Boris Johnson is cruising to victory - but then what? Eddie Ford looks at the various possibilities
Predictably - almost boringly - Boris Johnson looks like a shoo-in for the Tory leadership contest. Unless he spectacularly blows it at the last minute and snatches defeat from the jaws of victory - never impossible for someone with such a runaway mouth - he will be the next prime minister of Britain. Not exactly a cheery thought, but at least it will make Donald Trump happy. The result will be announced, of course, in the week beginning July 22.
At one point, dark rumours were swirling in the corridors of Westminster that the Johnson camp might ‘lend’ some votes to Jeremy Hunt to make sure he made it through to the final two rather than Michael Gove - considered by some to be more of a threat. Naturally, Johnson and his supporters have totally dismissed the rumour - but you never know.
Of course, on June 18 we had the keenly anticipated live BBC leadership debate between the five candidates who were still in the contest at that time - the former mayor of London finally breaking his near purdah. The general consensus is that Boris Johnson, having spurned the Channel 4 event held two days earlier, came across as defensive and evasive in this blue-on-blue bun fight - especially when he was asked by an imam from Bristol whether he accepted that “words have consequences”. Johnson awkwardly claimed that his notorious comment comparing Muslim women in burqas to “letterboxes” was taken out of context. During the debate Johnson insisted that his factually incorrect remark that the imprisoned British-Iranian citizen, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, was teaching in Iran “didn’t make any difference” - both she and her husband, now on hunger strike together, might beg to differ.
More significantly, he dodged the question of whether he can “guarantee” to deliver Brexit by the October 31 deadline - his main sales pitch to Tory MPs and the wider public. Johnson merely remarked that it was “eminently feasible”. He also suggested there was no issue with continuing free trade after Brexit - citing, like Nigel Farage has done many times before, article 24 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt). But the key point is that you need a trade agreement in order to make use of this article and the EU would be under no obligation to agree anything with the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit - therefore Britain would have to fall back on the very basic rules of the World Trade Organisation.
Johnson looked uncomfortable when questioned about his promise to cut taxes for the three million earning more than £50,000 a year, claiming that he needed to help ‘middle earners’ who have been “captured in the higher rate by fiscal drag” - a move that would cost around £9.6 billion a year and would apparently be paid for partly from “savings” in Brexit no-deal preparations. This seems an odd thing to say from someone purportedly committed to no deal and surely makes a nonsense of his repeated claim to be a ‘one-nation’ Tory. Johnson has also advocated cutting corporation tax despite the UK already having one of the lowest rates among developed economies, with successive reductions taking it from 28% in 2008 to 19% now.
After the BBC debate, Michael Gove said he had won because of his “detailed answers” and “clear plan” on Brexit - something that passed everyone else by. Has he been snorting again? As for Hunt, he stepped up the attacks on Boris Johnson by wondering whether his predecessor as foreign secretary has the “necessary grasp of detail” to do the job of prime minister - heavily implying that Johnson cannot be trusted to deliver Brexit, or anything else.
Still, it is hardly surprising that Boris Johnson is way ahead. It is not simply because he is popular with the Tory rank and file, though obviously that is true. Nor is it the case that his colleagues in the House of Commons adore his eccentric persona - in fact, many of them despise Johnson personally. Rather, when they look at him, they see someone popular with a swathe of the electorate, who will help them keep their job - maybe even get a promotion. In other words, he is supposed to be a winner who can sweep Jeremy Corbyn into the dustbin of history and put Nigel Farage back in his box.
To that end, we have read various articles about the ‘liberal’ Boris Johnson who once ran London - many are still flabbergasted that he was ever elected mayor in the first place, let alone re-elected. Then, of course, there are all the articles about the ‘Brexiteer’ Boris Johnson, who will deliver the goods where all the others failed - most notably the egressing prime minister.
Clearly, however, he is constructing a highly unstable coalition. A series of tweets from the ultra-Brexiteer and Johnson-backer, Steve Baker of the European Research Group, made very clear that nothing short of tearing up virtually every aspect of Theresa May’s deal will satisfy him and his caucus. Baker’s ally, Mark Francois, also made the same point - he is supporting Johnson, as he is the only candidate to say the May deal is “dead”. Indeed, another story circulating is that if Johnson does not deliver Brexit by October 31, the ERG will defect en masse to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Yet, strangely, another Johnson backer, Matt Hancock, appears convinced that his man will “strain every sinew” to achieve a deal with the EU.
I am now experiencing a sense of déjà vu - this is reminiscent of a certain prime minister who convinced one wing of her party that she was serious about no deal being better than a bad deal, and another wing that she was definitely going to wholeheartedly back a customs union in the end. Things did not end too well for that prime minster.
But the main division in the Tory Party is not between ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’, but between those who are committed to Brexit at any cost and those who want some sort of deal - Johnson says the UK will depart by October 31 “deal or no deal”. What is surely obvious to everyone is that, no matter who the Tories choose as their replacement for Theresa May, the arithmetic in parliament will not have changed - meaning that under Johnson there is a high likelihood of an early general election, despite various leadership candidates saying that would be a disaster for the Tory Party. On the other hand, there has been excitable chatter about proroguing parliament: with parliament suspended, the executive would just run the clock down to October 31, with no need to hold a vote.
But there are plenty of alternative scenarios, like one in which Labour - faced with a Johnson leadership hell-bent on no deal - moves an immediate no confidence motion in the government, which seems more than likely. Kenneth Clarke, for one, has said that if there was no other way to stop a prime minister acting like a “dictatorial president” by trying to force Britain out of the EU against the will of the majority of MPs, “then you’ve got to bring that government down”. Dominic Grieve apparently agrees.
Under the terms of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, there needs to be two no-confidence votes to trigger a general election. Under these circumstances, one solution is for Boris Johnson to act boldly and take preventive emergency measures - asking the queen to suspend parliament, thus effectively coming to his rescue. She is, we are told, a Brexiteer of some description, which is hardly astounding for a person of her age and background (needless to say, it is the privy council and the establishment which will get to decide). If the monarch and the privy council go along with prime minister Johnson’s request - which is a mighty big assumption, of course - then we will find ourselves engulfed by an enormous constitutional crisis, the likes of which we have not seen in centuries (1649 and all that). There will be the executive on one side and on the other the legislature in the form of parliament - with a determined speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, saying he will not allow the government to get away with its hot-headed action. In the event of a prorogation, former leadership contender Rory Stewart has raised the possibility of MPs and Bercow sitting across the road in the Methodist Central Hall as a rebel ‘parliament’ - an extraordinary prospect.
In a different variation of this scenario, prime minister Johnson loses the first vote of no confidence - but does not wait around for a second defeat. Instead he calls a snap Brexit election, just like his hapless predecessor, on the basis that he needs not just a working parliamentary majority, but also the backing of the country - protesting that the EU refused to budge on the Irish backstop or the £39 billion divorce bill, and warning that Jeremy Corbyn does not really want to leave the European club. Only Boris can be trusted.
The result of such an election would be impossible to predict, especially in the light of the example of only two years ago, when Theresa May was at one stage ahead by 20% in the opinion polls and nearly everyone assumed that Labour would be wiped out, thanks to its ongoing civil war. Maybe Johnson would perform disastrously, or Corbyn shine brilliantly again - everything is in the balance.
As the old Chinese curse goes, we live in interesting times. But, unlike the forebodings of a conservative peasant, there are some grounds for working class optimism - their crisis could be our opportunity.