Many in the House of Commons expected the government to return to parliament humbled and looking a little squeamish. The Supreme Court ruling was supposed to have damaged the Prime Minister. Perhaps there was an expectation that he would sit at the dispatch box and absorb the anger and accusations of his fellow MPs. Not a bit of it. Perhaps the surest indication that this was going to be a rather combative response came when the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox MP took to the floor of the House in the early afternoon. He accused the current parliament of having no moral right to sit of the green benches and overseeing a zombie government that is neither allowed to die by losing a general election, nor to govern. Opposition MPs seemed rather shocked but there was more to come.
Boris Johnson made his appearance much later than had been previously expected. He entered the House to some cheers from his colleagues but soon afterwards found himself on the receiving end of raucous applause. Throughout his statement to Parliament he drew groans of disapproval for referring to the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019, to give it its proper title, as the Surrender Bill or other variations on that theme. Like Geoffrey Cox, who repeatedly claimed that the current parliament was dead, Boris Johnson seemed intent on goading the opposition MPs and soon enough tempers had become frayed. Eventually the death of Jo Cox came on to the agenda. Johnson was accused of stoking conflict and division of the sort that had led to the death of the former MP for Batley and Spen, to which he replied ‘humbug’. By this point the febrile atmosphere seemed ready to crack.
The Prime Minister stood at the dispatch box for over three hours before leaving the commons and refusing to stick around and listen to points of order. By that point he had roused the opposition MPs to a state of high dudgeon and had come out fighting. Those who didn’t like him to begin with would have left that encounter even less pleased with what they saw. On the other hand he may have further burnished his credentials with his core supporters. Probably this is precisely the kind of maverick performance that will be required to get some more of those stubborn Brexit party voters to opt for a darker shade of blue. But what is not in doubt is that today’s exchanges have left the nation’s primary debating chamber in a brittle and incendiary state. Tomorrow we will see if Boris Johnson has succeeded in goading enough opposition MPs into concluding that they really don’t have any confidence in this Prime Minister.