From gaffe-free G7 to proroguing parliament: how Boris Johnson's week unfolded

As Boris Johnson strolled down his Voyager plane en route home from Biarritz on Monday evening, tie off and white shirt unbuttoned, to josh with the travelling journalists, he had a bullish air.

The G7 summit had passed off without gaffes; he had carefully navigated the tricky diplomatic territory between Donald Trump and the EU – and he and his fellow old Etonian Ed Llewellyn, the UK’s ambassador to France, had enjoyed two bracing swims in the sea.

But at the PM’s closing press conference in Biarritz – delayed while Trump held his own rambling address – Johnson had chosen his words exceedingly carefully.

“I rely on parliamentarians to do the right thing and honour the pledge that they made to the people of this country,” he said when pressed repeatedly about whether he could prorogue parliament to push through a no-deal Brexit.

Little more than 24 hours later, the explanation began to emerge. First, a speech by Sajid Javid billed as setting out his economic philosophy was abruptly cancelled. Then, late on Tuesday night, rumours began to swirl of a meeting of the privy council – a gathering of senior ministers with the Queen – at her Scottish summer retreat in Balmoral.

Downing Street refused to confirm the story – and instead, began scrambling to accelerate the drastic plan drawn up by Johnson’s legislative adviser, Nikki da Costa, and chief strategist, Dominic Cummings.

Boris Johnson’s new backroom team in Downing Street is littered with ex-staff from Vote Leave, supports of controversial lobbying groups like the TaxPayers’ Alliance, and those with links to Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor’s  C|T Group

Dominic Cummings

Special advisor to the prime minister Boris Johnson and chief of staff in all but name, Cummings was campaign director of Vote Leave. He had previously campaigned against Britain joining the Euro, and worked for Iain Duncan Smith as director of strategy at the Conservatives, and for Michael Gove as a special advisor in the department of education. 

Isaac Levido

A Lynton Crosby protege, Australian Levido has been hired into Conservative party headquarters as director of politics and campaigning. He has previously worked in Washington for the Republicans, and contributed to the Tory campaigns in 2015 and 2017. Earlier this year he worked on the Liberal party’s surprise election success in Australia, where the party’s Facebook videos were watched at triple the rate of the Labor opposition videos during the election campaign.

Lee Cain

Head of communications for Johnson and responsible for determining the Conservative government’s message in public. He was the head of broadcast for the Vote Leave campaign and had government jobs, including at No 10, before joining Johnson at the Foreign Office. His most public role, though, was dressing up as a chicken in 2010 to heckle Tory politicians.

Rob Oxley

Press secretary at Downing Street, Oxley has previously served as an advisor to Home Secretary Priti Patel, and worked alongside Cain as press officer for the Vote Leave campaign.

Oliver Lewis

Now the Johnson government’s Brexit policy adviser, Lewis was Research Director at Vote Leave.

Munira Mirza

Heading up Johnson’s policy unit, Mirza was his deputy mayor for arts in London for eight years. She has links to a circle of former Revolutionary Communist Party supporters who wrote for Living Marxism, before morphing into libertarian provocateurs involved with Spiked online magazine. She co-founded of the Manifesto Club, a pressure group challenging the “erosion of public freedoms”.

Chloe Westley

A digital adviser to the administration, Westley worked at both Vote Leave and the TaxPayers’ Alliance. She found fame on Twitter as @LowTaxChloe making videos attempting to mock  attempting to mock Corbynite socialism. She was involved in Turning Point, a student pressure group dedicated to “free markets, limited government and personal responsibility” which drew attention when at one of its launch events American conservative Candace Owens appeared to praise HItler’s approach to making Germany great. Westley herself has praised the work of far-right, anti-Islam politician Anne Marie Waters.

Ross Kempsell

Former Guido Fawkes chief reporter and Talkradio political editor Kempsell has joined Johnson’s team as a special adviser focused on reform of Whitehall and the public sector just weeks after his interview with the prime minister during his leadership campaign prompted Johnson to rattle off an anecdote about making and painting cardboard buses as a hobby. He also was the interviewer when Johnson promised Brexit would be carried out “do or die” by 31 October.

Danny Kruger

Has moved from being the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s expert adviser on charities to the role of political secretary. He stood down as a Tory candidate in 2005 after causing controversy by saying he thought there should be a “period of creative destruction in the public services”. He argues that cannabis should be decriminalised.

Blair Gibbs

Previously a senior adviser to both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, Gibbs is another former TaxPayers’ Alliance staffer entering No 10 as a policy expert. He is also in favour of decriminalisation, joining the administration from a policy role at the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis.

On Wednesday morning, a conference call of cabinet ministers was hastily convened at the insistence of the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, part of whose role is to act as the guardian of the constitution at the heart of Downing Street.

READ  Moving van turns up in Downing Street for Sajid Javid after he quit in reshuffle

Meanwhile, Jacob Rees-Mogg was boarding an early-morning flight to Aberdeen. His fellow privy council members Natalie Evans, the leader of the House of Lords, and the chief whip Mark Spencer – neither easily recognisable by travellers – flew separately, to avoid scrutiny.

Jacob Rees-Mogg the morning after Boris Johnson requested the Queen suspend parliament for longer than the usual conference season.

Jacob Rees-Mogg the morning after Boris Johnson requested the Queen suspend parliament for longer than the usual conference season. Photograph: Peter Summers/Getty Images

As news of their mission broke, all hell broke loose. Johnson’s hiring of Cummings was widely read as a signal that in his bid to achieve the “mission” of Brexit, he was willing to tear up convention and ride roughshod over the usual niceties of politics.

While Johnson does not share the world-view of Donald Trump, he does privately admit a grudging admiration for the way the maverick US president plays the game of politics, believing there is more method in it than is sometimes apparent.

Many of the ragtag band of rebels committed to stopping a no-deal Brexit were caught by surprise by Wednesday’s announcement. Some were still abroad, squeezing the last few drops from the summer break.

Dominic Grieve quickly began liaising with like-minded colleagues en route to a wedding in Italy, his wife at the wheel. The Speaker, John Bercow, issued a blistering statement from sunny Turkey. The Tory veteran Michael Heseltine took to the airwaves from Montenegro in a natty embroidered shirt.

But the blueprint for the rebels’ response had already been set at a key meeting on Tuesday, convened by Jeremy Corbyn.

Attended by leading opposition figures including Jo Swinson and Caroline Lucas, the meeting ended with agreement that the priority was to rush through legislation to force Johnson to extend article 50, if he has not struck a Brexit deal in time for the 31 October deadline.

On the conference call with his cabinet colleagues, who had all signed up to the “mission” of leaving the EU by Halloween come what may, there was little open dissent – though Amber Rudd was noticeably less enthusiastic than colleagues, and Julian Smith asked about the legal advice Downing Street had commissioned to underpin the decision.

Beyond Downing Street, the backlash was ferocious. Jeremy Corbyn – not a noted monarchist – fired off a missive to the Queen, asking for an audience, and urging her to reverse the decision.

A protest in Penzance, Cornwall against Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament for up to five weeks before a Queen’s Speech on 14 October.

A protest in Penzance, Cornwall against Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament for up to five weeks before a Queen’s Speech on 14 October. Photograph: Jane Johnson/PA

But it was too late. The “order in council”, formally recording her approval of the decision at the privy council meeting, headed with the emblem of the crown, had already been published.

By the end of the day, a scratch crowd of protesters outside parliament, many of them draped in EU flags, were belting out “no one voted for Bor-is”, to the tune of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army, accompanied on the trumpet.

Rees-Mogg, sent out on the airwaves to defend the decision in his trademark plummy vowels the next morning, dismissed the outrage as “candyfloss”, and stuck rigidly to the explanation that holding a Queen’s speech was entirely usual for a new government.

And Johnson’s outriders do not mind their opponents bandying around #Brexitcoup hashtags and threatening to block bridges – or in the case of the Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, even calling for a general strike.

They believe it will only help them paint their opponents as extremists, as they draw up the battle lines for the coming general election.

The date on which the Commons returns from summer recess.

Sajid Javid is expected to start a fast-tracked spending review, promising a cash boost for schools, hospitals and policing. The swift timing of the review comes after his first major speech by the chancellor was abruptly cancelled by the Treasury with less than 24 hours’ notice.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has asked the Queen to prorogue parliament during this week. MPs were due to have a recess period anyway for the party conference season. However, proroguing parliament will severely limit the time MPs have to legislate against no deal or hold and win a vote of no confidence in the government. 

The Labour and Conservative party conferences are due to be held on consecutive weeks.

This is the date that Johnson is proposing parliament returns for the Queen’s speech setting out a legislation programme for his government.

EU leaders meet for the final European council summit before the UK’s extension is due to expire. They could possibly agree a new deal at this point – with just about enough time for Johnson to try and get it through parliament.

The six-month article 50 extension will expire, and prime minister Boris Johnson has pledged that the UK will leave the EU with or without a deal on that date.

A possible date for a general election if Johnson has been unable to force through his plans, although the date could be sooner if an election is called as a result of the parliamentary showdown between the prime minister and MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexitin early September.

The backing of Rudd and the few other erstwhile remainers who are still onboard the Boris bandwagon is heavily conditional on his insistence that all this parliamentary hardball is ultimately aimed at getting a Brexit deal through parliament. “Amber will take a lot, if it leads to a deal,” said an ally.

There is bitterness among this group, too, against the Labour MPs who voted against Theresa May’s Brexit deal three times. “They had the softest Brexit deal they were ever going to get on the table. They threw it away. It’s just bad tactics,” says one senior Tory.

That view was perhaps most clearly expressed in the parting words of Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, as she announced her resignation on Thursday.

The Scottish Conservatives leader, Ruth Davidson, formally announcing her resignation.

The Scottish Conservatives leader, Ruth Davidson, formally announcing her resignation. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

“We had three golden opportunities to support a deal. The people now who are saying they would do anything to avoid a no deal had a goal gaping in front of them three times and hit the ball over the bar. For all the elaborate plans of bringing down governments, the simplest way to avoid no deal is to vote for a deal,” she said.

She said Johnson had promised her, face to face, that he wanted to get a Brexit deal – and urged him to do so. She left unspoken whether she would continue to support him if he pursues a no-deal Brexit on 31 October.

While Davidson insisted that her departure had as much to do with motherhood as Brexit, it underlined the sense that the Johnson administration is a very long way from David Cameron’s detoxified 2010 Tories.

Johnson told his cabinet there was a 50/50 chance of a deal; and Brussels-watchers say there is just a glimmer of an opportunity opening up.

Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group consultancy, who is well connected with EU decision-makers, says by relentlessly singling out the Irish border backstop as the unacceptable aspect of Theresa May’s deal, Johnson may have opened up some wriggle room.

What is the original ‘backstop’ in the Withdrawal Agreement?

Variously described as an insurance policy or safety net, the backstop is a device in the Withdrawal Agreement intended to ensure that there will not be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, even if no formal deal can be reached on trade and security arrangements.

It would mean that if there were no workable agreement on such matters, Northern Ireland would stay in the customs union and much of the single market, guaranteeing a friction-free border with the Republic. This would keep the Good Friday agreement intact.

Both the UK and EU signed up to the basic idea in December 2017 as part of the initial Brexit deal, but there have been disagreements since on how it would work.

The DUP have objected to it, as it potentially treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK, creating a customs divide in the Irish sea, which is anathema to the unionist party.

Hardline Tory Eurosceptics also object to it, as they perceive it to be a trap that could potentially lock the UK into the EU’s customs union permanently if the UK & EU cannot seal a free trade agreement. That would prevent the UK from doing its own free trade deals with nations outside the bloc. 

What was added to May’s withdrawal agreement?

Joint interpretative instrument 

A legal add-on to the withdrawal agreement was given to Theresa May in January 2019 to try and get her deal through the UK parliament. It gives legal force to a letter from Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, the presidents of the commission and council. This stated the EU’s intention to negotiate an alternative to the backstop so it would not be triggered, or, if it was triggered, to get out of it as quickly as possible.

Unilateral statement from the UK 

This set out the British position that, if the backstop was to become permanent and talks on an alternative were going nowhere, the UK believes it would be able to exit the arrangement.

Additional language in political declaration 

This emphasises the urgency felt on both sides to negotiate an alternative to the backstop, and flesh out what a technological fix would look like. However, it failed to persuade the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, who said that while it ‘reduces the risk’ of the UK being trapped in a backstop indefinitely, it does not remove it.

What happens next?

Prime minister Boris Johnson  declared the Northern Ireland backstop “dead” during his leadership campaign, and promised to throw it out of any deal he re-negotiated with the EU. The EU has repeatedly stated that it will not re-open the Withdrawal Agreement for re-negotiation. 

Daniel Boffey, Martin Belam and Peter Walker 

“When you just focus on one process, one problem, it creates space to negotiate on other things,” he said. “I do think that there’s a small chance a deal gets done.”

But he still puts the probability of that outcome at just 15% – and is convinced the PM is pursuing a “twin-track” strategy: pursue a deal, but be ready to leave with no deal if it comes to the crunch.

Johnson and his opponents will spend the weekend preparing for the dramatic constitutional clash that will be played out in the chambers of the Palace of Westminster when MPs return from their summer break next Tuesday. But few of them doubt that the ultimate battle will be have to be fought at the polls.



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