Inside Story

Brexitannia on edge

Boris Johnson’s team, clutching European exit visa and election plan, flies towards the sun

David Hayes 21 August 2019 1823 words

Focused: prime minister Boris Johnson speaks to nurses during a visit to the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro this week to promote extra health spending. Simon Dawson/EPA

“Things take longer to happen than you think they will, then happen faster than you thought they could.” Britain’s protracted severing from the European Union is on the brink (at last!) of some kind of genuine denouement, as Westminster approaches a great tussle in which the fate of Boris Johnson’s government and the Conservative Party are also at stake. Yes, the coming stand-off is but one episode in an epic, convoluted saga of three years going on seventy. It may even come to be seen as no more than the end of the beginning. That said, the economist Rudiger Dornbusch’s words, like the cool air now heralding an English autumn, match a definite change in the political weather. This time, as has not always been the case, it might be worth tuning in.

The immediate background is Johnson’s replacement of Theresa May as prime minister on 24 July, which has given Britain an actual government where a protracted void had been. A restless new order in Downing Street has two linked imperatives: leaving the European Union on 31 October — with a deal if possible but without one if need be — and then winning a quick general election. These aims serve to energise a still-united team of committed Brexiteers, the product of Johnson’s sweeping change of personnel in the days after he took office.

Success is far from assured. No real dialogue with the European Union is in train because it rejects Johnson’s precondition (namely, willingness to amend the futile agreement it made with May, especially over the “anti-democratic” Irish backstop) and is waiting to see if he is ousted. Johnson’s meetings this week with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, ahead of the G7 summit in Biarritz, will be the first attempt to break that deadlock. His artful letter on 19 August to Donald Tusk, head of the European Union’s intergovernmental council, says that “the UK is ready to move quickly” and he hopes “the EU will be ready to do likewise.” But such interlocutors — and this is new in Brexit — are not the main concern of Britain’s prime minister; the home front is.

Domestic policy announcements, reflecting focus group concerns — a splurge on hospitals and police numbers, a harsher approach to criminal justice, skills-based immigration — have earned a modest, wait-and-see polling boost. But a defection or illness could in an instant erase the Conservatives’ notional majority of just one in the House of Commons, where seething hostility to the PM and his plan extends to the Tory benches. The former chancellor, Philip Hammond, who resigned as Johnson took office, reopened hostilities in mid August with a scathing attack on the government and a promise to resist any effort towards a “no-deal Brexit.” At the next opportunity, around fifty Conservative MPs (out of 311) could join him in voting with the opposition.

This chance will come on 3 September, when the chamber meets after the latest long recess. (For all the talk of parliament’s vitality, MPs have had little to do since 2016 except vent, gossip, plot and click.) In advance, various cross-party cells scour Erskine May, the Victorian-era procedural bible, for any device that might thwart a no-deal Brexit. An intense if deep-cover positional war sees rival Westminster files bulge with flow charts, game plans and media lists. The “anti-no-deal” side consists of the Tory dissidents, most Labourites (247 MPs), Scots and Welsh nationalists (thirty-five and four), independents (sixteen), Liberal Democrats (thirteen), the lone Green, and the brazen speaker, John Bercow. The rivalrous ambitions and vast egos in play hinder cooperation. But the shared aim of averting a “cliff edge” fall or “crash out” from the European Union compels a diplomatic dalliance.

The shift to attritional war in parliament could begin with a motion of no-confidence in the government, its text given a nonpartisan flavour to maximise its chances. In the sole post-1945 precedent, James Callaghan’s 1979 defeat triggered a general election (which the Labour prime minister lost to Margaret Thatcher). This time, victory’s reward is uncertain, partly thanks to the blundering Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011. Designed to transfer power of dissolution from PM to Commons — and shield the monarch from any controversy — it mandates an interval of fourteen days after a no-confidence verdict, during which a putative new leader (or the recharged incumbent) can seek to win a new vote and thus avoid an election short of the “fixed,” five-year term.

Here, the dilemma of the anti-Johnsonites (or anti-no-dealers) comes into focus: namely, they outnumber Boris’s Conservatives but lack the latter’s leadership and unified purpose. By itself, a no-confidence vote will only magnify these tensions: in those circumstances, there is simply no plausible Commons candidate for prime minister. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition, is beyond the pale for too many MPs, though on 14 August — between a Romanian holiday, a celebration of Allende’s Chile and a trip to Ghana — he offered himself as a caretaker PM. Not to worry, was his signal: he would govern only as long as it takes to halt no-deal, create more time for EU talks, and call a general election (which, few seemed to notice, he would oversee from Number 10, with all the leverage of pole position).

This received a dusty answer from Jo Swinson’s Lib Dems, a mind-bending welcome from disaffected Tories, and contained glee from Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party, which sees London Labour’s flirtation with an anti-Tory pact and agreement to a new independence referendum as a windfall. Soon, the media buzz switched to promoting veterans Kenneth Clarke (a garrulous Tory Europhile) and Harriet Harman (a New Labour–era minister and aspiring speaker) as potential saviours.

These forlorn quests confirm the endurance of August’s political “silly season.” But there’s a serious side. A no-confidence vote without a leader of stature and clear next steps is a bad move. It will descend into a febrile two-week scramble dominated by a clamorous media, counter-demos in central London, haywire markets, and the release of latent hysteria in every direction — the flames fanned all the way by Westminster’s new tribe: obsessively clicking, publicity-addicted MPs. Queen Elizabeth’s embroilment in politics would then be the fitting nadir of Brexitannia’s three corrosive years. How public opinion would react is hard to tell, but the likeliest beneficiary is the man with the plan.

Aware of the hazards of a frontal assault, some anti-Johnsonite MPs favour a less pyrotechnic approach: seizing the parliamentary agenda and then passing a law requiring the PM to seek a further extension of EU membership, in principle allowing time for a revised agreement with Brussels. (After Britain missed the initial leaving date of 31 March and was given a respite until 12 April, the European Union granted a “final” extension to 31 October; on that date, as is often forgotten, it has the unilateral right to employ the guillotine.) A debate on Northern Ireland’s suspended executive on 9 September is a potential lever for the Commons’s notional rebel majority to deliver a late reprieve. This legislative path would echo the strife of January–April, when backbenchers tried, and intermittently managed, to take hold of the day’s business and sideline May’s flailing government.

Again, everything depends on this being more than a one-hit wonder, and on rebels being able to turn the no-deal flag of convenience into a banner of — not principle, it’s far too late for that — credible authority at least. The mixed response to Corbyn’s démarche (even setting aside his invariant EU-phobia and trust deficit) and to other candidate PMs signals the difficulty, which goes beyond leadership alone. Strands of the opposition to no-deal variously prioritise a new referendum (options unclear), repeal of the decision to leave the European Union (wrongly assumed to return Britain to its 2016 status), a newly negotiated “soft” Brexit, a general election, a “national unity” government (exclusively composed of, ahem, pro-EU figures), and a role for citizens’ assemblies (status vague). All take for granted patience and amenability from the European Union, whose own internal politics are strikingly ignored by its warmest fans. How to find a straight road among all this, even as the clock runs down?

The legislative route could well give the anti-Johnsonites at least a short-term win. In turn, that prospect might lead Johnson to call a general election, preferably held just after 31 October to ensure Brexit, the legal default, happens; or, reluctantly but to avoid being toppled, before that date. The former circumstance would oblige him to parley with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in order to avoid splitting the anti-EU side’s vote, but Farage’s near-inevitable competition — if the cast-iron promise to deliver Brexit were on hold — might well sink the Tories’ election chances. In either case, Boris’s election theme, drawing on widespread pro-Brexit and anti-Corbyn sentiment, would be a variant of “people vs parliament.”

Johnson has the initiative; his opponents are boxed in. A revealing clue to their morass is that ugly but necessary term, “anti-no-deal(ers).” It covers two broad groups, as “anti-Brexiteer” now does not: unbending supporters of EU membership and tolerators of agreed, or soft, withdrawal (of the type signed by May’s insiders and thrice spurned by the Commons, albeit with narrowing margins). Tactically, the relentless, even obsessive focus on no-deal has served each half of the campaign very well: in targeting a shared enemy, deflecting scrutiny, gaining solid backing in opinion polls, and keeping options open. Now the decisive battle is near, its strategic deficiency is plain: no leader, no message, no endgame, no positivity. Brute politics are all the anti-no-dealers have left.

Switching mode from vehement “anti” into binding, heart-lifting “pro” looks impossible at this late stage, even more as the ingrained style of Britain’s pro-EU orthodoxy is the male rant: preening, haranguing, sneering, alienating. Johnson’s operation is hardly sweetness and light; it is coordinated by the fertile anti-establishment maverick Dominic Cummings, architect of the libertarian (as opposed to nativist) wing of the Brexit campaign in 2016, and an unforgiving if stylish polemicist on his own account. But the contrast in mood music is becoming stark. Receiving aural muggings by the likes of Alastair Campbell, James O’Brien, Ian Dunt, Andrew Adonis and Stig Abell — however much or little such names resonate beyond their fevered world — is to be reminded that the deepest enemies of any cause are its most fervent advocates.

Anything might happen now. Without the millstone of the wasted years since 2016, it could even be exciting. Brexit by 31 October looks at the same time doable and impossible. A general election is a safer bet. Conceivably, Johnson could deliver the first and lose the second — and at last earn a link to Churchill. It’s about democracy, and a people’s vote that, one way or another, simply must be honoured. Only then can Britain begin to breathe again, take stock, and move on. If not now, when? •