Do Johnson, Gove & Cummings have a cunning plan? Honestly mate, I haven’t got a fucking clue. No one has. Maybe not even them.
No, it’s a mug’s game making predictions about what may happen between now and Halloween – or, more to the point, between now and the EU Council meeting on 17-18 October, at which our fate will most likely come into sharp focus, if not actually get sealed.
However, we do know a few things. And these give us some guide as to what might just happen, and what probably won’t happen.
The first thing we know is that, over the past three years, Johnson has had a ring-side seat as Theresa May’s place in the history books shrivelled to nothing more than being one of the names in the hat – along with Gordon Brown and Johnson’s erstwhile Bullingdon Club wank-buddy, David Cameron – for the accolade of ‘worst prime minister, ever’.
Does anyone seriously think that – having now read or listened to the civil service’s confidential briefings on the likely impact of ‘no deal’ – a man who sees himself as the 21st Century’s Winston Churchill is about to risk a similar fate by allowing the UK to crash out of the EU with no deal? Because, while Johnson may not know for sure just how bad ‘no deal’ would be, he (or Cummings) must know it could be very, very bad indeed.
And, as our former ambassador to the EU, Ivan Rogers, says of those who think that, “if we just have the guts to walk away”, the EU27 will “come running for a series of mini-deals [assuring] full trading continuity in all key sectors on basically unchanged Single Market and Customs Union terms”:
I don’t know what tablets these people are taking, but I must confess I wish I were on them.
So, were crashing out to prove as bad as most sensible people expect, even someone as slippery as Johnson would then struggle to avoid being blamed for the economic and social chaos. It’s one thing for 50-something men in Essex to fantasise about World War II, but quite another for them to find themselves living through a realistic re-enactment.
No, that is all too risky. Johnson has schemed and back-stabbed a long, long time to become Prime Minister, and he’s surely not going to risk having his name thrown into that hat alongside May, Cameron and Brown after just a few months. Johnson wants five or even up to ten years in Downing Street (I imagine any longer would be too much like hard work, when there are spondoolies to be made from the memoir/diaries and lecture tours).
All of which also means that Johnson is unlikely to engineer a general election much before he has ‘delivered’ Brexit – or, at least, before he is able to claim that he has almost delivered Brexit (more on this below). As both 2015 and 2017 demonstrated, general election campaigns have a habit of not going to plan, and if by polling day it’s looking as if Brexit might somehow not happen after all, the Brexit Party might well burn the Tories alive and so inadvertently hand the keys of Downing Street to the “dreadful hearty beast”, Jeremy Corbyn, or to the Remainer wet dream of a stuffed and mounted Gnu led by Jo Swinson, Ken Clarke or Caroline Lucas. On 6 August, Mujtaba Rahman of Eurasia Group reported that “Johnson has told his inner circle he cannot risk an election before Brexit is delivered”, and “we think his view has been reinforced by [the] Brecon & Radnorshire by-election.” No shit, Sherlock.
G-no, g-no, g-no, Johnson’s not that daft. And Cummings certainly isn’t. However, with a majority of just one, and with further by-elections and even possible defections not far beyond the horizon, we know that Johnson does need to have a general election soonish. He just needs to be reasonably confident that that election will deliver him the majority he needs to enjoy at least five years larking about in Downing Street.
With ‘no deal’ ruled out, this means Johnson needs a deal with the EU27. It’s pretty clear he’s not going to get a new deal (and, at the moment, he’s not even trying). But there is plenty of scope for last-minute, high drama negotiations to produce lots of pretty ribbons – in the form of amendments and/or additions to the (essentially meaningless) Political Declaration that comes free with the Withdrawal Agreement-based, Blindfold Brexit deal bequeathed to us by Theresa May and Olly Robbins – for Johnson and the EU27 to tie around that old deal at the EU Council meeting on 17-18 October.
[Addendum, 21 August: Funnily enough, this week, German chancellor Angel Merkel was reported as saying, during a trip to Iceland, that “on the backstop issue, this is a question of the Political Declaration on [the future relationship]. There is no need to reopen the [Withdrawal Agreement] for a practical solution.”]
Nigel Farage, Mark Francois, and the DUP would of course blow a gasket. BETRAYAL! But the DUP have a price for everything, and Johnson has a nodding dog Chancellor to pay it. No one really listens to Mark Francois, other than BBC Newsnight producers and presenters. And what reasonable person could deny that the bloody French and Germans have put poor old Boris – who tried his best, unlike that wimp Theresa May – in an impossible situation? (I’m being sardonic here, you do realise that, yes?)
So, on the Monday after the EU Council meeting, with just 10 days left on James ‘not so’ Cleverly’s countdown clock, Johnson calls a general election (and immediately dissolves Parliament) on a platform of ‘Back me and get the only possible Brexit six weeks from now – golly gosh, terribly sorry about the short delay, old bean, nothing I could do, bloody Frogs! – or sack me and get the chaos of Corbyn or a Gnu’. The EU27 agree to a short, technical extension of the Article 50 period, to ‘allow the democratic processes to play out’. And Nigel Farage’s frantic claim that Johnson hasn’t actually delivered Brexit leaves him looking a bit of a party pooper, given we’re only talking about a delay of a few weeks. It will all be over by Christmas!
Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, you say? Yep, that went well on 18 & 19 April 2017, when literally everyone assumed that Theresa May was on course to crush both Labour and the Remainer saboteurs. Believe it or not, political turkeys cannot resist voting for a general election Christmas.
Johnson would never get a beribboned Withdrawal Agreement through the Commons, you say? Well, he would if he’s just won a general election on a platform of leaving the EU on such a basis before Christmas. He’d have the necessary majority, and a clear mandate.
But … surely Downing Street “stands ready to do whatever is necessary to bring about Brexit on 31 October – deal or no deal”? Well, maybe. Or maybe that’s just fake gnus.* As David Hayward noted in a must-read Twitter thread a few days ago:
Where there’s smoke, there’s not necessarily fire. [And] there are great clouds of ‘no deal’ smoke: Michael Gove, special meetings (twice a week and through August – who can imagine such sacrifice!), a £100m pamphlet, all manner of vim and vigour, freshly polished shoes, and Dominic Raab.
But. None of this amounts to much more than someone shouting “squirrel!”, very loudly, all the time. There’s tons of real work to do if you’re serious about ‘no deal’. And none of this is it.
Indeed. The most substantial proposal to come out of Michael Gove’s bi-weekly meetings so far is to make 1 November a Bank Holiday. Yes, really. This is just play-acting. As David Hayward continues in that Twitter thread:
If I was cynical, I might consider the whole non farrago (think smouldering wet leaves) a media management exercise targeted at the worshipful and the gullible to generate regular EXCLUSIVES to sustain a ‘lots of high energy stuff going on’ narrative.
Who’s the audience for this story? It’s not the EU27. The idea that the the EU negotiating team is going to be persuaded of ‘do or die’ by a bit of pamphleteering and Dominc Raab is for the birds.
In the words of the master of fake gnus, Donald Trump: “What you’re seeing and reading is not what is happening”.
So, we’re into a late November or early December election – Tory campaign slogan: “Help make Christmas come early this year!” – and the best we Remoaners can offer is a somewhat defeatist PV100 tactical voting target list to “help install pro-[second] referendum MPs or defeat MPs or candidates who oppose a second public vote”. But many potential pro-remain voters don’t want a second referendum – only about 1.3 million have signed the various PV petitions, but more than 6 million signed the ‘revoke’ petition in just a few weeks. And Caroline Lucas – who invented the People’s Vote – has already given the game away by saying she and other supposed democrats would ignore any second referendum vote for ‘leave’ in any case. Doh!
In other words, we’re back to July 2016, and to journalists demanding to know of PV-supporting candidates: “How many referendums do you want to have before you get the right answer?” That wouldn’t win a snap election against a super-charged Johnson and his extravagantly beribboned Brexit deal. And, if you can’t win that election, there ain’t gonna be any second referendum, period. (So, er, you may as well go for broke and stand on a platform of ‘revoke’ – just saying). But hey, at least the PVers would finally have answered the question of what options to put on the PV ballot paper.
Sounds implausible? Of course it does. And, if that election were to produce yet another hung Parliament, then just maybe the PVers would still be in with a shout. But how confident are you that it would produce another hung Parliament, in the circumstances I’ve just outlined?
Whatever, run me through your scenario, and I’ll tell you how it is just as implausible. Dominic Grieve and Oliver Letwin have a cunning plan for MPs to ‘take back control’, you say? What, like all their previous cunning plans? They went well. And now Grieve and Letwin are up against a united and super-charged government machine, not the near-dead shambles led (or not) by Theresa May. As constitutional expert Professor Mark Elliott of Cambridge University concludes:
The Supreme Court’s Miller judgment handed Parliament a golden opportunity to take control of the Brexit process. That opportunity was immediately squandered by parliamentarians who — for fear of being castigated as “enemies of the people” — fell over themselves to write the Government a blank cheque when they enacted the Notification of Withdrawal Act. That Act handed the Government complete discretion over when Article 50 should be triggered and provided Parliament with absolutely no instruments of control over the ensuing process. Ever since, Parliament has been playing catch-up.
As the autumn unfolds, and as the cliff-edge beckons, we will see whether the majority of parliamentarians who are opposed to a no-deal Brexit can recover the situation. Parliament does have options open to it. But those options are limited in legal terms — and decidedly so in political terms.
Or Grieve, Letwin and other Tory MPs will help vote Johnson down in a Vote of No Confidence in early September? Really? Well, with Labour selfishly – but predictably, perhaps even inevitably – refusing to become part of or support a Gnu, the most that could come of that is, er, a general election. Which, under my scenario, Johnson would call a few weeks later in any case. And, er, the Prime Minister gets to set the date of polling day. This would even save Johnson the minor trouble of having to explain why he’d changed his mind on calling an election. Genius.
[Addendum, 21 August: As for that elusive Gnu, I think Marina Hyde hit the nail on the head in her regular column in last Saturday’s Guardian:
Three years on from the Brexit vote, what best crystallises where we are? Perhaps that nowhere even close to 326 politicians can unify on what would constitute a government of national unity. The Liberal Democrats will do anything to stop Brexit, except for the things they won’t; Labour would love to stop the Tories’ version of Brexit, but first they just want to look busy and set this quick trap for the Lib Dems; the Greens want the headlines for a day and they’ve got a plan just batshit enough to secure them; and so on. Dominic Cummings must be cackling. The only worse form of unity was a Mitford.
So while it’s positive to have had leadership of the prospective government of national unity whittled down to just under 16 million candidates, it does feel a little bit near the business end of things for politicians to be indulging in the weapons-grade wankery we’ve seen this week.]
Whatever, the bottom line is, something that some or even many people currently think implausible, has to happen. And it will happen. Buckle up!
* Many thanks to the ever pun-ready @wonklifebalance for that one.