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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (£).
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
failure and premature departure
‘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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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