In her penultimate week in office, Theresa May is ending her premiership in typical fashion by falling to yet another large parliamentary defeat. MPs voted on Thursday to stop a future government from proroguing parliament to ensure a no-deal Brexit. While this defeat came under May's watch, it is fair to say that those in parliament are already casting ahead to a future Boris premiership by laying down a marker that MPs will do everything within their power (and with a little bit of help from the speaker), to stop no deal.
It is not just MPs who are actively anticipating Boris taking over the top job next week, it seems that Boris himself is too. He refused to directly challenge racist comments from president Trump towards members of Congress, in order to not alienate the president who he could end up in trade negotiations with. There were some accusations of double standards surrounding this however given that May used her final prime minister's questions to call out Corbyn for Labour's ongoing anti-Semitism crisis.
In order to curry favour with the arch-Brexiteers that make up a significant proportion of the Conservative Party, Boris has founded his leadership campaign on the promise to leave the EU "do or die" by 31 October 2019. This had led many to speculate that he would use the tactic of proroguing parliament to achieve this, in order to ward off attempts by MPs to force him into requesting an extension. However, by a majority of 41, the commons yesterday sought to take this tactic off the table by voting to ensure parliament cannot be prorogued in the days surrounding 31 September. Tory remainer rebels including government ministers Greg Clark, Sir Alan Duncan, David Gauke, Rory Stewart and chancellor Phillip Hammond all abstained on the backbench amendment.
With those ministers abstaining very likely to be sacked by the incoming prime minister anyway, the vote yesterday was an opportunity for those remainers to show that they can cause as much trouble for Johnson as the European Research Group (ERG) MPs caused for May. With the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election coming up on 1 August 2019, in which the Liberal Democrats are widely expected to gain the seat, the Tory majority could shrink even further. All this means that a Johnson premiership, hell bent on leaving the EU without a deal on Halloween could very quickly crumble when faced with the realities of the current parliamentary arithmetic. The actions of Tory remainers this week clearly indicates that they assume Boris will be prime minister by the end of next week, and based on Boris' own response to Trump's comments this week, it seems he does too.
The R word
When the British ambassador's less than complimentary messages about the president were leaked, Theresa May found out that Donald Trump is not someone you want to get on the wrong side of. For someone like Jeremy Corbyn who makes no bones about his opposition to Trump, it was easy for him to condemn the recent comments by president Trump in which he stated four Democratic Congresswomen, including Alexandria Ocasio Cortez should "go back to where they came from", despite three of the four of Trump's targets having been born in the USA. For someone like Johnson however, who is on good terms with the president (having been described as a "very good guy" on the latest state visit) it is a much more complicated matter. For his part, Boris did state that Trump "simply cannot use such language", but then subsequently refused the opportunity to describe the comments as racist.
For Boris, trade negotiations are set to form the backdrop to his premiership and so any antagonistic comments he makes towards Trump could jeopardise these discussions especially as Trump is notorious for being extremely thin skinned. This choice is not without repercussions however, with The New Yorker magazine publishing an article depicting Boris as Trump's poodle who acts "like a puppy licking at the feet of his demanding master". Despite this though, Johnson knows the only way to get a good trade deal is to not agitate Trump, and in many cases that involves tolerating the intolerable. While Boris seems set to begin his premiership under a racism controversy, the anti-Semitism sage that has engulfed Labour continued.
Lords speak up
While Westminster has been speculating about how Boris will fare as prime minister, he will be pointing to the latest instalment of Labour's anti-Semitism crisis, to make the case that the party is there for the taking in a future election. This week, 60 Labour peers took out a full page Guardian advert that stated that the party "welcomes everyone*, irrespective of race, creed, age, gender identity or sexual orientation (*except it seems, Jews)" and accused Corbyn of "failing the test of leadership". This comes in the wake of last week's Panorama documentary where eight former Labour staff members stated that Corbyn's office involved themselves in disputes over anti-Semitism cases.
May decided to take full advantage of this by brandishing the advert at prime minister's questions and confronting the Labour leader directly over it. While Corbyn will try and shrug this off, as with previous attempts to challenge his leadership, he has in this instance been forced to take action. Labour has announced that an extraordinary shadow cabinet meeting will take place on Monday to address concerns over anti-Semitism, although for many this will be seen as too little, too late.
While Johnson could easily point to this saga as one reason why he could do unexpectedly well in a snap election, this is still unlikely to be something that happens by his own choice. In order to call an election, Boris would need to secure a 2/3 commons majority in favour of an early election.
An election before Brexit day would force Boris to make a no-deal Brexit the centrepiece of his campaign. With a no-deal Brexit not even having majority support, it appears MPs would be extremely reluctant to back an election in these circumstances. Likewise, for Corbyn, a general election post 31 October with the Tories still having not delivered Brexit is a much more appetising prospect. In this scenario the votes would not be there for Boris, and short of calling for no-confidence in his own government, he would be stuck.
The only alternative in this scenario for Johnson would be to hope that MPs run out of options to block no-deal. As leaving on 31 October is the legal default, MPs trying to block this would have to amend legislation and force the government to seek an extension to Article 50. It is entirely possible that a Boris government could seek to limit the amount of legislation that passes through parliament before Brexit. This however is a high risk strategy as the speaker is known to be sympathetic to MPs who wish to block no-deal, and is highly likely to ensure that the opportunity to do so is available if necessary.
Overall, everyone believes Boris is soon to be our next prime minister and the prorogation vote is just one of many steps parliament will seek to take in order to prevent his "do or die" Brexit agenda. The vote this week shows that Boris is in for a very tough time, but with Labour still engulfed in a scandal of their own, there is still a good chance Johnson could be a more successful prime minister than many expect.