Boris Johnson slithered from the House of Commons early on Tuesday morning in the weakest position any prime minister has faced for decades.
His party is bitterly divided, he can’t pass any measure through parliament and his Brexit strategy has hit the buffers. He suffered his fifth and sixth parliamentary defeats in as many days at the start of this week.
Johnson then prorogued—suspended—parliament for five weeks to avoid further scrutiny.
MPs had voted to hand over private messages sent by senior aides plotting the prorogation of parliament, and secret papers detailing preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
They then voted to refuse Johnson’s call for a general election.
The knives are out for him from some of his former colleagues. Last weekend Amber Rudd resigned as work and pensions secretary and quit as a Conservative MP.
Two days earlier Boris Johnson’s brother, Jo Johnson, had also quit as a minister and Tory MP.
Rudd, one of the most pro-EU figures in the party, was among a group of Tory MPs who have opposed a no-deal Brexit. They included Greg Clark, Philip Hammond and David Gauke, all of whom were thrown out of the party last week.
They had voted for an extension to the deadline for leaving the EU.
Former chancellor Hammond has threatened legal action against the Conservatives.
The bill to stop a no-deal Brexit received royal assent on Monday. It instructs Johnson to request from the EU an extension to the Brexit deadline until January 2020 if there is no deal agreed by 19 October.
Johnson has said he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than seek a further delay to Brexit. So with no-deal—temporarily—taken off the table and a snap election blocked, Johnson has returned to talk of securing a deal with the EU.
That looks unlikely, although he has made some noises about accepting a revised version of the Irish backstop rather than insisting on its removal.
Doing a deal with the EU would please big business and take some of the heat off Johnson in parliament. But the Brexit Party would unleash a firestorm of denunciation, stand candidates across Britain and all but guarantee a Tory defeat at an election.
So Johnson is also considering accompanying the formal request for an extension with further documents making clear that the government does not really want it.
There was even talk of him defying the law, or of resigning so some other figure will have to go to the European summit on 17 October.
But whatever option he takes, Johnson has no easy way out.
MPs let him off the hook
Boris Johnson’s only hope is that the opposition will continue to prove unable to make the most of his troubles.
Opposition parties have twice run away from the chance of a general election.
The Scottish National Party continues to prioritise stopping Brexit to using the crisis to create a social movement to win independence.
On Monday, Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson said her party would support the cancellation of Article 50.
This is the formal process to leave the European Union.
That could be written into the Lib Dem manifesto at the party conference starting on Saturday.
The move reveals that behind all the Lib Dems’ talk of a “People’s Vote” was a brute determination to overturn the 2016 referendum by any means.
Big business will be cheering.
Johnson will hope to pose as the friend of ordinary voters against the elite who refuse to listen to them—over Brexit and other issues.
We shouldn’t let him.