Given that Westminster has spent weeks debating the possibility of Boris Johnson proroguing parliament, it was surprising how surprised MPs were when he actually did it. Even his own cabinet ministers were rather taken aback, having returned to Whitehall on Tuesday expecting to spend the week in meetings with the Treasury about their spending review settlement. Now, they’re preparing for an election, which would be the result of a successful vote of no confidence in the government, forced through by MPs determined to thwart Johnson’s manoeuvring. Even if that scenario does not unfold, he is likely to call one immediately after Britain has left the EU on 31 October.
The MPs most unsettled by the announcement are the ones who have spent the summer plotting tactics to use against Johnson. These anti-no deal MPs, who exist more as a diaspora than a coherent group, love plotting among themselves, but have an amusing distaste for anyone who plots against them in return. As one Johnson ally puts it: “The anti-no deal alliance have been so used to setting the weather recently. Instead, they’ve had the weather reset, so it’s raining on their parade, and they don’t like it.”
Not only do these remain-minded MPs now have more pressure and less time to decide how they might stop no deal, they are also facing an imminent election. If that election happens before 31 October then the “remain alliance” will need to ensure that parliament returns with more MPs who can help them stop no deal, as currently none of the different factions trying to prevent this outcome have the numbers. This will be extremely difficult in a campaign which Johnson plans to run as a battle between the people and parliament.
The Conservatives are also using prorogation to prepare their domestic manifesto. That’s why secretaries of state found their spending review meetings had been sped up unexpectedly. Cabinet ministers recognised this new timetable for what it was as soon as they were told about it. “I am not surprised,” one told me. “Everything Dominic Cummings [Johnson’s top adviser] seems to be doing is towards an election.” The Treasury will now complete this one-year allocation of money for departments next Wednesday, rather than later in the autumn.
Preparations are well under way for what the manifesto will be, with MPs working on detailed proposals to be written into it. The Conservative plan to restabilise their position on education and law and order, making a particular effort to reverse what Johnson and his allies feel is the damage done by Theresa May to the latter. Fighting crime won’t just be about policing but also about preventative measures, including a focus on children from messy backgrounds who are on the cusp of the criminal justice system. And the spending taps are definitely on. “We’ve got the money, we’ve got the scope to do that and so we’re going to spend it,” says one figure involved in the preparations.
All of this makes the Tories sound as though they are well prepared to win an election, whether it comes before 31 October or not. But not all MPs are quite so convinced. Some, in fact, fear that their party might be in for a big and nasty surprise. “I don’t think this is a done deal,” worries one senior Conservative. “Look, Churchill won the war and then lost the election, and once Brexit is done, the debate won’t be about what a wonderful job Boris has done. It will move on and I’m not convinced that our high spending message will really help us.”
The British public might well be ready to hear a party proclaim that austerity is over. But, traditionally, that isn’t the Tory party. The Conservatives will never manage to match what the Labour party is offering, not least because Labour is likely to end up offering far more than the Tories think is affordable. In that scenario, voters might wonder why they should back Labour-lite if they can instead have the real thing.
Of course, the reason the Tories are in a rush to get an election over and done with is that voters could be persuaded to back Labour-lite if the alternative is a Labour government not led by Jeremy Corbyn. With a different leader, the opposition might have a stronger prospect of making this an even worse snap election call by a Tory leader than Theresa May’s 2017 poll.
That currently seems unlikely. But then again, everything that has seemed unlikely has ended up coming to pass in British politics over the past few years. It wasn’t long ago that a confident new leader, doing well in the polls, and a bunch of apparently very competent and forceful advisers, decided to make things more difficult for MPs who were trying to frustrate Britain’s exit from the EU. And we all know what sort of surprise lay in store for May.
• Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of the Spectator