Interviewing Boris Johnson is like staring long and hard into an expressionist painting: there are pyrotechnics, the shape of commitments and policies, but it might all be mirage.
After I spoke with him on Wednesday for my show, my abiding sense was that he would dearly love a root-and-branch renegotiation of Theresa May’s Brexit deal, but that his famous optimism is not the same as naïveté. He knows replacing the Withdrawal Agreement at this late juncture is a million-to-one chance – and so leaving without a deal may be the only way to meet his deadline of Brexit by 31 October.
That is why, for example, he was so gung-ho for a war-time style public information campaign, asking small businesses what government can do for them, and vice versa, to help make the UK no-deal ready. “Let us go forward together” Johnson almost said, nodding at his hero Churchill, with the Chancellor barking in the background “reverse now, away from the cliff edge!”
The unspoken truth of a Johnson premiership is that he expected to be the no-deal PM. So did yesterday’s vote in the Commons kibosh his Brexit even before the Tory leadership ballot has been counted? Not exactly.
The vote makes it almost impossible for Boris Johnson to prorogue or suspend parliament, to force through a no-deal exit from the EU while our elected representatives are locked out of the chamber.
So just as happened before the initial Brexit deadline of 31 March, the vote empowers MPs to have their say on how or whether the UK leaves the EU, before the die is permanently and irrevocably cast.
But it means no more than that MPs will keep their voice. What is less clear is to what purpose they will speak and rule, because like the rest of the country, MPs are furiously and passionately divided on what kind of Brexit – if any – they want.
It was striking, for example, how few Labour Brexiters voted to give Johnson a licence to bulldoze over the Commons in pursuit of Brexit. Kate Hoey, who fears no backlash from remainy Labour members because she is retiring, was the sole Boris-backing rebel. But some others may yet vote for Johnson’s abrupt Brexit in October if the alternative were no Brexit at all.
That said, the Chancellor and the other ministerial truants – who bunked off voting rather than allow Johnson a dictator’s powers – will double the power of their abstentions by voting against a no deal.
So in truth MPs can and probably will stop no-deal Brexit on Halloween. So next time you hear Johnson’s pledge to Brexit on that date, think tooth fairy.
But if we are not leaving without a deal on 31 October, we may still be out of the EU, unbackstopped in Ireland and fully frictioned on the border with France, not long after. How so?
Well the loudness of Johnson’s protestations that there can be no general election BEFORE Brexit are in inverse proportion to practical reality. There probably can be no no-deal Brexit unless and until the British people vote for him and it in a general election. In Johnson, the Tories are choosing (almost inevitably) a formidable campaigner, not a steady-as-she goes administrator or negotiator.
Whether they see it yet or not, there is an inescapable logic to that choice – which is that only Johnson’s putative ability to win a general election with a comfortable majority offers any prospect of any version of Brexit or an escape from yet more months and even years of cancerous government paralysis.
You might think a referendum would be the safer choice for him. But the opposite is true – because a referendum would deprive him of the opportunity of capitalising on the chaos in the Labour party and would not deliver him a working majority in parliament. Probably time to strap ourselves in ahead of an autumn general election. Cripes, as someone might say.
Robert Peston is ITV’s political editor. This article originally appeared on his ITV news blog