It says much about our politics at present that Beatrice Wishart can be elected as Shetland’s MSP on 29 August but, by the time she is formally ‘sworn in’ a week later, she is merely the third newest Liberal Democrat parliamentarian. After the defections of MPs, Phillip Lee and Luciana Berger to the Liberal Democrat cause, Angela Smith’s arrival over the weekend means that, as Beatrice rises to give her maiden speech in Holyrood this week, she may be clinging to her top five spot on the ‘newbies’ list.
It has been a truly astonishing week in UK politics, even by the standards of recent times. I am acutely aware, sitting down to write this column, that any prediction I make is likely to have a shelf life measured in hours not days.
What is certain, though, is that history will not judge kindly our current Prime Minister, whose behaviour this week has been nothing short of outrageous. His claims to be ‘straining every sinew’ to secure a deal with the EU have been shown to be hollow, with the evidence and former Cabinet colleagues confirming that Boris Johnson is simply going through the motions, happy to see the UK crash out of the EU on 31 October with no deal.
Faced with this disastrous prospect, opposition MPs joined forces with those on the government side, appalled at the Prime Minister’s willingness to ‘run down the clock’, to pass a bill preventing a ‘no deal’ Brexit, and requiring Boris Johnson to seek a further extension to the deadline. In response, Mr Johnson has ‘doubled down’ on his efforts to push through a no deal Brexit ‘do or die’.
First came the expulsions, with 21 ‘rebel’ Tory MPs who backed the bill banished from the party. Remarkably, this included figures such as Ken Clarke, Phillip Hammond and Sir Nicholas Soames, grandson of Sir Winston Churchill. It’s a decision the party will certainly come to regret, but for now, it leaves Mr Johnson well short of a majority in parliament.
This, though, did not prevent the Prime Minister following through on his threat to shut down parliament, with an extended prorogation aimed at limiting time for debate ahead of the crucial EU summit next month. To some it may seem like a dry, procedural matter, but it sets the most dangerous of precedents and was rightly condemned by the Speaker of the House of Commons as a “constitutional outrage”.
Finally, the Prime Minister tried to goad opposition parties into voting for an early election. While this now looks inevitable at some point, opposition MPs were entirely justified in not trusting Mr Johnson, insisting first that a ‘no deal’ Brexit is off the table before going to the polls.
In all this, of course, Mr Johnson hopes to come across as a man of action; one left frustrated by parliament and EU negotiators. Yet this is a fraud. Respecting the “will of the people” cannot be achieved through pursuing a ‘no deal’ option supported by a vanishingly small percentage of even those who voted for Brexit back in 2016.
Claims that it will allow the UK to ‘get Brexit done and move on’ ignore the fact that it would simply leave us outside the EU, still having to negotiate some sort of future trading relationship, but from a position of even greater weakness. As Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar pointed out this week, a no deal Brexit “settles nothing”, while also jeopardising the hard-earned, fragile peace in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, nationalists north of the border have been emboldened. Nicola Sturgeon’s programme for government statement last week led with, and was dominated by, her call for a second independence referendum. Having witnessed the chaos of Brexit over the last three years, however, Scottish voters may need some convincing that negotiations over a break-up of the UK would be any more harmonious.
No doubt, Boris Johnson and his adviser, Dominic Cumming believe theirs is a cunning plan. In truth, it just looks reckless. The suspicion is that when you strip back the bombast and bravado, Emperor Boris simply has no clothes – an image, I accept, that is hard to conjure with at the end of a trying week!