Those tendencies have now become not just influential but dominant, creating a situation where the Government, which is over 40 seats short of majority, is in open warfare with both parliament and the judiciary. In the process, the role of the Queen has, for the first time in her long reign, . It is a time of great danger and uncertainty with profound implications for Brexit but which go to encompass potentially the entire way that Britain is governed, as .
Historians might well question the adequacy of the Jacobin and McCarthyite labels, but they serve to reference two different but intimately linked features of the Brexit Ultras. Jacobinism denotes a willingness and even an enthusiasm to destroy anything and everything in the fanatical pursuit of the ‘revolutionary’ goal of Brexit in its supposedly purest form. McCarthyism denotes a paranoid and ruthless quest to identify and denounce all who might be suspected of opposing that goal.
The takeover of is given a particular inflection by having as its leader someone who, whilst possibly not personally of that disposition, is so totally lacking in commitment to morality or truth. Not only that, but Johnson augments the Ultras’ fanaticism with his own evident sense of privileged entitlement, as if normal rules should not apply to him. Dominic Cummings adds to this dangerous mix with his and its adolescent contempt for established institutions, .
But there is a deeper reality here, which is that Brexit makes liars of everyone who tries to enact it, even if they are not by nature as mendacious as Johnson or as destructive as Cummings. For it within the Vote Leave campaign itself which, at heart, promised that Brexit could be done without negative consequences. This led May into such tortured positions on, for example, . It is still present in Johnson and the Brexiters’ underlying position that there can be an open border in Ireland whilst leaving the institutions that make that possible.
Explaining another extraordinary week
This frame of reference explains most of the latest extraordinary developments in the Brexit crisis. The Jacobinism explains the prorogation, or suspension, of parliament itself – which is the proximate cause of most of these recent developments – and which has been . It explains why the government, according to that ruling, was prepared . It explains Johnson’s continuing refusal to confirm that he will obey the law passed by parliament requiring an extension to Article 50 to be sought if no deal has been reached. And it explains the government’s . Nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of the revolution.
That word, revolution, is not simply my rhetorical flourish. It has been used to describe these developments , the sober former Attorney-General who has emerged as one of the most effective defenders of parliament and the rule of law. A somewhat unlikely ‘counter-revolutionary’, he has brought both remarkable courage and forensic, lawyerly precision to bear on the crisis. He has also, in the , correctly identified the pivotal role now including, but not limited to, Cummings.
Grieve is not the only one showing strength and, alarming as current events are, it is a matter of some comfort that, in extremis, British political and legal institutions are exhibiting a measure of robustness at such a bizarre time.
Rule of law
As one index of how bizarre these times are, parliament actually had to hold a debate confirming that the rule of law applied, this with reference to Johnson’s stance on accepting the law on extension (in the end it was passed without a vote). But, as David Allen Green, one of the leading legal commentators on Brexit has , the rule of law is damaged even by the suggestion that Johnson would flout it, whether or not he means it.
It is here that adds a twist to the general situation – he may not mean that he would not obey the law but no one has any idea whether or not he speaks the truth. That, just by itself, is hugely damaging.
It is certainly the case that he is being disingenuous in continuing to insist that the prorogation is necessary and normal in order to commence his new legislative programme. For, apart from having no majority and no mandate for this programme, it clearly does not need a prorogation of that length to do so – a key point in the judgment of the Scottish court (i.e. that the motivation was to “stymie” parliament).
More generally, the repeated theme of the big parliamentary debates this week was the total lack of trust MPs have in both Johnson, personally, and the government he leads. That is not surprising, and it is not just the normal stuff of politics: it is the inevitable consequence of having a government which regards anything, including truth itself, as subservient to Brexit. Nor is that simply down to Johnson. Much of what we see now was prefigured in May’s conduct, especially her muleish but unsuccessful attempt to prevent parliament voting on Article 50 (in the first Miller case).
It was this case which provoked the infamous, McCarthyite, headline ‘enemies of the people’ which May never, to my knowledge, disowned and which probably set the stage for the cowed (and, frankly, cowardly) way that MPs mostly caved in when the actual vote happened. The same logic is in play in the to the Scottish court’s ruling, dismissing it as “politically biased”, and, subsequently, in Business minister that whilst he does not believe it “many people are saying that judges are biased” about Brexit.
Something similar can be seen in the mutterings that the reflects the anti-Brexit prejudices of civil servants and derives from work done under ‘Theresa the remainer’, so can be . That in itself contains a damaging notion, that there is ‘Brexiter truth’ and ‘remainer truth’.
Actually, the rather sparse summary document contains little that most informed people did not already know, either from direct knowledge or earlier leaks. And, whilst some of it will undoubtedly be mitigated, that these effects will to some degree happen under no-deal is inevitable (a outlines the main mitigations and gaps).
Much of the responsibility will fall on businesses, but there is , especially given the still very vague advice from government, to prevent disruption. In any case, no amount of advice and information can overcome all of the fundamental problems, or even entirely predict what these will be given the uniqueness of the situation.
Moreover, the continued discussion of no deal as if it is just about coping with short-term disruptions, , means that the public at large are still being woefully misled about its meaning. That, too, reflects the Jacobin determination to push for no deal without the hindrance of, in this case, a fully-informed public.
Finally, both Jacobinism and McCarthyism can also be seen in relation to John Bercow, who announced his resignation this week. Bercow is another who has . This is not, as Brexiters claim, because he has shown ‘remainer bias’ (plenty of his decisions have been helpful to the Brexit side). It is that he has championed the rights of parliament against the Executive, and did so long before Brexit came on the horizon.
That is automatically deemed anti-Brexit because Brexiters assume that parliamentary power is hostile to them. That is actually a bizarre judgment since, in fact, the Article 50 vote and the Meaningful Votes, both of which they condemned before they occurred, helped their cause. Their difference with Bercow is that he favours parliamentary power in principle, regardless of who it favours, whereas they do so only opportunistically, according to whether it serves their cause or not.
Thus – as with the , on , the Governor of the Bank of England, or on of no-deal Brexit – the space for independence or even integrity is closed down by a pincer movement of Jacobin ‘nothing must stand in the way of Brexit’ and McCarthyite ‘anything that might is motivated by traitorous remainers flouting the will of the people’. It is, at best, dangerous populism and, at worst, fascistic.
This can only be a matter of conjecture. Every scenario has a long chain of ‘ifs and buts’ associated with it which probably isn’t very useful. As has been true for some time now, no one knows and . The immediate focus of attention is on whether the Supreme Court concurs with the Scottish court ruling next week. If it does, Johnson will come under considerable pressure to resign, which he might or might not be able to resist. In any event, parliament would presumably resume sitting, the issue being what moves it then makes, which clearly will be very different according to whether or not Johnson has to resign.
If Johnson survives, and however the Supreme Court rules, it is, just about, conceivable that the government will do a deal of some sort with the EU before October 19 (there are somewhat differing views ). There are noises about that May originally rejected. Johnson , but here once again the issue of his honesty makes it hard to evaluate such statements. Possibly, as some reports suggest, his idea is to combine along with some element of the much-touted but never-demonstrated ‘alternative arrangements’.
If so, that’s to the EU, though a somewhat fudged version of the full NI-backstop could well be - assuming it could be , which seems very tight indeed since no detailed, written proposals and, to be clear, . In any case, that would and amongst the Brexit Ultras, and (without a ). Alternatively, Johnson could fight an election on such a platform (if he had struck a deal with the EU, parliament would presumably vote for an election), but would see his vote cannibalised by the .
In such an election, to run on a strange platform of re-negotiating and then having another referendum. If they won, it would lead to a difficult decision as to whether Labour would campaign for that hypothetical deal or for remain, or have no unified position (rather in the manner of ). It’s fair to say it would also pose problems for many Brexiters since it would, presumably, mean a softer Brexit on offer than May’s deal or not getting Brexit at all.
Whether these or other scenarios come to pass it is very difficult, now, to see much chance of Brexit happening on 31 October, whatever Johnson says. Even a deal with the EU by 19 October would probably not leave enough time for . It’s also unlikely to happen before either an election or an election plus a referendum (or, conceivably, ). It’s impossible to predict the outcome of any such votes, only that the process would be horrible.
Brexiters own this mess
So the long Brexit agony is set to continue, and it’s important to put the responsibility for this where it belongs, not least because that points to one place where a solution might come from. The standard Brexiter line is to say that the root cause of all that has happened is not Brexit but the of the Referendum and, indeed, to seek to thwart the ‘will of the people’ and ignore the 17.4 million. In short, the problem is .
These are paper-thin arguments, if that, no matter how angrily and self-righteously declaimed by and their loyal army of keyboard camp followers. From the beginning, the issue has been that Brexiters could not agree on what it was they were asking the losers to consent to. From the beginning they have acted as if a small majority was a landslide victory, waving the ‘big number’ of 17.4 but forgetting the almost equally large number of remain voters or treating them as not being of ‘the people’.
In the process, they have gradually pushed the meaning of Brexit from something that might have achieved a measure of consent (soft Brexit) to something they . And when they had hard Brexit in their grasp, with May’s deal, the hardliners amongst them refused to vote for it in parliament.
At least since Article 50 was triggered, , up to and including the present ungodly mess which is squarely down not to leave voters – few of whom can have expected what has in fact transpired - but to the Jacobin and McCarthyite wing of the Brexit movement. But for all its power, it is only one wing. It is astounding that not a single high-profile Brexiter has been willing to say that it is not remotely justified to sacrifice so much in economic, political and cultural terms on the altar of so narrow a vote.
It’s clear that it would need to come from leading leavers to have any traction – from remainers it would just be more of the same discord. Can there really be none of them, after all that has happened, who now think they made a mistake? None who are horrified by what has been unleashed? There would be no shame in such a recantation, rather it would be an act of great and courageous leadership to call for an end to the utter madness of what is being done to our country in the name of that one, narrow vote. Indeed, increasingly it looks like the only honest and rational response.