Thursday 25 July 2019

An extraordinary week

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.

In that 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.

No mandate for no deal

It’s worth 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.

This time, 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 MPs.

Taken 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.

Against that 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.

Three speeches ….

Johnson’s 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.

In passing, 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 first 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.

Yet few 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 to come.

Finally, on 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.

It’s clear 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 enemy.

It is thus already obvious that earlier talk of bringing the party and country together was so much eyewash.

…. and a bloodbath

This was 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.

Within hours 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.

There has 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.

This looks to be the 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 instability.

A new chapter?

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 first chapter.

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 betrayal.

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.

Johnson, the continuity candidate

When the 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 discontinuity.

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.

His entire 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.

Moreover, 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’.

The same 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 Brexiter’.

That 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.

What now?

The 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.

It’s very 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 few months.

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.