Yesterday, Boris Johnson met the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. Together they seem to have injected a note of optimism into the Brexit talks. Apparently, Juncker’s comment that the precise terms of the Irish ‘backstop’ are negotiable, so long as all its objectives are met by other means, is a splinter in the EU’s otherwise straight bat.
Meanwhile, prominent ‘Lexiters’ Stephen Kinnock MP and Caroline Flint MP met with E.U. chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. On Newsnight later that evening, Kinnock reminded us that there is a large group of Labour MPs who are eager to vote for a Brexit ‘deal’. The same programme also reminded us that the twenty-one Conservative party MPs who lost the whip earlier this month did so because they were opposed to ‘No Deal.’ They too could vote for a Withdrawl Agreement.
So could the Prime Minister pull it off? He might very well present some kind of tweaked deal to the British parliament, and the members, sick of the chicanery, scared of ‘No Deal’, might vote for it.
The prospect of Boris Johnson claiming victory in these matters got me thinking about a historic crisis that was far worse than Brexit, and what happened afterwards.
Johnson is a biographer of Winston Churchill, and there are accounts which suggest that the current Prime Minister sees himself in that mold: a statesman, a negotiator, a persuader, a decider. But I wonder if Johnson, in delivering some kind of Brexit, might emulate another side of Churchill: the loser. Right after Winston Churchill won the war, the British people voted him out of office.
Here’s how things might play out.
First, if Mr Johnson does succeed in winning support from the British parliament for his version of Brexit, he will almost certainly prevail without the help of ERG caucus in his own party. They will declare that his deal is a polished turd, a dressed up version of Theresa May’s deal (because, with a month left on the Article 50 clock, that’s all it could possibly be).
Instead, Johnson will prevail with the help of votes from Labour MPs. You know, all those members in northern, Leave-voting constituencies.
That support would be good for precisely one vote. The Prime Minister will have no majority for anything beyond that. He will be unable to govern. With ‘No Deal’ averted and Brexit secure, Labour will be able to force a general election.
So, when Boris Johnson fights the general election:
- He will face a challenge from the Brexit Party, angry at his ‘capitulation’
- The Leave-voting Labour heartlands will be far less interested in voting Tory, now that Brexit has happened. They’ll lend their support to the Lexiters instead.
- Scotland doesn’t want Brexit. It will vote overwhelmingly for the SNP. The Tories will lose seats there.
- In a few Remain-voting constituencies, The Conservative party will also face a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s personal brand is toxifying. He has been shown to be an upper-class, arrogant bully. He is possibly a domestic abuser. He has lost every major vote he has ever called in parliament. He lied to the Queen, and (by the time of an election) he may well have been told by the Supreme Court that his proroguing of parliament was unlawful, the act of an authoritarian.
Oh yes, and Boris Johnson is, beyond anyone else in the country, the person most identified with having caused the national trauma that has been the Brexit process. From the duplicitous way in which he announced support for leave, to the undermining of Theresa May, to the shattering of constitutional norms, the chaos of the last three years will be on his head. Who cares if a few Northern Labour MPs push the deal over the line: Brexit was inflicted upon us by the Conservative Party, and the man who is currently Prime Minister was front and centre the whole time.
This might Be the perfect electoral storm for Boris Johnson and the Conservative party.
And what of Labour?
In that Newsnight interview I mentioned earlier, Stephen Kinnock mentioned workers’ rights and other traditional labour, left wing issues. Until Brexit happened, Kinnock was a centrist within the party. The son of Neil, he was certainly not part of the hard left faction. But the interview did remind me that here are many within the Labour Party (including – maybe, probably – its leader, Jeremy Corbyn) who see Brexit as an opportunity to try some radical policies, that might not have been possible while we were in the European Union. Without having to talk anymore about whether we will actually leave the E.U., Corbyn and his coterie will be able to present policies for what we will do with the (relative) freedom that will be available. Those policies might not be workable or desirable in the details (and the tabloids will hate it)… but Labour will fight an optimistic, forward looking election campaign, full of spending promises and re-nationalisations.
So, just as a Conservative Prime Minister won the Second World War, but the country turned to Labour to handle the post-war; Perhaps a Conservative Prime Minister will deliver Brexit, but the country will turn to Labour to manage post-Brexit.