Brexit has been a pressure cooker for our government, our parliament, our political parties, our MPs and for all of us too – and finally the tensions really erupted.
Back in business after the Supreme Court ruled the government’s decision to suspend parliament was unlawful and therefore void, the whole place was absolutely furious from the moment Geoffrey Cox took to the dispatch box at 11.30am to the close of play nearly 12 hours later.
The attorney general, the prime minister’s warm up act, he quickly set the tone. Yes this was a government which had been admonished by the Supreme Court for proroguing parliament unlawfully. But there would be no apologies, contrition or regret.
Instead the government’s top legal brain unleashed an unfettered attack on parliament, working himself into a frenzy as he raged against the “spineless” Labour frontbench and “cowardly” MPs for refusing to grant the prime minister an election.
“This parliament is a disgrace,” he boomed to the jeering of opposition MPs. “This parliament is a dead parliament. It should no longer sit, It has no moral right to sit on these green benches.”
He charged on: “The time is coming when even these turkeys won’t be able to prevent Christmas!”
MPs raged. Labour’s Barry Sheerman shaking in anger as he accused the attorney general of having “no shame all”. “To come here with his barrister’s bluster to obsfucate the truth – a man like him, a party like this and a leader like this to talk about morals and morality. It’s a disgrace.”
With the stage set, Mr Johnson was straight into character as he arrived in the parliament, unrepentant and indignant as he tried to goad his opponents into tabling a motion of no-confidence in the government.
The people versus the parliament election, Mr Johnson cast himself as the prime minister trying to deliver on the biggest popular vote in history while ‘the establishment’ – be it the parliament or the courts – block his path.
The language provocative and incendiary as he sought to portray his political rivals as anti-democratic and treacherous.
Parliament was “refusing to deliver on the priorities of the people” while Jeremy Corbyn and his cronies “do not trust the people. They are determined to throw out the referendum result, whatever the cost.”
“We will not betray the people who sent us here,” he bellowed as MPs erupted in fury. Complaints that his inflammatory words were being cited in death threats were dismissed as “humbug”.
When he told MPs that the “best way” to honour Jo Cox, who was murdered in the 2016 referendum, was to “get Brexit done”, the chamber moved past boiling point and into complete meltdown. Some MPs walked out of the chamber in protest. Others left in tears.
But be in no doubt, this is a deliberate, calculated strategy to proactively whip up public anger. Mr Johnson’s politics at the dispatch box on Wednesday were lifted straight from Trump’s playbook. The more his rivals rage and rail against him, the better. His path to electoral success is predicated on stoking up division in order to turn out his vote.
Mr Johnson has no interest in uniting a nation. He has every interest in convincing Brexit supporters to back him in a general election. If he can win 35% of the popular vote from that pool of 17.4m Vote Leave supporters, he could stay as prime minister. Everything he does now is designed to prove to them he is the only one on their side.
The people against parliament, remain against leave – there will be plenty more rancour and anger in the days ahead. But we are in gridlock. The prime minister demanding an election, his opponents refusing to give him one until he secures an extension from Brussels.
Both sides deeply dug in – for now. But Brexit day is fast approaching and between then and now something has to give. Opposition MPs may try to insist the prime minister asks for an extension ahead of the current 19 October deadline to bring forward the inevitable showdown.
But if they don’t, we know for sure that this prime minister’s ‘do or die’ Brexit plan will collide with the new piece of law demanding he ask for an extension if he cannot secure a deal.
What parliament – what Mr Johnson – really needs is to do agree a Brexit compromise. But after this day, that prospect has never felt so far away.
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