How quickly did the Number 10 official who gave out the quote realise their mistake? Perhaps it was the moment they saw it flickering on the screen as it racked up angry retweets: “The legal activists choose the Scottish courts for a reason.”
The realisation must have been pretty swift – it was leapt on by all but the most hardened Brexiteers, from SNP to Labour to Conservatives (particularly Scots).
Not only did it suggest Downing Street was questioning the impartiality of the judiciary, it handed the SNP a gift-wrapped opportunity to accuse the UK Government of holding the Scottish legal system in contempt.
Of all the heads being held in hands at the comment, none were buried deeper than Scottish Tories contemplating a snap election, with several already updating their CVs.
In fairness to them, when I caught up with the person behind the quote, the anonymous source told me they were “feeling really stupid”. This wasn’t part of a Dominic Cummings scheme to further split a divided country and fuel the Brexit culture war – at least that’s not how it was intended.
But it looked that way, because in its single-minded, aggressive pursuit of a people-versus-parliament showdown over Brexit, this Government’s game plan has turned into a string of unforced errors.
Which was the most serious? Was it attempting to downplay the Sunday Times report about Operation Yellowhammer preparations for a no-deal Brexit, sending Michael Gove out to claim the dossier was old, then changing the heading so that the dire predictions were rebranded from a “base scenario” to “reasonable worse case”?
It meant that a story that might have been spun more positively as one about Brexit preparedness, instead became yet another opportunity to question the Government’s integrity.
Was it threatening to unseat the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, by running a Conservative candidate against him in his Buckinghamshire constituency in breach of convention? Bercow was already willing to stretch precedent in order to give anti-Brexit forces in the Commons every opportunity to frustrate the Government.
The aggressive move revealed by his nemesis, the former Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom, prompted him to ensure his departure was of greatest help to the Government’s critics, and set him free to mount an extraordinary protest on the night parliament was suspended.
Was it the decision to prorogue parliament itself? The point was to stop MPs from delaying Brexit, but it failed on that count; and as well as giving the impression of an executive running from scrutiny, it removed Downing Street’s ability to remind voters of the opposition’s refusal to allow an election.
One leading pro-EU MP told me they were quietly pleased at being prorogued, because it meant there couldn’t be any more votes under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, and Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t be tempted to rush to the polls.
The biggest mistake, though, must be the assumption that the opposition would give Johnson the majority election win he needs to deliver his strategy.
A pre-Brexit election that removed the possibility of delaying the UK’s exit date would have swept away the threat from the Brexit Party.
Now, the Prime Minister has been forced to rule out a pact with Nigel Farage because doing otherwise would look like a capitulation, and therefore risks an electoral meltdown after 31 October. Who’s feeling stupid about that?