Playing the blame game
Now that a Brexit deal is ‘essentially impossible’, writes Eddie Ford, we could be heading towards an ugly, populist general election.
Operation blame game has begun for real following the already famous phone call between Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel in the early hours of October 8. According to a “Downing Street source”, which has not been refuted by Berlin, the German chancellor was unusually blunt in saying that there will be no Brexit deal unless Northern Ireland remains within the customs union “forever”.
Assuming for now that the conversation has been accurately reported, the message was more than clear: there can be no time-limited backstop or ‘two borders for four years’. This represents a total rejection of Boris Johnson’s alternative to the backstop, which would see Northern Ireland leaving the customs union along with the rest of the of the UK, but staying in the single market for goods - all subject to approval every four years by the Northern Ireland assembly. Of course, the prime minister’s plan was always a non-starter, as it contains far too much uncertainty for the European Union - and it effectively gives the Democratic Unionist Party a veto over whether the statelet keeps in regulatory alignment with the EU.
“France is saying the same thing” as Angela Merkel, the same source says. In some respects it does appear that EU leaders - quite understandably from their point of view - have decided to make an example of the UK in order to show that Johnson’s attempt to trash Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement must inevitably lead to the UK ending up in a worse place - you cannot leave the club while retaining the benefits, as that could potentially threaten the integrity of the bloc. Others would want to follow Britain’s lead. In the sanguine opinion of the No10 source, the call provided a “very useful clarifying moment in all sorts of ways”, as an agreement now looks “essentially impossible” - which seems a realistic assessment. Then again, you could say that Brexit negotiations did not collapse on October 8 - they had never really resumed after Theresa May’s resignation last summer. From then onwards it has all been kabuki - shadow boxing, at least on the British side.
Sources on both sides have confirmed that no meetings between the negotiating teams are scheduled. Both Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, and Jean Claude-Juncker, president of the European Commission, addressed the European parliament on October 9 to report on the state of play. On the face of it there now appears to be a binary choice between a no-deal Brexit or a delay that might in some way lead to Brexit being cancelled or revoked. Brino (‘Brexit in name only’) is a fading memory. The “Downing Street source” or Angela Merkel - or both - have raised the stakes considerably.
The call followed on from the now equally famous very long text message sent the day before to James Forsyth, political editor of the centre-right Spectator magazine, from someone he describes as “a contact in No10”, setting out the Downing Street view on where the Brexit talks are going - all of which bears the hallmark of Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s de facto chief of staff and the supposed Steerpike-like evil genius directing events in accordance to some grand master plan.1 In fact, anyone of a paranoid disposition might think that the “Downing Street source” and the “contact in No10” are the same person.
Anyway, the text threatens to “make clear privately and publicly that countries which oppose delay will go to the front of the queue for future cooperation” - but “those who support delay will go to the bottom of the queue”, because it will be seen as “hostile interference in domestic politics, and over half of the public will agree with us”. Given the presumption for the time being that the EU 27 will unanimously agree to a Brexit extension, with no sign so far of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary coming to the rescue of Boris Johnson with a veto, this would mean the whole of the EU going to the “bottom of the queue”.
More significantly, the text goes on to complain that Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar was “keen on talking before the Benn Act, when he thought that the choice would be ‘new deal or no deal’” - but, since the act passed, “he has gone very cold” and it is “clear he wants to gamble on a second referendum”, which is why he is “encouraging Barnier to stick to the line that the UK cannot leave the EU without leaving Northern Ireland behind”. However, the texter argues, Varadkar’s assumptions are “false”, as Ireland and Brussels “listen to all the people who lost the referendum” - yet they do not listen to “those who won the referendum and they don’t understand the electoral dynamics here”. If the deal dies, which appears to have happened, “then it won’t be revived”, because “to marginalise the Brexit Party we will have to fight the election on the basis of ‘No more delays, get Brexit done immediately’” - even if the British establishment and the EU “think we’re bluffing”.
Even more importantly still, we learn that “the next phase will require us to set out our view on the Surrender Act” - which, it seems, “imposes narrow duties”. Rather, “our legal advice is clear that we can do all sorts of things to scupper delay, which for obvious reasons we aren’t going into details about” - especially in a case like this, “where there is no precedent for primary legislation, directing how the PM conducts international discussions”. However, admits the anonymous writer, “those who pushed the Benn Act intended to sabotage a deal” and they have “probably succeeded” - so, in conclusion, “the main effect of it will probably be to help us win an election by uniting the ‘leave’ vote and then a no-deal Brexit” (my italics).
In other words, though things can quickly change with Brexit, Boris Johnson is not going to “die in a ditch” or break the law - as was made clear in the Edinburgh Court of Session last week, government documents were submitted saying it will abide by the Surrender Act (sorry, Benn Act). Instead, the above text and other signals coming out of Downing Street paint the picture of a government wanting to cushion its landing on November 1 - with Brexit still not done, will the prime minister be blown out of the water, given all his Churchillian promises to never surrender and deliver Brexit as promised? Or will he successfully be able to blame the ‘remain’ elite?
And the oppositions parties are still fighting like ferrets in a sack about the way forward, unable to agree on who should lead any possible interim or caretaker government - or whether to hold a vote of no confidence at all this side of October 31. There is now talk of a big push next week in parliament to get a referendum onto the statute book, the mood in the Parliamentary Labour Party indicating a preference for a ‘people’s vote’ ‘or ‘final say’ before a general election - something that will doubtlessly please Tom Watson. It might also please Nigel Farage and the right wing of the Tory Party, not to mention Boris Johnson, as such a move will just fuel the Brexiteer narrative of a treasonous ‘remain’ alliance out to thwart the will of the people.
Therefore Team Boris must be calculating that the groundwork is nicely laid for an ugly, populist election, pitching ‘the people’ versus a parliament “as popular as the clap”, backed by “hostile” EU governments - to use the words of the Spectator text. Under those conditions, you would expect Boris Johnson to mop up the Brexit Party vote and win an election, though nothing is ever certain with our electoral system and a very volatile electorate, which can splinter in almost any direction.
For instance, a recent survey by the British Election Study found that only half of voters stayed loyal to the same party in the 2010, 2015 and 2017 elections - while just 13% of voters backed different parties in the 1964 and 1966 elections, with 43% changing their views between 2010 and 2015 and 33% between 2015 and 2017.2 By the same measure, even if the odds look against it at the moment, you cannot entirely rule out the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn bettering his 2017 performance and winning an election on a radical-sounding manifesto.
Further complicating the picture, The Sun reports that senior No10 aides are “preparing legal advice” for the queen to ensure that she cannot sack Boris Johnson even if he loses a no-confidence vote and MPs finally manage to agree on a caretaker replacement (October 9). The bold move, if true, is based on 70-year-old procedural rules first drawn up by the queen’s first private secretary, Sir Alan Frederick Lascelles, in 1950 when he served her father, George VI. These were designed as a code for monarchs to follow, under which they are able to refuse a PM’s request to hold a general election under certain circumstances - such as if parliament is still “vital, viable and capable of doing its job”; or an election would be “detrimental to the national economy”; or an alternative prime minister emerges and can govern “for a reasonable period with a working majority”.
Our cunning No10 advisors think these principles can be flipped on their head and actually used as founding reasons for why the queen must keep a serving prime minister in place - on the grounds that asking Boris Johnson to step down from office would risk chaos and endanger the economy. However, Blairite peer Lord Charlie Falconer quickly tweeted that the Lascelles principles have been overtaken by the Fixed Term Parliament Act.
The Johnson-Merkel phone call - or rather the briefing about it - obviously infuriated Donald Tusk, the European Council president, who in a diversion from diplomatic protocol tweeted directly at Boris Johnson:
What’s at stake is not winning some stupid blame game. At stake is the future of Europe and the UK, as well as the security and interests of our people. You don’t want a deal, you don’t want an extension, you don’t want to revoke. Quo vadis? [Where are you going?].
That sentiment was echoed by Jean-Claude Juncker, who said “nobody would come out a winner” in a no-deal scenario: “I do not accept this ‘blame game’ of pinning the eventual failure of the negotiations on the EU.” For him, “the explanation is actually in the British camp” - he pointed out that Johnson’s Brexit proposals would leave the UK with a relationship with the EU that was “less intimate than with Canada”.
Very plausible stories are circulating that the EU is poised to extend the Brexit deadline to June next year - providing enough time for an “event” to happen, such as a referendum and/or general election, whilst avoiding giving the UK a chance to wield its veto on the bloc’s seven-year budget which might come to a vote at some time starting then. Some EU diplomatic sources have suggested an end date that would be ahead of a possible general election, so as to pressurise the House of Commons into accepting a deal, but this seems unlikely - and not particularly viable. It could have the opposite effect upon the Commons, even if it does have an inbuilt anti-no-deal majority.
Underlining the nature of the Brexit crisis, it has been announced that MPs will be called to sit for a special (or emergency) parliamentary session on Saturday October 19, two days after the supposedly make-or-break EU summit. No10 may seek to seize the initiative by putting down a series of motions for MPs to vote on - asking them if they want to leave with no deal, revoke article 50, stage another referendum, etc.
But the special parliamentary session carries dangers for the prime minister. Obviously, MPs would have to vote for the Saturday session to go ahead in the first place. This makes it quite possible that the speaker, John Bercow - due to resign on October 31 - could allow any vote to be ‘hijacked’ by a procedural move allowing backbenchers to seize control of the Commons timetable again. If this were to happen, opposition MPs would want to ensure that Boris Johnson gets out the Basildon Bond and writes that letter to the EU asking for a further delay, as per the Benn Act. On the other hand, this would enable the prime minister to say that he was forced to sign the letter by a cabal of metropolitan elite ‘remain’-supporting MPs - thus strengthening his hand in the coming election, Brexit or no Brexit.
The Dominic Cummings-devised ‘strategy of the heroic struggle’ could pay dividends in the end.
Tories have been transformed into the Brexit party