Boris Johnson’s New York speech stumbled on even after Supreme Court struck him down from across the pond

As the prime minister spoke, there was no plan for what happens next – as events spiralled out of control 3,500 miles away

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor, in New York
Tuesday 24 September 2019 17:27 BST
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Boris Johnson says he 'strongly disagrees' with Supreme Court judgment

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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It is not easy to deliver a speech hailing your country as “the best place in the world” to do business moments after you have been declared a legal pariah – and Boris Johnson showed it.

The prime minister had no choice but to press on with his address to bosses, to the stunning backdrop of the Hudson River, but there was a whole herd of elephants in the room.

Just moments earlier, No 10 had confirmed what we all suspected – that the prime minister faced the humiliation of cutting short his trip to fly home early, effectively hauled back by the Supreme Court justices.

His aides were busy insisting he had no intention of resigning, despite the brutal finding that he acted unlawfully, but acknowledge that may not be up to him much longer.

In truth, Downing Street was expecting the verdict – I’m told that crisis meetings had become “bleaker and bleaker”, as staff realised the case was only going one way and not theirs.

Nevertheless, as Mr Johnson prepared to speak, there was no plan for what happens next, a recognition that events had spiralled out of control.

Will he prorogue parliament again? It is his “preference”, implicit in the desire to still hold a Queen’s Speech, but not yet definitely – as I said, maybe not his decision to take.

No 10 appears to hold out hope for “a short recess”, to enable at least some of the Conservative conference to go ahead in Manchester next week, but no one knows if that will be allowed.

Had the prime minister spoken to Buckingham Palace yet, perhaps to apologise for dragging the Queen through the mire? The question was swerved, but it appears not.

Dominic Cummings could be blamed for the strategy now lying in tatters, but “advisers advise and ministers decide” – as Mr Johnson had told reporters on the plane to New York.

Back in the room, he was doing what he does best, winning guffaws of laughter for gags about “bureaucrats” whose absurd rules stand in the way of free trade.

A joke that the US military is banned from buying UK tape measures – “as if there is still some kind of prejudice against British rulers” – was genuinely funny.

But the prime minister’s attempt at defiance – “We in the UK will not be deterred from getting on with delivering on the will of the British people to come out of the EU on 31 October” – simply sounded ludicrous.

A comment that his “heart is lifted” by a return to the city of his birth, after an “adverse” court judgment, was closer to the mark. All too soon it will be time to face the music back home.

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