If one went by the whoops of joy that echoed around Labour conference following the UK Supreme Court ruling that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament was unlawful, one might think the prime minister was about to be marched to the Tower of London.
Long term, the decision is a monumental one with immense consequences for the British constitution and the prerogative powers of the executive. It is a powerful judicial rebuke to the government and a welcome check on any future attempt to bypass parliament. It is also a humiliating moment for this least humble of leaders. Mr Johnson has in effect been found to have lied to the country about the reason for proroguing parliament, after he made no great effort in evidence to offer any alternative explanation for his actions.
Despite the enormous constitutional implications, the immediate political impact may be less seismic. The short-term consequences for Brexit in particular may be more limited.
Legislation to prevent a no-deal Brexit has already cleared parliament. MPs may well find new ways to torture the prime minister with urgent questions, more motions for disclosure of private communications and committee scrutiny. Mr Johnson may also have to face some uncomfortable questions about his links to the tech entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri, a friend whose businesses received government funds. Legislation that was shelved due to prorogation must be restored. A question also arises about who bears the costs incurred by this illegal action.
Parliament will resume on Wednesday and Mr Johnson’s reputation has now taken a serious battering. The impact is hard to gauge but this is the kind of defeat even disengaged voters notice. His party has yet one more reason to question the brilliance of the Downing Street aides who came up with the prorogation plan. It is now a wheeze that has failed in every way. It failed to stop the legislation blocking no deal. By pre-emptively forcing the issue, the move also led to the exclusion of 21 Tory MPs. It failed to secure an early election, and now it has been declared unlawful. As political gambits go, this turned out to be an absolute stinker.
Some Tories may use the ruling to call for the dismissal of some of those behind the move, not least Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief strategist, and Nikki da Costa, his constitutional affairs adviser. Their positions would normally be in jeopardy, but these are not normal times, and ultimately Mr Johnson owns this unlawful action. In any case, in ordinary times his position might be most in jeopardy.
Mr Johnson has been humbled by the courts, but his narrative of the people versus the elites remains. Those who believe in him will not be diverted by this ruling; those who do not had already made up their minds. Mr Johnson has already tried to force an election and been denied it by the opposition. Unless Labour is now prepared to force an election, all the demands for Mr Johnson to go will seem fairly synthetic.
The prime minister will not welcome the return of parliament where his record is the remarkable six votes; six defeats. The immediate impact of this ruling will depend largely on how parliament uses whatever extra time it is now afforded by the decision. But the key events on the countdown to the October 31 Brexit deadline have already been set.