This has been an extraordinary, and extraordinarily busy, week for Brexit news. Acres have already been written about what might happen now, my own contribution being a comment piece in The National making the obvious points that time and parliamentary arithmetic place massive constraints upon Johnson’s premiership. All kinds of scenarios are now possible, many of which end in an early general election.
regard, the election of Jo Swinson
as LibDem leader may well turn out to be as important as Boris Johnson’s
as Tory leader. It may not give her enough time to establish public
recognition, but her early media appearances have shown someone refreshingly
direct, principled, personable, articulate and – in a good way – normal. If a general
election precedes Brexit, the LibDems could end up with sufficient seats to play
a pivotal role in how events play out, especially if Corbyn
continues to approach Brexit like an inordinately straitlaced Victorian
confronted with a piano leg.
for no deal
reflecting on the sheer outrageousness of what’s happening, because it is easy
to become inured to that. It’s not new or illegitimate within the UK political
system for the Prime Minister to be changed between elections of course. In my
lifetime it happened when Callaghan, Major, Brown, and May took office. But it
has become progressively less legitimate - and Brown’s accession was denounced
by no less than Boris Johnson – not least because British politics
has become more presidential.
there are three particular issues that make it different. It’s happening when
there is not only a minority government but one embarking on a decided shift in
policy and with a
wholesale change in personnel. That shift in policy is an epochally
defining one, pushing towards a no-deal Brexit that was voted for in neither an
election nor a referendum. And the decision was made by party members, not by
together, this means that we have a Prime Minister chosen by a tiny and highly
unrepresentative fragment of the electorate to enact an extreme policy that has
no democratic mandate whatsoever. It’s a perversion of democracy, and has, at
best, only the most threadbare and procedural veneer of legitimacy.
degrading and squalid backdrop, Johnson’s first days as leader and Prime
Minister have begun to give a sense of where he is going to take us.
leadership acceptance speech manifestly failed to rise to his first challenge. Lowlights
included the embarrassing silence, where he clearly expected a rapturous
response, when he asked the audience if they were ‘daunted’, and the
sphincter-shrivelling moment when he unveiled the ‘dude’
acronym. The ‘E’, it turned out, was for ‘energise’, setting the
stage for the central message of the week. Apparently the nation, like some
weird faith-healing cult, is to follow a strategy based upon blind optimism and
a can-do spirit.
an under-remarked upon feature of the event was that the pre-announcement film
show featured every recent Tory Prime Minister except Edward Heath. He was
air-brushed out, presumably because having taken Britain into Europe he is now
regarded as a ‘traitor’. It was a small but telling reminder of the rancorous madness
that has gripped the party.
Next day, Johnson’s
speech as Prime Minister, outside Number 10, was considerably better-delivered.
But at heart – ironically given that it contained a call for the need to move
on from the debates of 2016 – it was just another a campaigning speech, not one
of someone about to govern. As before, his suggestion was that self-belief and
positive thinking will remove all practical obstacles and risks, and that faith
can be put in the many world-leading parts of British economy and society.
working in those sectors he listed – such as academia, business, bio-medical
research and financial services – can fail to be aware of just how much damage
Brexit has already done to them, and how very much more no-deal Brexit will
unleash. Such doubters of the project, though, had been dismissed in an earlier
sideswipe at ‘gloomsters’ and those who ‘bet against Britain’ (a term that
would be more aptly applied to those Brexiters who made
a fortune shorting the stock market at the time of the Referendum).
It wasn’t quite ‘enemies of the people’ stuff, but it sniffed at the scent
marks of the same territory. Be sure, there’s much more and much worse of this
Thursday, he addressed the House of Commons. This time, it was not so much a
campaign speech as one that might be given in a Sixth Form debating society.
Lots of finger pointing and vague but lofty assertions of national greatness.
Even so, the outlines of what he seems to have in mind came into view.
that he is going to demand that the EU completely remove any backstop, which
they cannot conceivably agree to, and he will blame this on them, pushing for
no deal as the only alternative. If and
when parliament stops him doing so, there will be an early election which
he will fight on a ‘believe in Britain’ no-deal Brexit platform. Opponents will
be cast as unpatriotic, undemocratic doom-mongers and the EU as a hostile
It is thus
already obvious that earlier talk of bringing the party and country together
was so much eyewash.
…. and a
underscored by the reformation of the government. Even before his victory was
announced, it was clear that many current ministers would refuse to serve in
his government, including Philip Hammond. Of course, most of them knew they were
unlikely to be asked but their pre-emptive resignations underscore both the
splits in the party and also, crucially, that the current fault-line is
precisely over accepting no deal as an outcome.
of taking power, the cull began. For starters, he brought in many of the Vote
Leave campaign team, including its architect Dominic
Cummings, as advisers. This re-enforces the sense that he is gearing
up for an election campaign. It now looks as if this pattern is being repeated
across government with, for example, Matthew Elliott of Vote Leave going
to the Treasury as a special advisor.
now been a wholesale clear out of the cabinet, in what Martin
Kettle has described as a “hard Brexit coup”. The issue here is not just
about Brexit, either. On the one hand, there is no place for ardent Brexiters
such as Liam Fox and Penny Mordaunt (perhaps because they supported Hunt in the
leadership contest) and not all new ministers are Brexiters by background,
though it has to be assume that they are now signed up as such.
On the other
hand, figures like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Dominic Raab and Priti Patel are not only
hard line Brexiters but also notable for their very hard line Thatcherite
approach to policy in general, and seem
to interpret the referendum result as having also bestowed a mandate for
This looks to
most right-wing government Britain has had since the 1980s. It will
also be extremely inexperienced, as almost all of them are new in their posts.
Taken alongside the departures of key civil servants, the British State has
been re-made just as it enters potentially the deepest constitutional, economic
and political crisis of modern times. Just at the basic level of governmental
competence this is a recipe for a dangerous
All of this
might suggest, as does Johnson’s rhetoric and most of the media comment, that
we are at the beginning of a new chapter in Brexit. But this is very far from
being the case. This can be seen in the way that Brexiters are already treating
the last three years since the Referendum.
On the one
hand, it is as if those years are being expunged. All the reasons why the
negotiations went as they did, including the reason for the Irish backstop, are
being ignored. In fact, they show exactly what
happens when you try to turn hard Brexit into a legal treaty. Rather
than accept that, the Brexiters are simply reviving all the old discredited
nostrums about how ‘they need us more than we need them’, the trade deficit,
the idea that no financial settlement should be agreed prior to a trade deal
and so on. In this sense, this is not a new chapter it is a reprise of the
On the other
hand, the last three years are being set up as the alibi for Johnson’s failure.
Any idea that, with the Brexiters now in charge, they will finally be forced to
accept responsibility for turning their lies into practicable policy is very
wide of the mark. Every time they fail to do so, they will insist that this was
because they had not been in charge from the beginning and because Theresa May
queered their pitch with what she did and did not do, and used up almost all
the available time in the process. Hence the new chapter will keep harking back
to previous ones and keep rehearsing the same plot lines of blame-shifting and
In a sense,
it looks as if what is in prospect for the next three months is a fast-forward
replay of the last three years, though it may have a different ending. But there
is another way in which what is unfolding represents a continuation of, rather
than a break with, the past.
storm of this week’s events settles I think the bigger picture that will emerge
is that Johnson is going to be caught in precisely the same dynamic as Tory
leaders from Major onwards, and his leadership is going to form part of what in
the future will be seen as the same arc rather than representing a
What he has
done with his appointments is more radical than his predecessors, but is only
the logical end point of the journey they started. And, like them, he is going
to find that placating the Brexit Ultras both in his own party and in Farage’s
Brexit Party (there is now a considerable overlap between the two anyway) is
impossible. They will always demand more, just as they always have.
leadership pitch of leaving on October 31, come what may, arises from this. If
there were a rational Brexiter universe he could be saying something like: ‘the
last three years have been wasted, but there’s nothing magical about the end of
October, let’s take the time to get this great national project right’. But of
course the Ultras would not countenance that. Hence the fetishisation of
leaving on that date, ‘deal or no deal’.
But any deal
he does with the EU will not satisfy them. Even if the impossibility of
removing the backstop came to pass they would say the financial settlement is
an unacceptable betrayal. Re-negotiate that and it would be something else.
That, by the way, is one reason, though not the main one, why there’s little
reason for the EU to renegotiate anything.
for all that Johnson and the Brexiters talk of ‘getting Brexit done’ by 31
October, even if a deal is struck that will only be the beginning of the future
terms negotiations, in which every compromise, every dot and comma, will be
denounced by the Ultras as not being ‘what the people voted for’.
will be true if no-deal Brexit comes to pass. All the consequences of that –
both short and long-term – will be blamed upon inadequate preparations and the
failure to strike the ‘side deals’ of the ‘managed no deal’ fantasy. Meanwhile,
any side deals which are struck will
be vilified. Johnson will be pilloried for having never really been a ‘true
accusation is right in the sense that his lack of principled commitment to
Brexit is well-known. Unlike the cold-eyed Brexit Jacobins and their sinister
backers, Brexit has only ever been a means to his own personal advancement.
Hence the best way to read his dramatic reshuffle is to see it as a high-octane
version of Theresa May’s attempts to prove she was no longer a remainer. That
has made him the hero of the hour amongst the Brexiters – just as May was, for
a time, don’t forget. But once the real decisions about Brexit start to get
made he will play the same role and face the same problems as his recent
predecessors in the Tory leadership.
difference now is that we are probably entering the end-game in this ungodly
civil war within the Conservative Party, at the same time as we enter the
Brexit end-game. The speed of each and the interaction between them will
determine what happens.
hard now to see how a fundamental and irredeemable Tory split will be avoided,
precisely because Johnson has now taken the final step in the long road that
his predecessors embarked upon. Ultimately, that will depend on just how
ruthless the anti-no-deal wing of the Tory Party are prepared to be in the next
For the rest
of the country, that has found its future prosperity, standing and even its viability
as a united nation strapped to this insanity, the issue is whether the final
implosion comes before or after Brexit. If it is before, and there is a general
election, then there is a remote possibility that Brexit can be averted. If
not, then it will be too late.