Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Johnson’s prospects come in three varieties of Nixon

Early next week we will know who the new Prime Minister is going to be, with the clear expectation that it will be Boris Johnson. There have been many attempts to anticipate how he is going to approach Brexit and to read the not always consistent messages he has given.

Most of the speculation falls into what might be called ‘three varieties of Richard Nixon’, after the former US President.

Nixon goes to China

The first variety is ‘Nixon goes to China’, referring to the 1972 visit to China which began to thaw relations between the two countries. The idea here (which may or may not be historically adequate) is that only Nixon, a fervently anti-Communist right-winger, could have ‘softened’ the US stance to China in the middle of the Cold War. Applied to Johnson, this suggests that he, having been so prominent in the Leave campaign, could – unlike May - have the credibility to compromise the hardliner no-deal Brexit position, presumably by reviving a cosmetically altered version of May’s deal.

Many commentators have discussed this political metaphor in relation to Johnson and Brexit (£) and there are reports that some leaders in the EU-27 hope that it may apply. Without using the metaphor, I’ve speculated before, as have many others, that Johnson could perform such a volte-face precisely because of his lack of principle.

But whilst this is still perfectly possible, its obvious flaw lies in its basic assumption: if Johnson can be expected to renege on the Brexit Ultras because he lacks principled conviction, then he also lacks the credibility with the Ultras that would give him the space for such a manoeuvre. It would be as if a Cold War dove – or, at least, someone with no real credibility as a hawk – had made the trip to China, which makes the whole metaphor break down.

Actually, I’m not convinced that the ERG hardliners would play their allotted role in this even for someone with cast iron pro-Brexit credentials. As I’ve argued many times on this blog their basic orientation is to seek out betrayal to the point of actually welcoming it, so as to bolster their sense of aggrieved victimhood. It follows that they are even less likely to accept the Nixon in China scenario for Johnson, and a recent report suggests that the self-styled ‘Spartans’ will not do so (£).

Madman theory

The second ‘variety of Nixon’ is to consider Johnson as operating a version of ‘madman theory’. This was Nixon’s supposed Cold War strategy of allowing it to be thought that he was so irrational and crazed that he might unleash nuclear warfare, regardless of the consequences. Fearing this unpredictability, other foreign leaders would comply with his demands.

Hence, applied to Johnson, the idea is that by ramping up the threat of no-deal Brexit and appearing to be indifferent to the damage it would cause to the UK he will get his way with the EU. In particular, on the basis of this threat, the EU would substantially change, or even completely remove, the backstop provision from the Withdrawal Agreement.

The comparison with madman theory has actually been made several times in the past in relation to Theresa May’s approach. That might alert us to its most obvious limitation: it simply doesn’t have the weight of threat to the EU to make much difference. Everyone (except, perhaps, a ‘madman’) knows that no-deal Brexit will be far more harmful for the UK than for the EU. But Brexiters may think that this time it will be different because no-one believed that May really was mad enough to do it, whereas they will believe it of Johnson.

That is a rather strange recommendation for the office of Prime Minister (‘vote for our guy – he really is a complete crazy’), but perhaps that is where we have come to. More to the point, and paralleling the problems with the ‘China’ scenario, Brexiters may well be over-estimating Johnson’s credibility as a madman. For something which might well be brought down in the process of ‘pressing the button’ is the one thing that everyone knows Johnson genuinely to care about – his own career.

In fact, perhaps in order to assuage any concerns that Johnson may have on this score as well as to soften-up the public, the continuing cheerleading for no-deal Brexit (£) puts its strongest emphasis on how no-deal will not be damaging, and indeed will be wholly beneficial. The paradox of that, though, is that to the extent that it is accepted that ‘pressing the Brexit nuclear button’ will not cause much or any damage then it ceases to operate as a nuclear button at all, does not require a madman to push it, and isn’t a threat to the EU either.

The biggest danger therefore becomes Johnson pressing the button not because he is too mad to care about the consequences but because he is too foolish to realise what they will be. His performance under the pressure of an excellent Andrew Neil interview last week certainly confirmed the fact that he has virtually no grasp of, or interest in, the practical realities of Brexit at all.

Scandal, failure and premature departure

The third ‘variety of Nixon’ that can be applied to Johnson is to consider how the former’s presidential career ended: early, mired in scandal and a by-word for political and moral failure. The possibility of scandal is ever-present with Johnson, but probably more relevant is the idea that his term in office will be short-lived.

The two varieties sketched above could both lead to that. In the first, he quickly loses the support of the ERG, and does not have enough support from Labour leaver MPs to get a deal through Parliament. In the second, he faces opposition from (let’s say) a Philip Hammond-led backbench revolt of Tory remainers and pragmatists who manage to scupper no-deal Brexit, or he pushes ahead - possibly by suspending Parliament - and faces public wrath for the expected disruption.

On the latter, I think it is insufficiently recognized, by both no-dealers and commentators, just how devastating the political fallout would be of an ‘unelected’ Prime Minister - especially using prorogation powers - enacting a policy with such dire consequences. It would make ‘Black Wednesday’, which eviscerated Tory reputation for economic competence for a political generation, look like a minor blip. For all that he, and the Brexiters, would wheel out numerous excuses (blaming the EU, remainers, May, lack of preparation for no-deal etc.) the overnight effects would make the cause and effect relation very obvious to voters, many of whom would recall that they had been promised something very different in 2016, not least by Johnson himself.

There are clearly numerous different scenarios under this variety of Nixon, including losing a Confidence vote before or after Brexit, but they all track back to the lack of a Tory majority – a situation that may get worse immediately after he reaches office given the impending by election – and to the deeper issue of the lack of any parliamentary majority for any one course of action for Brexit policy.

That, in turn, has implications in terms of the electorate, who are similarly divided. Johnson can gush on as much as he likes about ‘bringing the country together again’, but there is literally nothing he can do which could possibly achieve that (£). Whatever form of Brexit he delivers will anger many leave voters and most remain voters. If he doesn’t deliver, or just delays, Brexit he will enrage most leave voters and will probably get few thanks from remain voters.

So almost any scenario that involves a General Election could see Johnson ejected very early; whilst any scenario that doesn’t involve an election means he will be virtually impotent in parliamentary terms, and very likely with an ungovernable, if not formally split, parliamentary party, making it impossible for him to continue.

It’s possible, I suppose, that he has some plan to deal with this unpropitious situation, although there’s no sign whatsoever of that. More likely he – just like Theresa May – is looking no further ahead than the next event, in this case his finally becoming Prime Minister. He probably has no more idea about what comes next than the rest of us do. The only thing that can be said about that – but it can be said with certainty - is that we are all in for a very rough ride indeed over, at least, the next few months.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

The Darroch leak and what it betokens

The leak of Sir Kim Darroch’s assessment of Trump and his administration and his resignation in its aftermath dramatically underline some of the key features and dangers of Brexit. These are far greater in scope than the immediate issue of what these events tell us about Boris Johnson’s fitness for Prime Ministerial office, although that is one aspect of them.

Whilst the source of the leaks is not yet known (and if it gets discovered, that will be a big moment) it seems widely accepted that they were motivated by pro-Brexit sentiment (£). That much seems clear both from the affiliations of Isabel Oakeshott, the journalist who broke the story, and from the reactions of Brexiter politicians, including Bill Cash and Nigel Farage. Notably, although the leaks relate to Darroch’s assessment of the Trump administration rather than to Brexit, it is his supposed pro-EU and ‘remainer’ sympathies that they object to.

Of course there’s nothing new in the fact that Brexit and Trump are deeply intertwined, both ideologically and in terms of the dense network of personal connections between the two. What is new and quite extraordinary – and I hope that putting it in this way emphasises how extraordinary - is that a pincer movement by the leader of a foreign power and a faction within British politics have succeeded in toppling the most senior British diplomat.

I’m not implying collusion or a concerted effort between the two. No such collusion was necessary. Once the leak had occurred it was all but inevitable what Trump’s reaction would be, not least given Darroch’s own assessment of his character in the documents.

Trump and Brexit

The relationship between Trump’s election and Brexit is complex and contradictory. Obviously it didn’t occur until after the Brexit vote, and in this respect radically changed the context in which Brexit is occurring. The consequences of this are to enhance the geo-political instability and isolation which Brexit would in any case have involved. Trump’s hostility to multi-lateral organizations and the global rules-based order makes Brexit even riskier than it was at the time of the Referendum.

Yet, paradoxically, within the Brexiter narrative one strand is that the EU is unimportant because for security the UK can rely on NATO and for trade on the WTO. Both those propositions are flawed in and of themselves, but they have become more so given Trump’s ambivalence about NATO and outright disdain for the WTO. Moreover, under Trump, even the most substantial (as opposed to sentimental) sense of a special relationship, namely intelligence co-operation, has become strained by, for example, the leak of the Manchester bombing suspect’s name in 2017 and, more recently, the Huawei 5G row.

Similarly, it has become an article of faith amongst hard Brexiters that a trade deal with the US is a great prize, that can both compensate for loss of EU trade and symbolise independence from EU trade policy. Indeed the Brexiters’ case against Darroch is partly framed in these terms, with Farage tweeting that he should be replaced by "a non-remainer who wants a trade deal with America” (ludicrous, anyway, since there’s no reason to think Darroch would be opposed to such a deal post-Brexit and in any case Ambassadors don’t make trade deals).

In fact, the practical prospects for such a deal are highly questionable (£), and the economic benefits close to zero (see p.14 of link) and, certainly, nowhere near enough to compensate for new barriers to EU trade. Crucially, both rely on a President whose capacity to make a deal is constrained by Congress, whose stated policy of ‘America First’ would frame any such deal, and whose personal capriciousness makes him an unreliable negotiating partner.

Within that context, it might be expected that Brexiters would have an interest in the UK maintaining good relations with Trump, rather than the car crash we have seen this week which has probably brought UK-US relations to their lowest point in modern times. Notably, the US has now put trade talks on hold following the leaks.

It may be that the Brexiters believe that ultimately a hardline Brexit administration will be in concord with Trump, and that he will applaud and reward them. That presupposes, of course, that Trump gets a second term and also that he is minded to repay their loyalty in kind. This is likely to be na├»ve both in terms of Trump’s character and, in any case, about the disparity in power between the US and the UK – a lesson that should have been learned as long ago as the Suez Crisis.

The Brexiters’ war with civil society

Much more likely, any such calculations are subordinate to the wholesale war which the Brexiters are now waging with what they regard as ‘the remainer establishment’ and particularly the civil service. What has been done to Darroch follows a pattern of their assaults on Sir Ivan Rogers, Olly Robbins and, indeed, the civil service in general. It is underscored by Farage’s comments this week that all anti-Brexit civil servants should be removed (and even, by implication at least, military personnel).

This is neither accidental nor surprising. Indeed I flagged up the fact that it would happen in the very first post on the blog in September 2016, and in several subsequent ones as events have unfolded. At one level, it grows inevitably from a basic reality: most of those with the technical expertise to deliver Brexit think it is a terrible idea and, conversely, most of those who think it is a great idea don’t have the technical expertise to deliver it.

But there is much more to it than that. Taken together with the demonization of the judiciary, the Speaker of the Commons, the Governor of the Bank of England, the BBC, universities and others what is underway is a concerted attack not upon what Brexiters call the Establishment (of which many of them, by any reckoning, are members), but upon all the institutions of civil society which, collectively, create the patchwork that sustains democracy and the rule of law. In this sense, as I suggested in a different way in my previous post, Brexit is – or has become – about far more than simply leaving the EU.

Dark echoes

I am always extremely wary about making comparisons with fascism, and have never done so on this blog. There are real dangers in doing so, both in terms of over-reacting to current events and also downgrading the historical atrocities of fascism. The casual over-use of the term devalues it.

But it is difficult to avoid the echoes at least of some of the defining early moves of fascism in what is currently happening in the UK. The first is the invocation of ‘the people’ (treated as an abstract, unified and morally unimpeachable entity) as being separate from and in conflict with the entirety of their political and civic institutions. We have also already seen the second, related, move which is to link this with a poisonous narrative of internal betrayal and treachery, and the beginnings of a third, namely the evocation of an external, punitive enemy in the form of the EU.

It is not alarmist, but prudent, to say that given what we know lies at the end of that road we should refuse to take the initial steps upon it. That becomes especially true considering that if the Brexiters get the no-deal that they are now pushing for as the only true Brexit we will see considerable economic dislocation which will provide further, and highly fertile, soil for extremism. If this sounds Cassandra-like, then recall that Cassandra’s curse was not that her prophecies were false but that they were not believed.

Straws in the wind?

In any case, this is not so much a prophecy as a warning. Nothing in politics is inevitable, even if once things happen they seem so. I am not sure, but I have a half-sense that what is underway at the moment is a growing split amongst even the hard Brexiters.

It is notable - given he is not only pro-Brexit but also fiercely Atlanticist - that Liam Fox has recently become critical of no-deal Brexit, and has also this week been highly supportive of Darroch. He has thus been the target of considerable criticism from the hardliners such as Steve Baker. I also notice that Michael Gove seems rather silent since dropping out of the leadership contest during which he was slated for not being a real Brexiter – despite his leading role in the Leave campaign.

These are only straws in the wind – and no high profile Brexiter has yet recanted – but it occurs to me that some, at least, are beginning to see the dangers of reaping the whirlwind of the wind they have sown. That aside, there are surely plenty of sane voices left. For all that the Brexit Ultras and their alt-Right allies are set on destabilising and undermining political institutions, these may well prove more robust than they expect. Moreover, if they are putting their faith in Boris Johnson they may be as disappointed as others who have done so, in various contexts, in the past.

Avoiding no-deal Brexit: the necessary first step

Avoiding no-deal Brexit is not, in itself, sufficient of course. Indeed the danger is that doing so will seem a ‘relief’ since the worst outcome will have been avoided. But it is a necessary first step, not least because it is in a no-deal scenario that a US trade deal, on any terms offered and as quickly as possible, will move right to the top of the agenda (and, because there would be no transition period, could do so immediately).

There are signs this week that this first step could be achieved, including the hardened (though still ambiguous) Labour position, the passing of at least one of the Grieve amendments that could hamper prorogation, the threat of legal action to do so by John Major, and Philip Hammond’s potential endorsement of this. It is notable that Simon Fraser, former head of the Foreign Office, has recently argued against the conventional wisdom that no deal is getting more likely and that his view was endorsed by Charles Grant, the astute Director of the Centre for European Reform. Ultimately, though, as Brendan Donnelly has written this week, it may be that Tory rebels will have to toughen their resolve to really put paid to no-deal Brexit.

All that remains to be seen, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves. Avoiding no-deal will only be the first step. Moreover, it is one which in the short-term, at least, will intensify rather than defuse the Brexiters’ attacks on civil society. Even the damage already caused – including that done by the Darroch leak - will take much longer to repair than it took to do.