There are plenty people eligible to vote who weren’t alive when Sir John Major was Prime Minister, but in the space of a minute someone who isn’t so much yesterday’s but last century’s man has made an autumn general election almost inevitable.
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday, Sir John announced he would personally seek a judicial review if, as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson sought to suspend Parliament in order to force through a No Deal Brexit.
During the tetchy ITV Conservative leadership debate the previous evening, Jeremy Hunt ruled out any possibility of him “proroguing” Parliament if a new deal to leave the EU by October 31 proved impossible, but the runaway favourite Mr Johnson gave no such commitment.
To suspend Parliament requires Royal Assent, so the Prime Minister would need to seek the Queen’s approval which would put her in a situation no monarch has faced since the Civil War. The constitutional precedent would require her to follow her Prime Minister’s advice, but that advice would be to ignore Parliament, which has not happened since Charles I in 1629.
I doubt even Boris Johnson would put Her Majesty in such a position, but Sir John’s view is advice to bypass Parliament could be challenged in law, and with the precedent of the Gina Miller case in which the Supreme Court ruled Parliament had to approve the decision to trigger the Article 50 withdrawal notice it would have every chance of success.
His intervention, plus a narrow Commons vote for fortnightly updates on power-sharing in Northern Ireland, means another Brexit vote in the Commons, and given there is no majority for any settlement, the impasse can only be unblocked by a new mandate from a General Election.
In the ITV head-to-head, Mr Johnson inadvertently spoke of the “forthcoming election” and the suspicion is that refusing to rule out suspension was dodging a corner into which he is already boxed.
But with polling in England showing a four-way split between Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem and Brexit, it’s hard to see what answer a General Election will produce unless there is a Conservative-Brexit pact which would in turn split the Tories. Here, the SNP will relish the opportunity to regain ground lost at the 2017 vote, and up in Perth last Friday for the Scottish leg of the Conservative leadership hustings, both Mr Hunt and Mr Johnston received cheers for emphasising their opposition to a second independence referendum, rightly arguing the 2014 vote was supposed to be for a generation.
But a total block no matter what? Far be it for a mere cooncillor to offer advice, but what if the SNP makes a clear commitment to hold a second independence referendum its top priority and wins a landslide similar to 2015?
It makes no sense for Scottish Conservatives to argue there will be no referendum whatever the result because Unionist support will be best galvanised by a clear message that a big SNP victory will mean a re-run of 2014.
Nor is it a great strategy to give wavering Unionists any hint the SNP is a safe vote because a referendum is off the table.
Despite his resignation from the Cabinet and the bluster which has been on full display on both TV and at the hustings, the fact remains that Mr Johnson voted for Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement and the only way to avoid a General Election and the danger of a second independence referendum is for all Conservatives in Westminster to rally round a deal with the support of the DUP and those Labour MPs who face a wipe-out in pro-Brexit Northern seats.
Mr Johnson looks set to win in a fortnight, but unless he pulls something out the bag he could beat George Canning’s 1827 record of the shortest term in office. And 17 weeks from now is the first week in November.