Scottish National Party’s rhetorically aggressive leader in the Commons, said bluntly that he wouldn’t buy a house from “this Prime Minister”. Earlier, he had called Mr Johnson “racist” and, referring to his journalism, accused him of making a career out of lying.

More important, he complained that the deal Mr Johnson had negotiated with Brussels “shafted” Scotland where 62 per cent of voters want to remain in the EU. The Scottish government, which failed to push independence through in the September 2014 referendum, is now demanding another vote on seceding from the UK. It feels that the fear of a separatist Scotland not having enough clout in the EU if Britain withdrew explained the anti-independence sentiment in 2014. That argument has gone. Wales, which voted Leave three years ago, “is now a Remain nation again”, says Adam Price, leader of the pro-independence party, Plaid Cymru, and wants a second referendum on the EU. Northern Ireland’s discontent was evident from the refusal of the province’s 10 Democratic Unionist Party MPs, on whom Mr Johnson relied for support to vote for him, although he boasts of having worked out a compromise that gives the British province the best of both worlds.

It soon became clear that Mr Johnson was indulging in tortuous manipulation to wriggle out of his legal obligation under the Benn and Letwin Acts to inform Brussels of the outcome of Saturday’s debate and ask for more time. He sent an apology of a letter by ordering a senior diplomat to email an unsigned photocopy of the request by MPs set out in the Benn Act — the Labour Party’s Sir Keith Starmer, responsible for Brexit, called the deception “childish” and “silly”. A second letter, which Mr Johnson signed, warned of the “corrosive impact” of delay, blamed Parliament for “missing the opportunity to inject momentum into the ratification process”, and said “a further extension would damage the interests” of both parties and UK-EU relations. There was a third covering letter from the British ambassador in Brussels.

Ignoring the subterfuge, Mr Tusk responded exactly as if Mr Johnson had made a straightforward request for more time without any pussyfooting or prevarication. In consequence, the British are trying desperately hard this week to rush through in 10 days the procedural requirements under the Letwin amendment to keep to the deadline.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister might take a tip from the politician who had a hat made of barley sugar for just such contingencies. Indian politicians of course never face this situation, not because they don’t wear hats they might have to eat but because they never admit to being in the wrong. No wonder Mr Johnson claims kinship with India.