Storms heading our way
In order to win the Tory leadership election Boris Johnson says that when it comes to Brexit it is ‘do or die’. According to existing parliamentary arithmetic, he will die. But that will hardly be the end of matters, says Eddie Ford
Frankly, it was obvious from day one that Boris Johnson would emerge as the clear winner from the exhaustive ballots of Tory MPs - even if many of them regard him as a clown. On the fifth and final ballot, Johnson secured the votes of 160 MPs, while Jeremy Hunt got 77 - knocking out Michael Gove - and the party membership of about 160,000 will elect the leader by postal ballot, with the result now due to be announced on July 23. The new prime minister will formally take office the following day - or so it seems, as the question is still not entirely clear.1
Given that parliament goes into its summer recess on July 25, this appears to mean that the new occupant of 10 Downing Street will avoid parliamentary scrutiny until the autumn and, perhaps more importantly, might be able to dodge the “immediate” no-confidence vote promised by the Labour Party. Then again, such a vote probably has more chance of succeeding, the nearer it is to the Brexit deadline of October 31 - but more on that later. Between now and July 22, when the ballot closes, there will be 15 more leadership hustings and also a “digital hustings” to be live-streamed on the Conservative Party’s Face book and Twitter accounts - the Tories finally entering the 21st century.
Throughout the contest, the real question was always, ‘Who will come second in the MPs’ poll?’ Michael Gove had been regarded by some as a more dangerous opponent than Hunt, mainly because he was part of the official Vote Leave campaign during the referendum - his Euro scepticism actually having a longer pedigree than Johnson’s, who was an 11th-hour convert to the Brexit cause. In fact, many had assumed that Johnson would side with the ‘remain’ camp, given his tenure as mayor of cosmopolitan London, and the fact that he had never evidenced any particularly Euro sceptic inclinations before.
Team Boris thought it would be harder to score points off Gove than Hunt - who was a remainer, but now says that he would vote ‘leave’ if there was another referendum. How genuine a conversion that is I leave up to the reader. Naturally, Brexiteers and the likes of the European Research Group are having fun dubbing Jeremy Hunt as “Theresa May in trousers” - yet another ‘remainer’ who cannot be trusted to deliver Brexit. Johnson, on the other hand, is meant to be Mr Brexit - the man who will get Britain out of the European Union by Halloween, deal or no deal.
Understandably, Jeremy Hunt is trying to turn the tables on his rival by suggesting that - far from being Mr Brexit - you cannot trust Boris Johnson to fulfil his promises on EU withdrawal. Rather, said Hunt - in response to a letter from the former London mayor asking him to commit to a October 31 Brexit, come what may - sticking doggedly to this “fake deadline” could lead to a snap general election that would hand the keys to Jeremy Corbyn and “then we’d have no Brexit at all”. He went on to tell the BBC he believes himself to have a far greater chance of succeeding in Brussels than Johnson, because he is the person “they trust” and are “prepared to talk to” - after all, “you don’t do a deal with someone you don’t trust”. Who could he be referring to?
In other words, Hunt is emphasising his competence and seriousness, as opposed to Johnson’s unreliability and slapdash dilettantism - the message being that Brexit is not easy and only with a “heavy heart” would he contemplate taking Britain out of the EU without a deal, as businesses up and down the country “would face a lot of destruction”. But Hunt appears to have forgotten about his audience, who are not interested in departmental diligence and ministerial attention to detail - they find it positively off-putting. We are talking about the Tory rank and file that put Brexit before anything else except defeating Jeremy Corbyn - as revealed in a recent YouGov poll.2
They are so fanatically dedicated to EU withdrawal that a majority (54%) would be willing to countenance the destruction of their own party if necessary and are willing to sacrifice the supposedly precious tenet of unionism - asked whether they would rather forego Brexit if it would lead to Scotland or Northern Ireland breaking away from the United Kingdom, respectively 63% and 59% of party members would be willing to pay for Brexit with the break-up of the UK. A similar proportion (61%) would also be prepared to see “significant” economic damage to the British economy in order to leave the EU.
Rather contradictorily, a slender majority (51%) would rather call the whole thing off than allow the Labour leader to become prime minister. Nevertheless, 39% are even willing to accept that outcome if it meant getting Brexit - now almost the ultimate in identity politics.
All this clearly points to the fact that, unless Johnson makes the biggest cock-up in history - always possible, I suppose, given his record and temperament - he will win the leadership contest. Hunt will be lucky to get half of Johnson’s vote, no matter how well he performs over the next four weeks.
Understanding the mindset of Tory Party members also helps to put into perspective the now famous row Boris Johnson had with his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds. For some media idiots, just for a moment, the domestic incident did look like Johnson snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But the ‘Symonds effect’ was never going shift opinion amongst the Tory rank and file.
After all, you have to ask why party membership is now in excess of 160,000 - over 30,000 more than in March 2018. There has been nonsensical talk about Ukip ‘infiltrators’ and so on, but these people are returning to their party precisely to vote for Johnson in the belief he would deliver Brexit. In the same way the massive surge in membership enjoyed by Labour was the result of people joining to support Jeremy Corbyn, not Liz Kendall - can anyone still remember her?
Therefore, the bulk of Tory Party members will look at Carrie Symonds and just shrug their shoulders. Even if Johnson had assaulted the woman they would not really care, having bigger fish to fry. You could ask why Bible-bashing Christian fundamentalists in the United States enthusiastically support Donald Trump despite his obvious sinning - adultery, womanising, chasing porn stars, dodgy business practices, serial lying, alleged links with Russia, etc - not to mention his lack of any religious inclinations. The question answers itself, of course: it is because of his politics - anti-immigrant pledges and vows to make America great again. Similarly, Tory members will forgive Boris Johnson anything and everything because of Brexit.
Yes, we all heard the story about the neighbours being lefties who snitched on the great Boris and called the police - Jacob Rees-Mogg, for one, condemned them as “Corbynista curtain-twitchers”. Yet just imagine if you heard loud shouting, crashing sounds and a woman shouting, “Get off of me!” - surely as a human being you would do something? The Daily Telegraph would have us believe that the argument was about some wine being spilt. No, as the police used to say, it was a ‘domestic’.
Meanwhile, he has been unveiling his Brexit plan - insofar as you can call it that. He has claimed that the EU would be prepared to replace the Northern Ireland backstop aspect of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement with “alternative arrangements”; it would continue free and frictionless trade with the UK for a so-called “implementation period” after a no deal Brexit on October 31. He argued that the EU would eventually break all their own red lines anyway, because they are horrified by the thought of Nigel Farage’s 29 MEPs causing havoc in the European parliament; they would panic when prime minister Johnson says he will not necessarily pay all the £39 billion divorce bill that May agreed to and start to retreat.
Senior figures within the EU have described Johnson’s ideas as “preposterous rubbish” and a “herd of unicorns trampling around”. But he insisted it was possible to broker a new deal before the end of October, because the “political landscape” has changed in the UK and on the continent - though what exactly he meant by that he did not explain. Slipping into fairyland, Johnson also said that there were “abundant, abundant technical fixes” that could be made to avoid border checks in Ireland - though once again he gave no details.
Regardless, Boris Johnson says he will take Britain out of the EU on October 31 “do or die” - ripping up Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement in the process and seeking an entirely new deal before then. He will obviously be an extremely busy man in the four or so weeks of parliamentary time available before the deadline.
Yet there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that Johnson might not make it to October 31. It is even possible to imagine a situation where he gets booted out on his first day as prime minister, when parliament returns from its recess on September 3. Tobias Ellwood, the undersecretary of state at the ministry of defence, has claimed there are a “dozen or so” Tory MPs who could support a vote of no confidence to stop a no-deal Brexit. Amber Rudd recently said too that “the numbers” were there to bring down the government, while both Kenneth Clarke and Dominic Grieve have confessed they are prepared to take such a drastic course of action if necessary.
If the government loses a confidence vote, a 14-day countdown will be triggered, when MPs will decide whether they want the current government to continue in some shape or form, or would go for an alternative - possibly cobbling together a government of national unity, whether on a temporary or permanent basis. If neither option is agreed within the time period, a general election will have to be called.
This is bad news for the government, as it only has a working majority of four, which could shortly be reduced further, thanks to an imminent by-election after the Tory MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, Chris Davies, was forced out last week by a recall petition, following his conviction for expenses fraud. Both the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats have high hopes of winning the seat. Clearly, with or without Brecon and Radnorshire the Tories are hanging on by the skin of their teeth.
To avoid a parliamentary defeat over his Brexit plans Johnson could get the monarch to prorogue parliament. This is legal but would trigger a constitutional crisis. We would have the will of the executive pitted against the will of parliament. Undoubtedly this would be followed by a general election. Here, Johnson imagines he has a big advantage.
Jeremy Corbyn is seen as a hard line Marxist, a dangerous red, a lover of terrorists ... and an anti-Semite to boot. Leave aside Tory voters, that is the opinion of the vast bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party. If Johnson loses to a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party in a general election, the Parliamentary Labour Party is more than likely to put the ‘interests of the country’ over the interest Jeremy Corbyn has in become prime minister. Be warned.