ABHI Membership

ABHI Brexit Update: Procedural Creativity

Downing Street got all sniffy with Nigel Farage this week. The man who my daughter thinks looks like Mr. Toad, suggested that the Tories should enter into an election pact with his own Brexit Party to create “an unstoppable force to destroy Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.” Downing Street retorted that “Farage is not a fit and proper person, and should not be allowed anywhere near government.” Now, as a Director of Communications myself, and one intent on continuous improvement, I should very much like to understand the thought processes involved in constructing and endorsing the publication of those words. Because, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a bit rich coming from No.10, when the highest civil court in Scotland had just ruled that their own man had misled the Queen. On anyone’s list of “naughty things,” lying to the Queen will be up there. Still, it saves Santa a job, there is no need to check that one twice this year.

I think it is fair to say that many of us had reservations about Boris Johnson’s capability and suitability for the top job, but he is messing it up in ways we could have never imagined. Margaret Thatcher faced the prospect of ending her days in a Buenos Aries prison cell. The Belgrano was sailing away from the Falkland Islands exclusion zone in 1982 when it was destroyed, killing 323 Argentinian sailors. Tony Blair is still pursued by individuals intent on affecting a citizen’s arrest. Blair was complicit in sanctioning what, they believe, was an illegal war in Iraq, resulting in catastrophic loss of life. If either former Premier had actually ever found themselves in a court of law, they would, I think, have been confident of not leaving it in the back of a van. Johnson cannot be so sure of a similar outcome if he chooses to flout the European Union (Withdrawal) (No.2) Act 2019, which received Royal Assent on Monday. And neither should he.

Above average levels of self-confidence, and even sense of self-worth are inevitable and probably acceptable products of an Etonian and Oxbridge education. Arrogance and entitlement are most certainly not. That the man who is supposed to be in charge of the institution that makes the laws by which the rest of us have to live our lives, should be prepared to so publically contemplate ignoring one because it does not suit his own political needs, is absolutely staggering. The only thing I find more staggering in all this, is that once it recognised that it could not gain sufficient support from the House of Commons to force and early election, Her Majesty’s Government actually thought that calling a vote of no confidence in itself was a viable option. One of you will tell me if I am wrong, but I do not think that even the writers of Yes (Prime) Minister ever came up with such a ludicrously improbable plot.

Whether it is arrogance or incompetence that has got him into this particular mess, take your pick, but you could argue that a more principled PM would have already recalled Parliament following the ruling by the Scottish Court of Appeal on Wednesday. Social media was certainly filled with pictures of MPs sat in an empty Chamber. But we will have to wait until Tuesday, when the UK Supreme Court (great cafe for meetings, but do not tell anyone else) has the final say on whether proroguing Parliament was lawful, to find out if they all have to come back. If they do, there are potentially other implications for the Political Parties. Convention dictates that a motion needs to be passed to suspend Parliament for the conference season, something denied by the early proroguing. There is a strong sense that if it does come back, MPs will vote against it, and the conferences will be truncated. Most MPs I know tend to rather dread conference for a multitude of reasons, so would not be too unhappy themselves, but it would have a major impact on Party coffers. One of the reasons I do not spend your money on a presence at each of the major gatherings, is that Nigel Edwards, who still humours me with meetings when I have so little to offer him, convinced me a decade or so ago that they were just a shake down. There is nobody that you want to meet, he reasoned, that is not in SW1 most of the time anyway. I have certainly spent many hours in Brighton and Bournemouth sat at rickety tables waiting for meetings that never happened, and in those that did, my prey spent most of the time looking over my shoulder for someone more interesting to come in. The events are certainly a major source of funding for the Parties, doing anything at them is eye-wateringly expensive. In 2014, as an ABHI member and Chair of the Public Affairs Policy Group, I did persuade the Association to invest in a series of events to launch our Manifesto, but that was when we had a long run in to a General Election, not something that seems likely next time. Aside from that, and a very funny story about Bill Clinton that I really cannot tell you here, I am not sure I ever did anything at a conference that offered much of a return on investment.

If Boris’ somewhat fragile grip on reality has slipped, that on his authority has virtually dissolved. Last weekend Amber Rudd resigned her position, and currently sits as an independent MP. She had obviously read my blog last week when I suggested that despite what was being said, very little was going on in the way of negotiations with the EU, because that is the reason she gave for going. It will not have stung as much as when Jo Johnson left, reckoning he could not serve in a Party of which his own brother was the leader, but losing a Cabinet Minister is far more politically damaging. Others, apparently, have threatened similar, and watching Ministers in action, you get the sense that this is an administration that is well and truly cornered. Johnson’s only hope is that his popularity holds up in the country, and Dominic Cummings’ rather sinister tactic of portraying all of this as “The People versus Parliament,” washes.

Wednesday was a day that just kept on giving, late in the evening, following an earlier amendment to Benn’s Bill by the arch Tory Rebel, Dominic Grieve, details of Operation Yellowhammer were put into the public domain. It did not come as much of a surprise to those of us that have been working with officials on contingency planning, but the reaction of the media indicated why we have had to sign so many NDAs. You may have gathered that I am not any sort of apologist for Government, it is not my job, and, in fact, my job is often quite the contrary. But I will say, honestly, that Yellowhammer is responsible government, an exercise in worst case scenario planning, advice I have given to many of you. How its contents play out politically in the days ahead remains to be seen, but the level of detail in it is one of the reasons why I believe that our sector is as well prepared as it can be for the fallout from no deal, if that is what we end up with. At our Procurement Conference next week, I will be in conversation with the admirable Sandra Barrow from DHSC, who has led much of the contingency planning for HealthTech. If you cannot make the event and do not feel as well prepared as you might be, please let us know and we will put you in touch with the appropriate officials.

And if all that was not enough, there was John Bercow. Bercow became Speaker of the House of Commons in 2009, largely at the behest of the Labour Party intent on annoying the Tories. Pretty much ever since, the Tories have employed various levels of skullduggery to unseat him. Until now, it had all been a bit Captain Pugwash, but the vultures were circling. It had been pointed out that Bercow had been in post longer than he had said himself he would be, and the Tories were prepared to defy convention and put up a candidate against him at the next election. As I have said before, Bercow is nothing if not his own man, and was always going to go on his own terms. On Monday he made a personal statement to the House that he would stand down as Speaker on 31st October, and as an MP at the next election. In true Bercow style, he then, with a busy day of business ahead, allowed an hour or so of plaudits from the floor. Opposition MPs clapped and cheered him. The Government benches were sparsely populated, many MPs knew what was coming and did not want to witness it. Most of those that were there, especially the Ministers, sat stony, staring at their shoes. But Bercow is not finished yet and we can expect quite some finale. Faced with the mutual exclusivity of Boris saying he will not ask for an extension in any circumstances, and the law saying he must, unless he can pull sufficient rabbits out by 19th October, last night Bercow made a significant move. Delivering the sixth annual Bingham lecture at London’s Middle Temple, Bercow warned Boris Johnson that he is prepared to allow “additional procedural creativity” if necessary, to allow parliament to block Johnson from ignoring the law. And how about this for a quote?

“If we come close to [Johnson ignoring the law], I would imagine parliament would want to cut off that possibility … Neither the limitations of the existing rulebook or ticking of the clock will stop it doing so. If I have been remotely ambiguous so far, let me make myself crystal clear. The only form of Brexit that we have, whenever that might be, will be a Brexit that the House of Commons has explicitly endorsed.”

I usually take a rest from this nonsense when the Fun House is not sitting, but something tells me you will be hearing from me next week as usual.