Boris Johnson will not go to Canossa, unlike Theresa May who could not stay away from the place. For her, the Castle of Canossa was the Europa Building in Brussels, the seat of imperial power where the EU potentates hold their quinquennial Durbar and where the feudatory princes from as far as Bulgaria and Romania come to vow allegiance. Because of an extension to Article 50, by which the UK leaves the European Union, Britain was due to sign its departure on October 31. But Boris Johnson wants a general election on October 15—which, if he won, would enable him to state Britain’s terms with authority. For the same reason, Labour and all the minor parties want to withhold from him a pre-October election. They would be perfectly happy with a November election, which would fix Britain on the hamster wheel of the EU. It is our old friend, the doctrine of Unripe Time: “We want an election but not at this moment.” The political class, which never intended Britain to leave the EU, is now flexing for a last throw.

That class is further emboldened by the defection from the Government late last week of Jo Johnson, Boris’s younger brother. It is a fratricidal act which has called forth comparisons from the Bible and the works of Jeffrey Archer in equal measure. I thought the Bible did rather well to hold up against such competition. Jo Johnson chose to exit the Government and politics at a particularly vulnerable moment for his brother. As the wits observed, it was a rare instance of a man leaving politics to spend less time with his family. A further blow, if slight, came from a leaked Cabinet document. In a note discussing the merits of prorogation, the Prime Minister wrote “The whole September session is a rigmarole introduced by girly swot Cameron.” The diehard feminist brigade at once attacked with “sexism!” “Girly” crosses their red lines. 

How are these issues to be resolved? Today comes the crisis moment when the Commons debates a motion that would enable the Government to have its October 15 election. Boris needs a two-thirds majority to get his bill. Labour says it will not support it. What then?

Boris has now said that he will not carry out Parliament’s instruction to seek an extension. He is only bound “in theory” by the law Parliament passed to that effect. He believes that the people do not want him to ask for a pointless delay that in itself would resolve nothing. In this he is almost certainly right. If he ignores the Act, he will force the opposition to take him to court or to agree to an election. Either way he could simply run down the clock until Britain leaves the EU without a deal. If he is taken to court he would be seen as a martyr. The issues would be well thrashed out there, and would be seen for what they are: a titanic struggle between the executive and Parliament, which today represents the Establishment not the people. We have been there before.

I add that “martyr” has changed its meaning over time. It no longer means being crucified upside down or shot with many arrows like St Sebastian. Today’s martyr suffers some legal and career disruption, if that. One thing is certain: were Boris to sign any document extending the rule of Brussels beyond October 31 the public would never forgive him and his party. And he knows that.

[Image via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0) ]