Brexit do or die
Eddie Ford asks if Boris Johnson can deliver where Theresa May failed
As was always going to be the case, Boris Johnson this week became Britain’s 77th prime minister - and the fifth to have been educated at Eton since World War II (all Tories, of course). He won the contest to become Conservative leader by 92,153 votes (66%) to 46,656 on an 87.4% turnout among the 159,320 party members. Maybe not quite the crushing landslide many expected, seeing that David Cameron in the 2005 leadership contest won 68% of the vote, but still a convincing victory nevertheless.
Hence on July 24 Johnson enjoyed an “audience” with the queen, as constitutionally required, and then announced a clutch of senior cabinet posts. This cabinet, we are told, is about “showcasing all the talents within the party that truly reflect modern Britain”. On the same day, meanwhile, Theresa May formally resigned and the ex-mayor of London addressed the nation for the first time outside Downing Street after accepting the monarch’s invitation to form a government.
In his victory speech, the new prime minister said his government would “energise” the country and “get Brexit done” on October 31. This would involve taking advantage of “all the opportunities” it will bring with a “new spirit of can-do”. He had already compared Brexit to landing on the moon in the pages of The Sunday Telegraph: “… if they could use a hand-knitted computer code to make a frictionless re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere in 1969, we can solve the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border” (July 21). Anyway, looking into the sunlit uplands, Johnson promised the British people that “we are once again going to believe in ourselves” and “like some slumbering giant we are going to rise and ping off the guy ropes of self-doubt and negativity”. Naturally, he was going to “defeat” Jeremy Corbyn and “unite” the country.
Theresa May congratulated her successor, promising him her “full support from the back benches” - we shall see. It goes without saying that Donald Trump was delighted by the result, telling an event in Washington that “a really good man is going to be the prime minister of the UK now” and would deliver Brexit. He was unable to resist adding: “They call him Britain Trump. That’s a good thing”. On the other hand, Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, congratulated Boris Johnson for being called “more dangerous than the Lega” by Tony Blair in a recent interview - something that makes Johnson “even more likable”, it seems.
There had been a lot of excitable chatter about Philip Hammond, David Gauke and other liberal Tories voting down Johnson on his very first day in office. But it always seemed highly unlikely that they would risk deselection and a Jeremy Corbyn government, at least in theory, on such a flaky throw of the dice - which would only act to cohere the majority of Tory MPs around the new prime minister, not undermine him.
In the words of one Johnson critic on the Conservative back benches, the party “would take a very, very dim view of getting rid of him before he has done anything yet”. For this very reason, it does not make much sense for Labour to bring forward a no-confidence motion, as it is bound to be defeated. Having said that, Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, said on the BBC’s Today programme that Labour is “talking” to Tory MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit, so as to gauge whether they would support such a motion and Jeremy Corbyn has cryptically remarked that he might have “an interesting surprise for all of you”.
True, there was a ham-fisted putsch attempt by Sir Alan Duncan, a Johnsonophobic foreign office minister who resigned in order to propose an emergency Commons debate on support for the prime minister, saying he had “very grave concerns that Johnson flies by the seat of his pants” and described his former boss as “haphazard and ramshackle”. Duncan insisted he was not trying to depose Johnson, but rather trying to be “helpful” by ending the speculation about whether MPs supported the new incumbent in No10. His motion stated: “That this House has considered the merits of the newly chosen leader of the Conservative Party, and supports his wish to form a government”. In the end, however, his motion was turned down by the speaker, John Bercow - who in the imagination of the European Research Group of Tory pro-Brexit MPs is hell-bent on sabotaging Brexit by any means possible.
The Tory discontents are prepared, it appears, to give Johnson until the end of the summer to see if he can make headway towards coming to a fresh agreement with the European Union that avoids no deal - but could become more rebellious if he “tries to act like he has a majority of 150” and goes full tilt for an October 31 crash-out - or goes down the path of “Trumpian rhetoric” that forgets the country is split down the middle on Brexit. Needless to say, Tory liberals will be watching closely the cabinet appointments, worried by Johnson’s talk of “turbo-charging” no-deal preparations. By the same measure, ERGers have stated that they were perfectly prepared to “take him out ourselves” if Johnson failed on his “do or die” promise to deliver Brexit by October 31.
Optimistically or not, Gauke believes there are “parliamentary mechanisms” which could prevent a no-deal Brexit. These would “not necessarily” involve bringing down a Johnson administration in a no-confidence vote - though he has yet to say what they are exactly. It will become clear in the autumn, thinks Gauke, that there is a “clear majority” in the Commons that does not want to leave the EU without a deal - but expect a “period of huge uncertainty” in Westminster and beyond, as the October 31 deadline approaches.
In a different spin, one former minister and ‘Gaukeward Squad’ member reckons that Johnson could be the “SAS stun grenade” to “blind” the likes of the ERG into supporting a deal that will look very much like Theresa May’s. Johnson will quickly realise, according to the former minister, that May’s withdrawal agreement - is not dead and buried after all and may be able to come back to life with a “tweak” that allows him to rebadge it as “Boris’s deal”. The real question then, in this scenario, is whether hard-line Brexiteers are “stupid” enough to continue opposing it when “at least half a dozen” Tories are prepared to block no deal - “he’s got to shaft somebody”, explains the former minister, and “most of us” are hoping it will be Stephen Baker of the ERG “because he’s perhaps the only person who can”.
But, scheming and duplicity aside, the numbers at the present time do not add up for a hard Brexit deal of any sort - the government having a technical working majority of only four. We would expect that number to shrink through ‘natural wastage’. There is a very good chance that the government will lose the August 1 by-election in Brecon and Radnorshire to the Liberal Democrats, though there is always the possibility of a ‘Boris bounce’ saving the day for the Tories. Then we have Charlie Elphicke, MP for Dover, who has had the whip withdrawn after being charged with three counts of sexual assault. If he is convicted and there is a recall, the odds are that the Tories will lose that one as well - maybe bringing the government majority down to a mere two, making things really hairy.
What is going to happen? Everything indicates a general election in September, October or November. If it is November, Brexit should have already occurred. Otherwise, obviously, the Tories would get a hammering from Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party. The Tories have to go to the country either on the basis that they are going to deliver Brexit and thus need a parliamentary majority to do so, or after they have already done it. Anything else would be a disaster for them.
Yes, as many people have pointed out, Boris Johnson is a supreme cynic and opportunist - for example, he penned three articles for The Daily Telegraph not long before the referendum, which covered every base. All this is absolutely true, but sometimes when politicians commit themselves to something they become identified with that policy - its personification. Frankly, the idea that that Johnson could turn around on October 31 and say he had only been kidding the party rank and file in order to become prime minister is totally fantastic. He would be toast - condemned as a charlatan by history. He has to come out fighting for Brexit with all guns blazing and the result will seal his political fate - do or die. In other words, it is time to start taking Brexit seriously - it is not an impossible outcome any more, particularly given Trump’s enthusiasm for the project.
David Cameron did not call the referendum because he wanted to ‘consult’ the people in a noble democratic exercise. Thanks to the natural arrogance of a former Bullingdon Club member, he assumed ‘remain’ would win - after all, the referendum was all about neutralising the UK Independence Party and dealing with his own troublesome right wing, plus dividing the Labour Party. But things did not quite work out as planned. Not for nothing did John Major call Cameron the worst prime minister in history: he nearly lost Scotland and then gave us the complete mess that is Brexit - which still has a long way to run.
Last week we had the Northern Ireland Bill, when anti-no dealers craftily slipped into it a requirement for a fortnightly report to parliament - an amendment that won by 41 votes. This has never been tested before, but the idea is that parliament cannot be prorogued, because it has to keep monitoring the ongoing Stormont negotiations. I am thoroughly unconvinced that the prime minster will be trapped by this mechanism - there does not seem to be any realistic way of stopping the clock from ticking.
There have been stories or fantasies about an ‘alternative parliament’ sitting across the road from Westminster - so what, even if it happened? Speaker Bercow might get all hot under the collar about Johnson engaging in constitutional vandalism, but ultimately proroguing parliament would not be unconstitutional, let alone illegal - even if John Major and Gina Miller are huffing and puffing about a judicial review, and so on. Yes, a move of this nature would take you into some politically awkward constitutional areas, it need hardly be said. But the monarch, following the advice of her prime minister, has the power to close parliament. She could refuse, of course, but then we would get into some very odd territory - not suspending parliament would probably cause more of a crisis than actually closing it. We are certainly not on the edge of civil-war territory, with Bercow about to pit his New Model Army against the Boris Johnson’s Cavaliers. But we are definitely moving into very dangerous political territory for those above - as shown by the fact that bastions of the establishment like John Bercow, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, not to mention the Financial Times, Telegraph, BBC, etc, are routinely talking about a pending constitutional crisis.
As things stand at the moment, the only viable way forward for Johnson is either to call a general election earlier rather than later (with a totally unpredictable outcome) or run down to the clock - then call for a general election as a sort of ‘confirmatory vote’ or ‘final say’. After all, would a new elected Labour government really cancel a Brexit that has already taken place or immediately agitate to rejoin the EU? Clearly, events could go in all manner of different directions. It is, for example, far from impossible that the monarch, seeing Johnson loose in parliament, might be advised to choose someone to head a national government.
Under these volatile conditions, it is absolutely essential for communists to remind the left that the constitution matters. Working class politics is not just about strikes and demonstrations, however militant, but about making political demands for far-going democratic reform: getting rid of the monarchy, House of Lords, the presidential prime minister, established church, standing army and all the rest of that crap.