Friday 16 June 2023

Could this be a cathartic moment for Brexit Britain?

Writing a weekly blog that appears on a Friday morning carries an inherent risk of something important happening later in the day. So it was no doubt tempting fate to begin last week’s post with the observation that it had been a relatively quiet Brexit news week, only for Boris Johnson to resign as an MP that evening, having read the draft report of the Privileges Committee inquiry into whether he had misled the House of Commons over the ‘Partygate’ scandal.

Subsequently, yesterday, the final report was published, and it contained what the BBC’s Political Editor called a “punishingly brutal” and “devastating” judgment both on the original offences and on Johnson’s “campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation” of the Committee and its members, finding him guilty of multiple contempts of parliament. It was a verdict that left no room for doubt about Johnson, and could also be regarded as a vindication of the robustness of Britain’s democratic institutions that he should be held to account in this way, including in the very robust defence the Committee offered of its own process in the face of the vitriolic, Trumpian attacks against it by Johnson and his allies.

In other circumstances this would mark the end of a political career, the definitive exposure of a wholly dishonest ex-Prime Minister and, now, ex-MP, and that may well be the result. Yet, whatever Johnson’s ultimate fate, there is more at stake than that because it is not just about Johnson but about the wider politics of Brexit and of post-Brexit Britain. For this was, indeed, a major piece of ‘Brexit news’, even though, in principle, the inquiry had nothing to do with Brexit, because there’s an ineluctable link between Johnson and Brexit, such that it is impossible to discuss the one without the other.

Johnson and Brexit: conjoined twins

Brexit had many causes, and it is an over-simplification to say, as Guardian columnist Martin Kettle does, that “Brexit was Johnson and Johnson was Brexit”. But it’s quite plausible to say that but for Johnson’s involvement the campaign to leave would not have succeeded in winning its narrow majority. It’s certainly the case that he played a crucial role in shaping the form Brexit eventually took. And, looking at things from the other direction, it is at least arguable that, but for Brexit, he would never have become Prime Minister and that, but for his ambition to do so, he wouldn’t have supported Brexit.

So, like a safebreaker too careless and complacent to wear gloves, Johnson has left his fingerprints all over the Brexit crime scene. And just as his pathological dishonesty, entitled incompetence, grotesque egotism and moral depravity caused his downfall first as Prime Minister and now as an MP, so did they indelibly mark Brexit. From the outset, who better to front a campaign based on lies than someone to whom lying is first, never mind second, nature? Who better to deny the complex trade-offs entailed in the Brexit process than someone who applied his ‘cakeist’ philosophy to every aspect of his priapic, venal life? Who better to oversee a project based on vapid boasts and slogans than someone so lacking in substance and depth that to accuse him of vapidity would be the most generous of flatteries?

Perhaps the most disgraceful thing is that many of these criticisms of him, and more besides, would be made by those who supported leaving the EU. For they always knew that his involvement in it had no foundation of principle or belief. He was never ‘one of them’ – indeed he was never one of any particular group or ideology – he was useful to getting what they wanted, just as they were useful to him in getting what he wanted. This was no Luther or Calvin, dogmatically committed to Reformation, but a political Vicar of Bray, guided by opportunism, albeit with a view to glory rather than mere survival.

“Revenge for Brexit”

All of this is would be so regardless of whether Johnson’s resignation had any specific connection with Brexit. But, in fact, he himself chose to make them connected. Within his more general attempt to depict himself as the innocent victim of a ‘witch hunt’ and a ‘kangaroo court’ (for Johnson, whose supposed qualities as a wordsmith invariably yield snide metal not gold, has no fastidious objection to cliché) he explicitly claimed in his resignation letter, and since, that the reason he had been targeted was “to take revenge for Brexit and ultimately to reverse the 2016 referendum result. My removal is the necessary first step, and I believe there has been a concerted attempt to bring it about.”

It is hardly surprising that he should make this claim, and it is similar to the one made by Dominic Raab about his own resignation as well as those made about supposed ‘plots’ against Suella Braverman (£). In part, it is just a refusal to accept responsibility for his own wrong-doing. But it is also distinctively ‘Brexitist’ in tapping in to the familiar ‘victimhood’ narrative, and the associated idea that Brexit is some ‘anti-establishment’ revolt being undertaken in the face of a shadowy remainer elite ‘plot’ to foil it or ‘coup’ to overturn it.

Thus, equally unsurprisingly, it was taken up across the Brexit Blob as the explanation for Johnson’s demise, a further illustration of the way that Johnson has always been enabled by others and a reminder that, even now, there are still plenty of saddle-sniffers like David Frost to parrot the paranoid squawks about the ‘Remain establishment’ getting its dastardly way (£).  

Of the many things that could be said of these fantasies about the anti-Brexit establishment, perhaps the most obvious is that, since Brexit did in fact happen, it can’t be very powerful or effective. The very obviousness of that fact may explain why Johnson defenders like Jake Berry are reduced to the transparent lie that Brexit has been “blocked” by the establishment. It’s a peculiarly self-defeating lie, as well, since his defenders are also adamant that Johnson’s great achievement was to ‘get Brexit done’.

In the case of the Privileges Committee’s judgment about Johnson, an anti-Brexit plot is an especially absurd allegation, since the majority of its members are Conservatives, and some of the most critical questioning of Johnson at the hearing came from Bernard Jenkin, one of the most hardline of Brexiters. Presumably this is why Johnson made a particular attempt to discredit him this week on the grounds that he had apparently broken lockdown rules himself, an utterly bogus argument since the Committee was investigating whether Johnson had misled parliament, not whether he had broken the rules.

Johnson, Brexit, and the Establishment

Even so, this idea of Brexit as an ‘anti-establishment’ project is a more complex and less risible one than it would appear from some of the sillier claims made about it. There is certainly a sense amongst the ‘Brexit Jacobins’ that all conventions and norms can be dispensed with in order to ‘save Brexit’. That was seen with the Prorogation, and the various threats to break international law with the Internal Market Bill and the NIP Bill. Johnson’s temperamental disdain for rules was useful for that, and his willingness to trash the process that judged him illustrates that disdain, but his anti-establishment credentials were as questionable as his Brexit ones.

That isn’t so much because of his decidedly elite, Eton and Oxford, background. As I’ve argued before, it isn’t this kind of elitism which populism necessarily objects to, especially if it is combined with some public perception of ‘authenticity’, which, perversely given the plasticity of his principles, Johnson enjoyed. Rather, the deeper ambiguity of Johnson is the sense that, despite that disdain for rules and conventions, he also wants the respect of the Establishment and the respectability of belonging to it.

In this way, he strikes me as somewhat different to Trump, despite the resemblances in their character and conduct. It is most obvious in his manifest desire to be compared to Churchill, and not the Churchill of his maverick ‘wilderness years’, but the Churchill acclaimed as a great national leader and international statesman. Clearly, Johnson lacked any of the necessary qualities to be such a figure – perversely, had he done so, the pandemic gave him the best opportunity short of war to display them – but the desire to be seen that way made him much more conventional than some of the ‘true Brexiters’.

Had those true Brexiters been right in thinking that Brexit was a national liberation which would unlock both freedom and prosperity then he might even have been acclaimed in that way. As it was, even had he been cut from finer cloth, he presided over what was doomed to be a divisive and damaging fiasco. And, actually, one of the reasons that he lost the support of Conservative MPs when Prime Minister was that the Brexit Ultras thought he was failing to deliver the deregulation they saw as what would make Brexit a success, and many of them thought he was too ‘soft’ in defying the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Similarly, whilst Nigel Farage may now float the idea of joining forces with Johnson to “defend the Brexit legacy”, and be “eternally grateful to him” (£) for delivering Brexit, it is the Brexit Johnson delivered which is what Farage regards as a failure. Whether that alliance comes about remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely, not least for the reasons set out on the uk website by Josh Self (who, by the way, is emerging as one of the most acute of the new generation of political commentators).

Brexit Conservatism

It is more likely that Johnson has his sights set on a post-election return to leading the Tory Party. That, too, seems improbable right now but he still has some powerful, influential, and rich backers (£) and the idea is already being spoken of by his allies (£). Certainly his resignation letter seemed an attempt to position himself as ‘properly Conservative’ in the Liz Truss, tax-cutting, small-state mould which is surely the direction the Party will go in after Sunak. Again this entails getting Tories to forget that, when he was Prime Minister, his internal critics castigated him for not being a “real Conservative”. And then, of course, there was his call to “make the most of Brexit”, to which the response might be to ask why he didn’t do so in office if there is anything good to be made of it. As for his professed puzzlement about the government having “so passively abandoned the prospect of a free trade deal with the US”, that is easily answered: the US doesn’t want such a deal, and he had already discovered that when he was Prime Minister.

So all of this – along with reports of him planning a comeback to deliver “total Brexit”, whatever that may mean – looks like a pitch to lead what, writing in The American Conservative this week, David Frost called “Brexit Conservatism”. This essay sets out the application of ‘National Conservatism’ to the UK context, which has already attracted much interest in Tory circles, and which Frost has recently championed (it also reveals, yet again, that Frost’s sole point of intellectual reference is Edmund Burke). It might also be read as part of Frost’s own thinly-disguised ambitions to lead the Tory Party, although his greasily sycophantic tribute to Johnson (£) suggests he could be angling for a place in government if his old boss does stage a return. After all, it’s possible that, although neither self-awareness nor modesty are his most obvious characteristics, Frost might recognize that nor is the gift of charismatic leadership.

However, Johnson’s attempt to re-ignite the glowing embers of his political career with the bellows of Brexit isn’t just a way of appealing to Tory Party members in the unlikely event that he stands in a future leadership contest. For both him and his supporters It is also an attempt to retain political relevance by reference to that brief moment of triumph in 2016. His injunction, again in his resignation letter, to “remember that more than 17 million voted for Brexit” seeks to revive the idea of Brexit as a (somewhat) popular project and of ‘the will of the people’ as a way to scarify opponents, as well as to garner support.

But that mandate was long ago discharged, and harking back to it ignores the fact that only a minority, and that a dwindling minority, now actually support Brexit. It also reflects the failure of Brexit, since the only achievement Brexiters can claim is having won the referendum or, perhaps, the fact of having left the EU. All the promises they made for what it would actually mean in practice have been discredited. Yet at another, and deeper, level it is about returning to the comfort zone of campaigning rather than governing. Even when actually in government Johnson and his fellow-Brexiters always acted as if they were still campaigning. Obviously, the whole shtick about being anti-establishment and anti-elite is a way of positing Brexiters as being powerless, or insurgent, even when in power, but it is especially useful to Johnson now that he is out of power.

Brexitist logic

All of this points to the wider issue of ‘Brexitism’. That is not quite the same as, though it relates to, Brexit Conservatism, in that it refers to a mode of logic (or illogic) rather than to a particular policy agenda. Central to that logic is the bogus anti-elitism and victimhood, just discussed, and also the ‘simplism’ in which complex problems have simple, supposedly ‘commonsense’ solutions.

Beyond that, though, Brexitism has other features which are more difficult to pin down. Possibly the main reason why, to me and many others, Brexit has seemed different from any other political division is the way it’s not just a matter of different opinions, interpretations, or even values in the normal sense. Rather, it’s that the very basic stuff of political debate, some shared commitment to basic facts, evidence, rational argument, and logical consistency is missing. Or, even, that having such a shared commitment matters or is possible.

It’s about more than just lying, though it may entail that. It’s things like, to take a well-known example, trying to justify the ‘Turkey is joining the EU’ line by (amongst other things) weird logic-chopping about how ‘is joining’ denotes an ongoing process rather than carrying the obvious meaning that it is an accomplished fact and an imminent reality. Much of this blog has consisted of discussions of how this way of approaching politics has permeated the Brexit process itself (see, especially, all those posts specifically tagged ‘Brexit logic’), but this week’s furore over Johnson and the Privileges Committee illustrates its wider currency.

On the one hand, there is the Committee’s report, a textbook example of calm, forensic, evidence-based analysis and quasi-judicial rationality, and itself the outcome of an established institutional process of peer-based self-regulation with a public hearing at its heart. On the other hand, there are Johnson and his allies who, faced with all this, gurn out the dismissive line of it being ‘kangaroo court’, which no sensible or reasonable person could apply to that process and report, and despite the fact Johnson himself had deprecated the term before the Committee had reported. So any basic commitment to truth, let alone to consistency of argument, is simply dispensed with.

Then there are the numerous sub-arguments from Johnson and his defenders. For example, there’s the complaint that it should be voters, not other MPs, who decide who sits in Parliament. But, by resigning, Johnson forwent the chance for the electors in his constituency to make that decision. Or there’s the persistent attempt to discuss the findings in terms of the question of Johnson’s Covid rule-breaking or, relatedly, the actual or alleged Covid rulebreaking of other MPs or, as mentioned earlier, Bernard Jenkin, when the inquiry was solely about whether Johnson had misled parliament. Or the attempt to depict the Committee’s Chair, Harriet Harman, as having pre-judged Johnson in earlier remarks, when none of those complaining about this had voted against her chairing despite those remarks having already been known to them (£). Or, most ludicrous of all, the idea that the Committee had shown prejudice because during the hearing some of its members had made facial expressions of disbelief.

All of these arguments have a kind of ‘black is white’ craziness that makes them easy to discredit from the outside, and yet utterly impermeable amongst those who continue to advance them with stubborn obtuseness come what may. Moreover, within minutes of them first being aired they flow rapidly through the political ether to the point that, no matter how often discredited, they take on a permanent life, and not just on social media but ‘in real life’ with, in this case, members of the Committee having to be offered extra security in case of physical attacks on them.

And of course, both initially and ultimately, these arguments find confirmation by any criticism of them being dismissed as coming from actual or supposed ‘remainers’. One reason why this should be called Brexitism is because it spreads into every single aspect of political discourse. For example, already Rees-Mogg and others are trying to discredit the Hallett Inquiry into the Covid pandemic as being biased by “die-hard remainers” because reference was made on the first day to the possibility that no-deal Brexit planning got in the way of planning for a pandemic.

A cathartic moment?

This Brexitist twisting of logic and bare-faced denial of even basic facts had, in Johnson, its most skilled exponent, as it coincided his own character. Now that his practice of it has been so brutally and publicly exposed the question is not just what it means for him but what it will mean for Brexitism. Of course, Brexitism will never be expunged, but it might be marginalised. In this respect, there are grounds for very cautious optimism. It is significant, and very much to his credit, that so committed a Brexiter as Bernard Jenkin conducted himself as he did, as this certainly did much to blunt the Brexitist attack on the Committee. Similarly Penny Mordaunt, another Brexiter (and, indeed, one of the worst culprits in pushing the ‘Turkey is joining the EU’ line) spoke out in defence of the Committee.

More generally, it is notable that, whilst all Johnson’s defenders appear to be pro-Brexit, by no means all pro-Brexiters are defending Johnson. Indeed, amongst MPs, those defenders seem to be confined to the most obscure and peculiar even amongst the ranks of the obscure and peculiar. For example, anyone finding themselves reduced to being dependent upon ‘Sir’ Michael Fabricant to tour the studios to defend them might conclude that the jig is up. Against that optimism, there still seems to be a sense within the media that these fringe figures have to be represented for ‘balance’, giving the public the impression that there may to two sides to what was a cut and dried report.

An early and important test will be how Conservative MPs vote on Monday, including how many of them decide to abstain, when the Committee’s report will be debated. Beyond that, a great deal will depend on whether, with or without Johnson, what Frost calls Brexit Conservatism comes to dominate the Tory Party after the expected loss of the General Election.

Ultimately, that will matter a lot for British politics, but in one way at least it will be less immediately damaging than what we are currently living through. For this latest eruption of instability and infighting within what is, for now, the governing party has to be counted as the latest instalment of the political and reputational damage wrought by Brexit. The crucial question is whether it will also prove a cathartic moment? Could it, indeed, a be a further sign that, as I tentatively suggested in March, Britain’s ‘Brexit fever’ has broken?

Nested within that are many sub-questions, or perhaps versions of the same question, which are currently being asked by many commentators from across the political spectrum. These include whether the UK system is proving more resilient than that of the US (£), how embedded the toxic myths of Brexit are, whether Johnson and Brexit have left a permanent legacy of political ‘doublethink’ (£), and whether this current Sunak-Starmer period marks a return to more conventional politics (£)?

The Privileges Committee has delivered its damning verdict on Johnson, but on these deeper questions the jury is still out.

No comments:

Post a Comment