Boris Johnson may be planning to bypass a law blocking a no-deal Brexit by issuing an order to suspend it until after the scheduled date of Britain’s EU withdrawal on 31 October, former prime minister Sir John Major has warned.
The order could be passed by ministers acting in the Privy Council without the involvement of parliament or the Queen, said Sir John, who denounced the tactic as “a piece of political chicanery that no one should ever forgive or forget”.
In a speech to the Centre for European Reform, the former PM said he suspects that Mr Johnson is eager for an early election because he has seen the unedited version of government impact assessments and wants the vote out of the way before the public is aware of the full scale of the damage no deal will do to the country.
Denouncing Mr Johnson’s administration as a “Brexit Party tribute band”, Major urged moderate Tories to take action rein them in, warning that the PM’s “profoundly un-Conservative” Brexit strategy is doing permanent damage to the party’s reputation.
Johnson was deliberately whipping up public anger and grievance against parliament and the courts – “the most important bulwarks of our state and its freedom” – in his “reckless and divisive” attempt to win re-election, he said.
Sir John’s speech, at the Spanish embassy in London, was described by his former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine as “the most devastating critique of an existing Conservative prime minister by one of their predecessors I have ever read”.
“His call for the House of Commons to reunite against a faction of the party to which he and I have given our political lives is the clearest possible signpost of the danger to this country and to the Conservative Party if present strategy continues,” said Lord Heseltine, a leading supporter of the campaign for a People’s Vote referendum.
Despite the passage earlier this month of the so-called Benn Act, which requires the PM to request an extension to Brexit negotiations to the end of January if he has failed to secure parliamentary support for a deal by 19 October, Mr Johnson continues to insist that he will take the UK out of the EU on 31 October, deal or no deal.
Both the PM and his ministers repeatedly state that Mr Johnson will not break the law, but so far no one has explained how he can avoid this without breaching his “do or die” Brexit promise by going to Brussels to ask for an extension to the Article 50 process.
Sir John said: “My fear is that the government will seek to bypass statute law, by passing an Order of Council to suspend the Act until after 31 October.
“It is important to note that an Order of Council can be passed by privy councillors – that is government ministers – without involving Her Majesty the Queen.
“I should warn the prime minister that – if this route is taken – it will be in flagrant defiance of parliament and utterly disrespectful to the Supreme Court.
“It would be a piece of political chicanery that no one should ever forgive or forget.”
Major submitted evidence against the prime minister at the Supreme Court hearing which led to this week’s humiliating ruling that his prorogation of parliament was unlawful.
And the former PM was scathing about Johnson’s claim that the unanimous finding of 11 of the UK’s most senior judges was “wrong”, describing it as “the cry of those found guilty of misdemeanours throughout the ages”.
Sir John said Mr Johnson’s approach to Brexit negotiations was making a no-deal departure daily more likely, and ensuring that any deal struck with the EU would be “flimsy and partial”.
And he suggested that the prospect of an impending no deal may be behind the PM’s increasingly loud demands for an early election.
Ministers’ political calculation appeared to be driven by the desire to hold an election while Jeremy Corbyn remains leader of the Labour Party and by their access to the full unredacted version of the Operation Yellowhammer documents setting out the likely impacts of a no-deal withdrawal, he said.
“They know how serious the problems will be for the people of this country after a no-deal Brexit, and wish to have the election out of the way before the reality of the mess that lies ahead becomes clear,” said Sir John.
“If the government was truly confident in the aftermath of their Brexit policy, they would wait for next spring; take credit for the success of Brexit, rejoice – even gloat – that all fears about it were unfounded and propose a few popular One Nation policies to restore the fortunes of the Conservatives.
“But instead, to reinforce their electoral appeal, the government seems intent on whipping up dissent by using highly emotional and evocative language that can only provoke fear and anger, and fuel grievances against parliament and the law.
“Consider what this means. It means this government wishes to win re-election by inciting opposition to the most important bulwarks of our state and its freedom.
“Their approach is profoundly un-Conservative and, whatever its short-term effect, will do permanent damage to the reputation of the Conservative Party.
“I cannot believe any previous government in our long history would have even considered such reckless and divisive behaviour.”
Sir John predicted that any election held before Brexit is resolved would be “the most unsavoury of modern times” and would do no more than produce another divided and fragmented parliament.
“It would merely fuel the current feeling of disillusionment and disunity,” he said. “Far from healing the nation, it would scratch away at open wounds.”
Speaking days before the opening of the annual Conservative conference in Manchester, Sir John described himself as being a lifelong Conservative like the 21 MPs expelled from the party for rebelling against Johnson’s Brexit stance.
And – in an apparent call for resistance to Mr Johnson’s leadership – he added: “I hope our millions of traditional, moderate, middle-of-the-road supporters understand that this Conservative government’s present position is an aberration.
“Most Conservatives are not a Brexit Party tribute band, nor have we abandoned our core values to find compromise, seek allies, and strive for unity, rather than division and disarray.
“We do not believe we have the right to ignore the voices of millions of others, whose opinions differ from our own.
“And we abhor the language of division and hate – and words such as “saboteur”, “traitor”, “enemy”, “surrender”, “betrayal” have no place in our party, our politics, nor in our society.
“It is emphatically not who we are as a people. And must never be seen as so.
“I hope that the Conservative Parliamentary Party will regain its sense of balance, and rein in the faction of a faction that now prevails in cabinet.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies