Desperate times, desperate measures
Ever since he got elected, Boris Johnson has been acting in a ‘revolutionary’ fashion and shows no sign of rowing back, writes Eddie Ford.
At the beginning of the week, the monarch did her duty and gave royal assent to the Benn-Burt legislation. This requires the government to seek an extension to article 50 until January 31 next year, unless by October 19 a deal is reached with the European Union or parliament approves a no-deal Brexit - which the House of Commons is never going to do, of course. Nor is it easy to imagine Boris Johnson ever making such a request, saying he would rather “die in a ditch”. For what it is worth, I believe him.
On the same day, quite predictably, 293 MPs backed Boris Johnson’s motion calling for a snap general election poll - five less than in last week’s vote on the issue and considerably short of the 434 needed under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act for a two-thirds majority. In response, Johnson called Labour MPs “yellow bellies”, but Jeremy Corbyn was never going to fall into the “elephant trap” of an election before October 19. Let Johnson squirm. Now that parliament has been prorogued - albeit amidst raucous scenes of opposition MPs shouting “shame on you” and singing the ‘Red Flag’, and given the accompanying time to be taken by the start of a new session and the debate on a queen’s speech - the absolute earliest date for an election (at least in theory, thanks to the 25 working days required by current UK law) is November 22, well past the October 31 Brexit deadline.
There is now a lot of talk about Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement being resurrected from the dead, this week seeing the launch of the cross-party ‘MPs For a Deal’ group, claiming up to 50 supporters. The founders include Labour MPs Stephen Kinnock and Caroline Flint, Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb and former Tory MP Rory Stewart - now an independent after being booted out of the parliamentary party for being part of the ‘rebel alliance’ of 21 Conservatives who voted for the Benn-Burt bill. The group’s proposals would involve using elements of May’s Brexit deal as the basis for an agreement, which a happy Boris Johnson could steer through parliament, possibly in time for an October 31 departure. Those supporting a second referendum would try to amend any proposal for a new deal in order to secure their hobby horse - some people never give up. Frankly, there is more chance of hell freezing over than Johnson agreeing to resurrect May’s deal.
In parallel, another dead plan from the past is being kicked around - the Northern Ireland-only backstop, previously rejected by Theresa May as a threat to the “constitutional integrity” of the UK, which “no British prime minister” could ever accept. Of course, a regulatory border in the Irish Sea would be anathema to the Tory Brexiteers of the European Research Group, as well as the Democratic Unionist Party. Sufficiently alarmed, the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, demanded a private meeting with the prime minister on September 10 - saying afterwards that Johnson “confirmed his rejection” of the Northern Ireland-only backstop. Once again, it seems, we are seeing the triumph of hope over realism.
A possible spanner in the works of the anti-Brexiteers is the claim that France will demand that any extension to the Brexit deadline should be at least two years to allow Britain enough time to “re-evaluate” its decision to leave the EU. Bruno Bonnell, a member of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche ‘party’, said France would insist on a lengthier time limit in order to avoid repeated crises every three months. This demand, if true, would be music to the ears of Boris Johnson - giving him an excuse to veto the unreasonable demand from the perfidious French and crash out of the EU on October 31, whatever the Benn-Burt legislation might say. Desperate times require desperate measures, especially now that the Court of Session in Edinburgh surprisingly ruled on September 11 that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament was “null and of no effect”, because “it had the purpose of stymying parliament”.
The judges failed to issue an interdict, or injunction, ordering the UK government to reconvene parliament, deferring a final decision to the Supreme Court, which will hold a three-day hearing next week. Naturally, the government is calling into question the impartiality of the Scottish judges, but their decision has ignited a row over whether MPs should go back to the House of Commons - with Keir Starmer and others calling for an immediate ‘unproroguing’ or recall of parliament.
Some are demanding that Johnson should resign, as he misled the poor old queen over the reasons for prorogation - something that has “disgraced” the office of prime minister and “debased” Britain’s supposed international standing as a champion of democracy.
Things are happening so fast, with all manner of unpredictable outcomes, that it is useful at this stage to outline a few basic ideas from the communist viewpoint.
Firstly, we are opposed to referendums in principle - the 2016 one on EU membership being a particularly bad example. David Cameron’s referendum had nothing to do with ‘putting it to the people’. Clearly he assumed he was going to win, arrogantly never conceiving of losing - then again, most of us shared that opinion as well. But ultimately the 2016 referendum was about throwing some red meat to the rightwing “bastards” on his back benches, the seeming rise of the UK Independence Party, and also to pull a honeyfuggle over the Labour Party. The disastrous defeat that followed led John Major to call him the worst ever peace-time prime minister, which from the establishment point of view is probably true. Theresa May was left to pick up the pieces and try to make a bad job good - something she totally failed to do. But could anyone have done any better?
This brings us to Boris Johnson himself. Unless you were an ostrich, it was not in the least surprising that he overwhelmingly won the leadership contest - the Tory rank and file are far closer to Nigel Farage than Dominic Grieve or Philip Hammond.
What has he done since? Effectively, he has acted in a ‘revolutionary’ fashion - to hell with precedent and convention. For instance, we did not see a cabinet reshuffle - rather a cabinet purge. Then there was the very cleverly timed proroguing of parliament that did not go straight through to October 31, as expected by many, including myself. In terms of deniability, plausible or otherwise, this has enabled Team Boris to say that only four days of parliamentary time were actually lost, due to the conference season and so on. But, of course, we all know that prorogation was about counting down the clock - there is still no sign yet of Johnson being serious about negotiating a deal in Europe. He does not want to become another Theresa May, confronted by a hostile parliament and paralysed by inaction.
Dominic Raab has said of the no-deal legislation that the government will “test the law to its limits”. Boris Johnson has repeatedly said he will never apply for an extension, as the UK is coming out of the EU by October 31 “do or die”, but he will not break the law or resign - something has to give, particularly after the Edinburgh court deciding that prorogation was “unlawful”. Maybe there will be other legal rulings against the government, or the prime minister. This is unlikely to damage Johnson’s electoral chances, fitting nicely into the Dominic Cummings narrative of ‘the people against the Westminster elite’.
In fact, everything indicates that Johnson is going to plough on, not retreat. The plan all along, even under Theresa May, was to push Labour into the remain camp - then go for a general election on the basis of either having gloriously delivered Brexit, as promised, or having been betrayed by the backstabbing, liberal-metropolitan ‘political class’. In case of the latter, expect round-the-clock “die in a ditch” Churchillian language - anyone seen as less than enthusiastic about Brexit will be branded a ‘traitor’ who wants to surrender British sovereignty to foreign bureaucrats. Whatever happens, the government is doing everything it can to create the best conditions for a successful election and getting Boris Johnson that solid parliamentary majority.
At the moment, the polls look fairly good for the Tories - they will probably get better, thanks to the fuss about Johnson’s “unlawful” behaviour. Who doesn’t want to give the establishment a good kicking? Of course, the polls reflect the extreme volatility of the electorate, with surveys at the end of last week suggesting election outcomes ranging from a Tory landslide to another hung parliament. Then you have to factor in the first-past-the-post electoral system, which should disproportionately hammer the remain vote - split four ways between Labour, the Lib Dems, Greens and the Scottish National Party/Plaid Cymru.
On top of all that, it goes without saying, you have the Brexit Party - Nigel Farage publicly offering a no-deal election pact, giving the Tories a free run in 80-90 constituencies. Naturally the Tories have ruled out any such alliance with Farage - why bother when they expect to mop up the entire Brexit Party vote.
However much some may wish it, the next election will not be a rerun of 2017 - we have officially left behind the age of austerity. Chancellor Sajid Javid has found a magic money tree, flinging the dosh in every direction. In turn, a Brexit election could act to highlight Labour divisions over Brexit. Tom Watson, the deputy leader, is now urging the Labour Party to “unambiguously and unequivocally back ‘remain’” - and to push for a referendum before a general election. This has nothing to do with national politics. Watson fancies himself as the leader of ‘moderate’ Labour MPs and a potential candidate for top seat in a government of national unity.