On the afternoon of this past Wednesday — following the U.K. supreme court’s ruling that the prorogation of Parliament by Her Majesty’s Government was unlawful, null, and void, had never happened at all legally, and would have to be reversed — the U.K’s chief legal officer, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, rose to speak to a largely hostile House of Commons. In addition to feeling the government’s general travails, Cox seemed to be in a sticky position personally because it was he who had advised the cabinet that prorogation was indisputably legal — to the point that anyone who denied it could have only political motives for so doing.
Cox was therefore defending himself as much as the government.
When he sat down a short time later, the Tory benches were buoyant, cheering for the first time in weeks. Cox had knocked Labour MPs, ex-Tory dissidents, Liberal Democrat scolds, and the entire anti-Brexit Coalition of Incompatibles around the Commons chamber with the kind of robust theatrical performance that only a top Queen’s counsel (a kind of super-lawyer) can put across with easy conviction.
While respecting the supreme court’s judgment, he said he did not agree with it. He refused to apologize for the legal advice he had given the cabinet, which reflected what the law was before the supreme court’s judgment. He responded forcefully and even dismissively to successive critics on the Opposition benches, telling one Labour MP that he ought to beg the forgiveness of his voters for betraying them over Brexit. And overall, he denounced the opposition parties for cowardice and obstructionism:
Let me tell them the truth, they can vote no confidence at any time, but they are too cowardly. They could agree to a motion to allow this House to dissolve, but they are too cowardly. This parliament should have the courage to face the electorate, but it won’t, because so many of them are really all about preventing us leaving the European Union — but the time is coming, the time is coming, Mr. Speaker, when even these turkeys won’t be able to prevent Christmas.
Twice he delivered a line that had the Opposition benches screeching like the demonically possessed from an Exorcist movie: “This parliament is a dead parliament. It should no longer sit. It has no moral right to sit on these green benches.”
It was a great barnstorming performance. It gave fresh heart to the Tories by making clear that the government would not roll over in response to its recent constitutional reverse but would stick to its policy of leaving the EU by October 31. It was interpreted as proof that the government was preparing to fight — indeed to provoke, if possible — an election on a People versus Parliament ticket. And it turned out to be trailer for a performance by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the following day when, with similar boldness, he denounced the Opposition’s bill to prevent Brexit, calling it a “surrender” to the EU.
On both occasions, the Opposition benches exploded in anger and indignation. Not unmixed with calculation, however.
What their reaction revealed was that the anti-Tory coalition was extremely nervous that this populist appeal could well be seriously popular and that the Opposition was already testing ways to hinder and obstruct it. The first such test was launched against the attorney general. When he was asked at what point he became aware that his legal advice on prorogation was “not true,” he replied, “When did you stop beating your wife?”
Labour MP Emma Hardy was at once on her feet, warning that Cox should “moderate his language” and not make a “joke” of domestic violence. He apologized amiably (and needlessly) that it was an old legal joke showing he had been asked an accusation rather than a question. But the tut-tutting from the Opposition would probably be continuing still if Guido Fawkes (a leading conservative blogger) had not unearthed footage of Hardy using exactly the same phrase in an earlier debate.
That was too late, however; the meme was out of the gate. John Bercow, the first openly non-impartial speaker, had already intoned sententiously:
It is a matter of extreme sensitivity and it is incredibly important that we are sensitive to the wider implications and interpretation of what we say. Society’s mores change, and sometimes one can find that things that one has freely said in the past without causing offence can no longer be said without causing offence.
Mr. Pecksniff could not have said it better. Partisans posing as referees had the broad outlines of the script handed to them.
Next day, therefore, the same tactic was deployed in a more thorough and ruthless way. When the prime minister attacked a bill amending the Brexit legislation — the so-called Benn bill after its main proposer, Hilary Benn — as a “surrender” bill because, among other things, it allows the EU to select the date for the U.K.’s departure, a Labour MP, Paula Sherriff, exploded with indignation. She was angered that Johnson was using “offensive, dangerous, and inflammatory language” that in addition to being bad in itself, was likely to provoke physical attacks on MPs and others like herself. In this context, she referred obliquely to the murder of an MP, Jo Cox, during the referendum campaign by a deranged extremist. And she alleged that people were telephoning her with death threats and using words such as “surrender” and “treason” — or as she put it, “quoting the prime minister.”
“I’ve never heard such humbug in all my life,” responded Boris Johnson.
As if to prove him correct, there then followed an outburst of hysteria and indignation on the Labour side.
Another female MP, who had been elected for the constituency previously held by Jo Cox, now rose and, again referring to the murdered MP, appealed almost tearfully to Johnson not to use wounding words to describe the opinions of people who merely disagreed with him. Johnson replied that it was perfectly fair to describe a piece of legislation as “a surrender bill, a capitulation bill” if it greatly reduced the ability of the government to negotiate the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU. This did not mollify Johnson’s critics.
He then made a small mistake of taste. Up to this point, Labour female MPs were the only speakers who had referred to the murder of Jo Cox in relation to words that wound. In replying to Jo Cox’s successor, however, Boris said that the best way to pay tribute to Cox would be to get Brexit passed and out of the way. It was seemingly intended as a pacifying sentiment that might damp down the reigning hysteria on the opposite benches. Instead, the prime minister was accused of exploiting her death to advance his political agenda.
If you doubt my account — and I would sympathize with you for doing so — see this parliamentary footage courtesy of the Guardian.
In principle, of course, half the people denouncing Johnson for advancing Brexit claim that they too want to see Brexit passed; in reality, they are trying to delay it until the Greek calends, which a classical scholar like Boris Johnson would know means “until the day of never.” And because most reporters and commentators share this hope, much of their coverage reduced the incident to the capsule message “Boris exploits death of Labour MP in defense of his Wounding Words.”
Thus, the prime minister having enjoyed something like a first-night triumph at Westminster, with Tory MPs giving him an ovation like that enjoyed by Geoffrey Cox the day before, woke up the next morning to decidedly mixed reviews (which I think Noel Coward defined as “one or two kind and the rest insulting”). Over the next few days, Boris was doused in a cascade of moralistic sermonizing from other politicians, some of them former or marginal Tories, all anxious to keep the language of British politics clean, inoffensive, and extraordinarily dull in the great cause of handicapping his pursuit of Brexit.
Not that everyone was restrained — or intended to be restrained. Former Tory prime minister John Major, an old Europhile, denounced Boris’s robust rhetoric in, er, extremely robust terms: “Words such as ‘saboteur,’ ‘traitor,’ ‘enemy,’ ‘surrender,’ ‘betrayal’ have no place in our party, our politics, nor in our society.” He also thought they were un-Conservative.
Of course, as now often happens in the age of the Internet and Google, anyone who strikes a noble pose of opposition to lies and obscenity is almost immediately presented with evidence of his own wicked words or bad behavior on tape or film. Major was soon reminded that he had described his former cabinet colleagues who defied him over the Maastricht treaty in the 1990s as “bastards.” Nor did it help that the Sunday Telegraph serialization of the final volume of Charles Moore’s Margaret Thatcher biography, just out, depicts him as scheming to replace her while affecting to support her. A particularly nice touch was that he signed Mrs. Thatcher’s nomination papers for the second leadership ballot on condition that they be given to her campaign team only if she decided not to run. They would then be useless except as evidence of his loyalty.
I would call that low cunning of a high order, but perhaps such words have no place in our elevated and sanitized political life.
The attacks on Boris Johnson’s rhetoric — in particular those that traced the murder of Jo Cox forward to his use of “surrender” and “sabotage” — were meant to make it impossible for the Tories to wage a vigorous and effective campaign against MPs who had promised to support Brexit but had since done all they could to obstruct and prevent it. (A secondary bonus is that Labour MPs will be positioned to blame the Tories if any physical attacks do occur.) Naturally, if you’re secretly aiming to obstruct something, you will loudly condemn the pejorative use of the word “obstruction” as offensive, dangerous, or inflammatory. The solution is to back off from deceptive obstruction, however, rather than to police language
Speaker John Bercow has reached the opposite conclusion — inevitably, I suppose, since he’s seeking to obstruct Brexit, though not very secretly — and is calling the party leaders together to discuss some new code of linguistic conduct. Some insulting words such as “liar” are already prohibited as “un-parliamentary terms.” If the list of such terms goes further to include words such as “capitulation” and “surrender” as descriptions of a rival policy or as metaphors for appeasing policies, that would be a ludicrous restraint on truth as well as on clear and honest language. It’s not clear to me that Westminster’s famously combative politics could even be carried on under such puritan verbal restraints. Would Bercow’s list of forbidden terms reduce two politicians across the dispatch box to an embarrassed silence, in P. G. Wodehouse’s words, as between “a couple of Trappist monks who have run into each other at the dog races”?
Fortunately for political life, this latest Bercow exercise in vanity seems unlikely to progress far. Boris Johnson told the BBC Sunday, at the start of the Tory party’s annual conference, that while he deplored physical threats, he did not regret “using the word ‘surrender’ to describe the surrender act.” He also suggested that everyone should keep calm and carry on, and when asked whether that included him, he said: “I think I’ve been the model of restraint.”
It’s not an unreasonable claim. Plainly, however, Boris does not intend to adopt the policy of unilateral rhetorical disarmament that his enemies were trying to impose on him. That makes him a more formidable opponent to Remainers and a bigger threat to their hopes of blocking Brexit. They are starting to realize that and to worry that Boris might be too wily and determined an operator to leave in possession of the formidable powers of a PM. Though he seems to have no face cards in his hand, he might produce four aces from his sleeve or, worse, a razor. Their minds are turning to evicting him from Downing Street sooner rather than later. At the beginning of a week in which the Tory party is holding its annual bean-feast in Manchester, the other parties at Westminster will be trying to put together a coalition to oust him from Downing Street and to replace him with a Remain Unity prime minister. . . . But as yet they can’t agree on who that might be.
Postscript: In the course of his barnstorming address, Attorney General Cox also let slip a remark that few people noticed. The constitutional consequences of actions such as the supreme court’s decision, he said, and their importance, usually take time to become apparent. They are now becoming apparent, and they point to a burgeoning crisis even more significant to democracy than Brexit. More on that in due course.