Professor Chris Grey’s brilliant analysis on the latest Brexit developments, Boris Johnson’s character and tactics, and some thoughts on what comes next.
First published in September 2019.
British politics is now in total disarray and daily, almost hourly, descending into ever-deeper chaos. Amid all the prediction of the economic damage that the Brexit vote would cause – and much of that has come true – few realised just what a political earthquake it would create. In the process, barely heard-of constitutional conventions, laws and parliamentary procedures have come to the limelight and, often, been found wanting.
Even so, at least some measure of comfort can be taken in the fact that parliament has asserted itself against an Executive which – irrespective of Brexit and one’s views of it – has behaved in an arrogant, dishonest and totally reckless way. Even now, it is actually a matter of debate whether the government will accept being bound by the laws enacted by parliament.
In the process, twenty-one Conservative MPs showed an enormous degree of courage and integrity and, although they have paid a heavy price, they have at least retained their honour. The same cannot be said of some of their colleagues who undoubtedly share the rebels’ analysis but not their principles.
In the long run this purge – as many of those affected have called it – along with the various defections from this wing of the Tory Party, of which Philip Lee, dramatically, was this week the latest – may well mark the end point of the long civil war. For a party which is now able to exclude as ‘traitorous’ not just a long-term Europhile like Ken Clarke but also a long-term Eurosceptic like Philip Hammond has now been fundamentally reshaped, something sharply underlined by the resignation of Jo Johnson, the Prime Minister’s brother.
Where are we now?
It’s impossible to summarise this week’s rush of events, and all their arcane detail, in a column and, anyway, the media is awash with as much reporting as anyone could want. In brief, at the time of writing, parliament is about to pass a law which will require the Prime Minister, if no deal with the EU has been agreed by 19 October, to seek an extension to the current leaving date of 31 October. This is something that Boris Johnson has emphatically said he will not do. In the face of this Johnson sought parliamentary agreement to hold a General Election. This has not been given, and a further attempt is to be made next Monday.
The key emergent issue is about when parliament will give its agreement and what that would mean in terms of an election date. Johnson says he wants it to be on 15 October, in which case parliament would have to agree on Monday in order to allow enough time for a campaign. The significance of 15 October is that it would mean Johnson not having to seek an extension before the election, and supposedly having time to complete a renegotiation with the EU at the Council Summit in 17 October (this, in any case, is a ludicrously unrealistic idea in terms of timescale and in terms of what a EUCO summit could do, and in terms of continuing with no-deal planning).
Many opposition politicians want to wait until at least the extension letter has been sent (assuming no deal has been struck) and possibly until after the EU has actually agreed it. This is mainly because they do not trust Johnson not to find a trick to delay the election and, with parliament no longer sitting, achieve a no-deal Brexit via the back door. It is not yet clear what they will decide, although emerging reports suggest that Labour and the SNP will delay an election until November. Until they do, Johnson is left in limbo: unable to govern and unable to campaign. An additional issue to consider is whether the EU would countenance an extension anyway, unless it were for a general election and that rationale would not exist were the poll date set for 15 October.
There are several reasons why all this came to a head this week, but one prominent cause was the announcement the previous week that parliament was to be suspended for much of September and October, meaning that MPs feared they might not get another chance to act. A second important reason was the emergence of ever-more detail (£) of exactly how much damage a no-deal Brexit would do.
The bigger picture
As ever, it is important to recall the bigger picture to avoid getting entirely lost in the swirl of events. Within that, what remains the irreducible core of the crisis is the fact that voting to leave the EU was not a vote for any particular way of doing so – a result of the deliberate strategy of the Vote Leave Campaign as devised by one Dominic Cummings.
It is this which continues to make our politics impossible because it means that the concept of ‘delivering Brexit’ is as meaningless as the accusation of ‘betraying Brexit’. All versions of Brexit – from the soft Brexit that some expected, to May’s hard Brexit deal that was rejected by MPs, to the no-deal Brexit that is now threatened – can all equally well be regarded as delivering it or as betraying it.
What has made things doubly impossible is the insistence that there is an inviolable democratic principle at stake because of the Referendum vote. This automatically sets up a failure of democracy given that any particular form of honouring the vote also betrays it. Moreover, since the form of delivery can only be decided by the democratically elected parliament, democracy has been weaponised against itself.
None of this is a function of there being a ‘remainer parliament’. Exactly the same dynamic would be present if every MP had been a lifelong Brexiter, because they would still have to decide on a form of Brexit which by definition could only be one of those that Brexit could take and therefore at odds with what at least some who voted for Brexit in the referendum had expected.
Almost everything we have lived through over the last three years flows from this, and it’s worth re-stating it partly because it means that what is happening now is not just to do with particular politicians or decisions but is more deeply rooted. It explains, for example, the surreal spectacle this week of Brexiter Tory MPs who voted repeatedly to block May’s deal denouncing their rebel colleagues, many of whom had voted for it.
More importantly, it matters because until the basic, irreconcilable conundrum it reveals is faced up to there is no hope of resolving the deepening national crisis. Unfortunately, there is little sign that this will happen because, if this analysis is right, a General Election will not in and of itself address the problem.
The fast re-run of May continues
It’s because of the underlying structure of this political situation that, as I’ve been arguing in several recent pieces, Johnson finds himself re-running – at fast speed and in more intensive form – many of the themes and events of May’s premiership. Indeed, as she sat a few rows behind her successor in the Commons this week, she must surely have been struck by many ironies, not least when hearing his appeals for his MPs to give him the loyalty he so conspicuously refused to give to her.
The echoes continued to abound in his repeated insistence this week that the only way to avoid no-deal is to agree a deal, just as she used to plead, and his dogged devotion to a set date on which Brexit will occur. We might recall what happened to May on both counts, and she, unlike Johnson, actually had a deal to ask anyone to agree to. And, of course, MPs taking control of business to legislate to force an extension on the government is a repeat of the process they used before. Finally, we also now have in prospect a General Election run on ‘crush the saboteurs’ lines, prefigured by Johnson’s silly and nasty badging of the anti-no-deal provisions as ‘Surrender legislation’.
But clearly the context of the re-run is different in all sorts of ways. In particular, the Johnson-Cummings approach is even more inflammatory than that of May (though she, too, had highly influential and divisive special advisors). It resembles something that many will be familiar with in their workplaces, when a bombastic manager, high on toxic masculinity and having the emotional intelligence of a toilet seat, seeks to bully through controversial changes. The consequences are usually dire anyway, but it is an approach especially unsuited to the complexities of high politics in sophisticated political systems and much that has happened this week is a consequence of its limitations.
In particular, it seems clear that the prorogation decision, the off and then on pre-vote meeting between the Tory rebels and the PM, the insults they reportedly received from Cummings, and the ludicrously heavy-handed, not to mention hypocritical, punishment threatened to them all compounded the government’s defeat in the Benn-Burt (i.e. anti-no-deal) vote. Nor will the contemptuous behaviour of the over-promoted Rees-Mogg sprawling disdainfully on the front benches, have helped matters. (In passing, Rees-Mogg has, even by his own low standards, been particularly contemptible this week).
It is bad enough to use such tactics when in a position of strength – for a minority government it is sheer folly. Johnson may wish he could emulate Trump, but the situation of a Prime Minister in the British political system is not conducive to such conduct.
But it is not just the systemic limitations on the power of a PM in a hung parliament that matter here. It is also Johnson’s own character and limitations. The lies have poured for so long and so incontinently out of him that few now trust him. That includes the Brexiters and it certainly includes the rebels. His repeated pitch to them that keeping no-deal as a threat was what was yielding, and would continue to yield, progress in negotiations with the EU was palpably untrue.
Apart from the basic nonsense it contains – no-deal is far more of a threat to the UK than to the EU, unless it is denied that it is a threat to the UK, in which case it can hardly be a threat to the EU either – it is abundantly clear that no substantive negotiations are even occurring. Repeatedly challenged to provide evidence of this negotiating progress, he could only bluster, often in the most childish way (at one stage yelling from his seat that Corbyn was “a great big girl’s blouse”).
Johnson is hardly the first politician to bend the truth, but the addictive, almost pathological, lying that has characterised so much of his career has now come back to haunt him with a vengeance. It is clear that few EU leaders trust him, a major handicap in the negotiations he is supposedly committed to. Of particular importance now is that MPs do not trust him, if they vote to allow a General Election, not to use this to dodge around their vote requiring him to seek an extension – a distrust compounded by Cummings’ widely-toted determination to secure Brexit at the end of October “by any means necessary”. Both are now reaping what they have sown.
A cunning plan?
Of course an alternative reading is that everything now happening has, in fact, been the Johnson-Cummings ‘cunning plan’ all along: provoke parliamentary opposition, secure an election and get back to the populist campaigning that won them the Referendum.
That may well be true. But, if so, I think Johnson has miscalculated to the extent that a background of chaos and defeat is a decidedly unappealing one for voters, and the fact that he can only have an election with parliamentary agreement hardly suits the ‘strong man’ image he wishes to cultivate. The attempt to portray Corbyn as a ‘chicken’ for not immediately agreeing may have some traction, especially given its repetition in the Brexit press, but the public may perceive him more as a cat toying with a powerless mouse (that such different readings are possible is graphically illustrated by the contrasting coverage in The Sun and The Scottish Sun).
Indeed, there are good political reasons to keep him dangling, since it will force him either to seek the extension and break all his promises or simply resign and end his premiership a short-lived and ignominious failure. Against that, though, is the risk that – unlikely as it seems – he might have enough time to secure a deal of some sort. It is a difficult judgment which will have important consequences.
Additionally, if the current situation is in line with Johnson’s strategy then it has misfired in another way. By pushing so hard and ruthlessly towards no-deal he has provoked a robust cross-party alliance. Moreover, he has enabled Labour to have a clear and united position for the first time since the Referendum, which has allowed Corbyn to perform far more effectively against him this week than previously.
The coming election: some initial thoughts
Looking ahead to the election, Johnson’s decision to abandon any attempt to keep the moderate wing of his MPs in the party will play badly with the many habitual Tory voters whose values they represent. The other side of that coin is that it is very unclear whether in doing so he will, at least, neuter the threat of Farage and the Brexit Party. At the moment, it seems that Johnson’s pitch will still be that, if he wins the election, his policy will still be renegotiate a deal or leave with no-deal.
That will not be enough to get Farage to stand down, since, he has said, only an unambiguous no deal policy would do. And, in any case, even if he does, it cannot be assumed that the really hard core Brexit voters will not go back to UKIP or simply abstain. There is a mood amongst some (from what I see on social media and elsewhere) that having ‘lent their vote’ to the Conservatives in 2017 they will never do so again and here, too, Johnson’s untrustworthiness plays an additional role: doctrinaire Brexiters have always known that he is not of their number.
At all events, the election, when it comes, is going to be highly unpredictable. This means that the lingering illness of Brexit will continue, with all its attendant symptoms and with an unknowable prognosis. For all outcomes still remain almost equally possible, which leads to a final thought. Many of these scenarios would entail an extension considerably beyond the January 2020 date being mentioned.
Consider, for example this one: November election – hung parliament needing negotiations that lead to a Labour minority government with confidence and supply from LibDems/ SNP – negotiations begin with EU for a ‘Labour Brexit’, interrupted by Christmas – a new deal agreed – a referendum campaign held – the implementation of the result. In that sequence of events we will be well into next summer, presumably.
This is an exhausting prospect for all of us – not least Brexit bloggers! – but more importantly would pose very serious problems for the EU, both in the general sense of having the UK squatting half-in and half-out for even longer, and, specifically, in terms of the budget cycle. It is also difficult to know what sort of country we would be by the end of it all.🔷
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