The new Prime Minister, whoever it might be, is likely to face two immediate challenges. The first, obviously, is how to bring the Brexit process to a conclusion, one way or another. But the second, closely related, is how to establish his or her authority in Parliament. It is by no means clear that the latter task will be the easier of the two. No Prime Minister, though, can expect to lead the country successfully without first dominating the House of Commons.
The scale of parliamentary opposition that awaits the new Tory leader is becoming clear. Sir Oliver Letwin, who played a key role along with Yvette Cooper earlier this year, has declared his support for a motion to be voted on today that would seize control of the agenda for a single day. That debate would enable the House to rule out a prorogation of Parliament in order to steamroller a No Deal Brexit through by October 31. It could also pave the way for further Brexit debates that might place restrictions on any Government that tries to ignore the will of the Commons.
It is not certain that today’s motion will pass, but Dominic Grieve has also indicated that he would support it; he and Sir Oliver are unlikely to be alone in opposing their own party. Given the parliamentary arithmetic, it would only require a handful of Conservative rebels to enable the Opposition parties to overrule the Government. There will be keen interest in the conduct of the leadership candidates, though only two — Dominic Raab and Esther McVey — have refused to rule out proroguing Parliament and only one — Rory Stewart — has denounced the idea so vehemently that he could conceivably vote with Sir Oliver.
It is unfortunate for Boris Johnson, the runaway favourite in the Tory contest, that his campaign launch today coincides with — and could well be overshadowed by — the latest parliamentary drama. He has kept his powder dry on the use of this arcane constitutional power to force through Brexit, but is certain to face questioning about it.
The Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, says that while what amounts to a suspension of Parliament may be “unconstitutional and improper”, it is not illegal. He is right. A similar prorogation was used by the Labour government of Clement Attlee in 1948 to overcome the resistance of the House of Lords to what then became the Parliament Act 1949. In effect, this was a constitutional coup, which enabled the Commons to bypass the Lords in order to enforce Labour’s policy of nationalisation without delay. What happened in 1948 is not a precise precedent for using prorogation to enforce Brexit against the will of the House of Commons, but there is no law in the statute book that would be broken by the use of such powers. Even if the motion ruling out prorogation were to pass today, it would not amount to a law. While the British constitution is unwritten, it does depend on the rule of law. In this case the law appears to give the Government the benefit of the doubt.
In normal circumstances, such an impasse would be resolved by a general election. These are not, of course, normal circumstances. However, a ComRes poll in today’s Daily Telegraph suggests that under Boris Johnson the Tories would win a landslide majority of 140 seats.
One opinion poll does not mean very much, but it suggests a possible way forward that would avoid a damaging constitutional crisis that would be portrayed as Parliament versus the people. Another solution might be a second referendum, but that option has been ruled out by all ten surviving Tory candidates. Even under a Labour government, Jeremy Corbyn would be against it. A Guardian poll by YouGov earlier this week suggested that a majority of the public would prefer to abandon Brexit. But in our system of representative democracy, a general election would be a much better way of resolving the refusal of some on the Remain side to accept the result of the 2016 referendum.
Right now, Boris Johnson may look like an unstoppable force. But he may meet an immovable object if and when he collides with Parliament — a Parliament that is determined to resist a No Deal Brexit at all costs. Who wins that epic confrontation is likely determine the shape of British politics for many years to come.