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.

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