Election has already begun
Boris Johnson’s spending spree and visits to the four corners of the UK are about seeing off Jeremy Corbyn, but, writes Eddie Fordthe parliamentary establishment might still make a decisive move.
So far, things have gone pretty much as expected - Boris Johnson got the call from Buckingham Palace and is now the prime minister. It was obvious right from the beginning that the Tory rank and file would vote for the former mayor of London by a large margin - they view him as the personification of Brexit: the man who would get the job done.
Some people were naively saying that Johnson would appoint an administration of ‘all the talents’ to his cabinet, regardless of whether they were leavers or remainers - that was clearly rubbish. Having won the contest purely because of Brexit, he has to tie his flag to that particular mast - and carry it through. Anyone who thinks that Johnson, just because he was undecided about which way to jump before the 2016 referendum, will therefore start rowing back on his “do or die” promises about Brexit will become quickly disillusioned - he is totally committed to getting out of the European Union by October 31.
This was amply confirmed by the new cabinet he swiftly put together. Very few of the old guard remain and those who do are committed to a no-deal Brexit. Johnson dismissed 11 senior ministers and accepted the resignation of six others in a purge described by his ally, Nigel Evans, as “summer’s day massacre”. The Sun dubbed it the “Night of the Blond Knives” - it was the most extensive cabinet reorganisation without an actual change in the governing party in post-war British political history, exceeding the seven ministers sacked by Harold Macmillan in 1962 as part of the “Night of the Long Knives”.
True, Johnson did say that his new cabinet was one that “truly reflects modern Britain” - by which he meant more ethnically and gender diverse. One quarter of those appointed were women with four secretaries of state and two additional ministers coming from ethnic minority backgrounds. For example, Sajid Javid and Priti Patel were appointed as chancellor and home secretary respectively. On the other hand, nearly two-thirds of those appointed went to fee-paying schools and almost half had attended Oxbridge. What is far more important about the new cabinet, however, in the words of The Guardian, is its “ideologically homogeneous statement of intent” - ie, it is stuffed full of ardent Brexiteers (July 25).
Johnson’s co-leader of the official ‘leave’ campaign, Michael Gove, is now the new chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, entrusted with ‘no deal’ preparations. He will chair a daily meeting of officials and advisors to orchestrate the departure from the EU - he said last week that he was working on the “assumption” of no deal. Dominic Raab, the hapless former Brexit secretary, has been spectacularly overpromoted to foreign secretary and also the first secretary of state (effectively the deputy prime minister, god help us). Most significantly of all, Dominic Cummings, former campaign director for Vote Leave, has been made Johnson’s senior political advisor. He came up with the slogan, ‘take back control’ and is considered the laser-beam of the Tory right - basically his job is to act as an enforcer to push through the Brexit agenda. Without doubt, this is the most rightwing cabinet since 1945.
Johnson embarked on a whirlwind series of visits to Manchester, Leeds, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. He has promised to spend money like there is no tomorrow - rather ironic, given that Theresa May constantly mocked Labour for its supposedly extravagant spending plans, but now under Johnson magic money trees are flourishing everywhere. Many billions have been promised. The new HS2 railway alone is estimated at £60 billion and upwards, while the trans-Pennine link will be at least £6 billion. Then you have the extra 20,000 police officers he said would be recruited.
With Johnson spending like mad, you have to ask why. One thing you can say for sure is that the Tories have not been won over to Keynesianism thanks to John McDonnell’s powers of persuasion. There is a much more obvious explanation, needless to say. Boris Johnson is in general election mode - the campaign has begun; it is merely a question of exactly when it will happen. Up north in ‘leave’-voting constituencies in Labour’s historic heartland he promised both a speedy Brexit and loads of economic stimulus. At the same time, he is turning around to corporations and the middle classes, saying he will reduce their tax bills. All quite remarkably cynical - it does not all add up financially, but it makes perfect political sense in the context of an election campaign.
Gideon Rachman recently penned an article for the Financial Times, ‘Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and lessons from the 1930s’, in which he scratched his head and asked: “When is it right to sound the alarm about political turmoil?” (July 22). He notes that something has gone wrong with the ‘political centre’ - the establishment is no longer in control of events. For Rachman, the lunatics have taken over the asylum, whether it be Trump and Johnson on one side, or Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn on the other.
For the first time since the whole sorry process began, it is time to take the prospect of Brexit seriously. Yes, the arithmetic in parliament has never added up, but now we should expect extraordinary measures. The Johnson government really does seem prepared to go down the path of a disorderly, chaotic withdrawal.
Under these circumstances, there is absolutely no chance of the EU turning around and agreeing to scrap the Irish backstop - just forget it. For the EU establishment the key thing is the political project represented by the bloc. There is no way that it will say it does not matter if there is no border on the island of Ireland. This, obviously, will divide what is going to be the EU27 from an external entity - ie, the UK. The EU will not be ‘sensible’, as the Brexiteers see it, while Johnson cannot backtrack on the Irish backstop, as he has too much riding on it.
If there is no deal, Britain presumably will keep its £39 billion divorce money. Of course, we do not know how the EU will respond to such a situation - maybe seize some British assets. But you can bet that retaliatory measures of some sort will be taken, as the money agreed by Theresa May is for ongoing European projects, to which the UK was committed.
In other words, it will not be a sweet divorce - Brexit will damage Europe as well as the UK. Lots of economists and commentators, not just leftwing ones, are talking about a world teetering on the edge of recession and it is easy to imagine Brexit being one of the triggers that sets off the downturn. Obviously, Ireland will be the EU country most affected. But on this occasion the EU has decided to show solidarity with little Ireland, lining up aid, unlike Greece, which it screwed right royally. Britain being its biggest trading partner by far, the Irish economy will be hit savagely by Brexit disruption and the reappearance of a border of some description. Yet if we think the Irish Republic will be affected negatively, that will be nothing compared to Northern Ireland, which could be battered even more by a no-deal Brexit.
We can imagine many other potential developments, and not just in Ireland. Nicola Sturgeon will surely look at what is going on in Britain and ask, what about our second referendum? If Boris Johnson can have an October 31 deadline, then how about one for Scotland? But, of course, Johnson has a big problem about how he actually gets to October 31, as the parliamentary numbers do not stack up. We have already had Johnson’s non-denial about proroguing parliament, just let the clock run down. After all, he has had legal advice saying he can do that - though maybe it will be challenged. Perhaps the courts will decide that what Johnson is doing is illegal, but what are they going to do about it - issue a warrant for his arrest?
Imagine that the government decides not to reopen parliament on September 3 and John Bercow calls an unofficial or alternative parliament across the road in a blaze of publicity. But what difference will it actually make in the real world?
But also ask this question: will MPs passively sit there, whilst Boris Johnson closes parliament? It is a fact that there are ongoing talks between Sir Keir Starmer and Tory anti-‘no dealers’ like Phillip Hammond, which are essentially about calculating the numbers to see if there is a majority for a confidence vote and some sort of national government - even if they do not call it that. Hammond says he has about 40 Tory MPs onside, then add Starmer’s bloc of Labour MPs and the Lib Dems, plus Caroline Lucas of the Greens - a majority?
At the moment, Labour MPs face both a disorderly Brexit - which the vast majority oppose - and also the trigger ballot process, which could lead to their deselection. However, the problem is that the process will not be completed until November, but will Johnson wait that long to call an election? When he does, Labour’s NEC could conceivably cancel the whole process. At least 70-80 Labour MPs fear they would lose out if there is a reselection process - thus for them there is not only a pull towards action, but a push as well.
If Johnson does not reopen parliament, then perhaps Starmer and Hammond will get a list together of MPs who support their project. The queen could well consent to a new government and a chaotic hard Brexit would be averted. Alternatively, a no-deal Brexit could well happen and the economy will go down the pan - a reasonably safe prediction, even more so when you look at the global picture. The British car industry is going to go the same way as the deep coal, steel and shipping industries - towards extinction. Japan has now got its trade deal with the EU and no longer needs the UK as a bridge. Other industries will also suffer severe trauma.
What will then happen politically is almost impossible to predict, but what you can say is that the electorate is incredibly volatile. In May the Brexit Party came first in the European elections, with the Tories getting an utterly wretched 9% - incredible stuff. Now, however, The Guardian has the Tories ahead on 30%, Labour on 28% and the Lib Dems on 16% - while the Brexit Party is down jn fourth place on 15%. For the moment at least, its supporters are returning to the Tories under Boris Johnson - the man who they hope will deliver Brexit.