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Health warning: the following is a long essay where I necessarily had to ‘get into the weeds’ of Labour Party politics. As you can probably imagine, that involved a journey to a certain creek with an inevitable deficit of paddles. Whether that describes the Labour Party or my ability to evaluate them is an open question. Plenty of Conservative stuff too so don’t be put off by Jeremy Corbyn, sorry, I mean obviously you should be put off by Corbyn but don’t hold it against me….
As is so often the case, a cartoonist nailed it. The Daily Telegraph carried the picture of a galloping lion; its paws gathered together, all four off the ground in that moment between one explosive bound and the next. On its back sits the figure of Britannia, pressed back to an angle of almost forty-five degrees by the lion’s momentum, one hand desperately clasping her helmet to her head, the other gamely hanging on to the Union Jack-embossed shield at her side. The lion’s face – even in profile – is unmistakably that of Boris Johnson, its mane his trademark blonde mop. The ‘Torygraph’ should know, it has been Boris’ own parish for many a decade.
Such has been the whirlwind nature of Boris’ first days as Prime Minister. Confounding all who expected cautious trench warfare, the tanks have been deployed and he is daring his enemies to bring them to battle. The gauntlet has been well and truly thrown down. Fresh from appointing the most free-market Cabinet since Lady Thatcher’s time, Boris then treated the House of Commons to a performance not seen since Maggie’s own last virtuoso one almost thirty years ago. Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour opposition looked visibly shaken as the new Prime Minister attacked them on all fronts. Tory Members of Parliament, some perhaps suffering buyers’ remorse, left the chamber buoyed from having witnessed a Commons demolition job so comprehensive that it echoed Gladstone’s famous evisceration of Disraeli’s first budget in 1852.
The rhetoric harkens back to those halcyon Victorian days, certainly in terms of ambition and optimism. With Parliament now in recess for the summer, the Prime Minister choose to tour the British Union, rather than the European one, to deliver his message, with admittedly mixed results. A new golden age beckons for Boris’ Brexit Britain, which he promises to make the greatest place to live on earth by the time he is through with it, just as he claims to have made London the world’s greatest city. Hyperbolic yes, but a much-needed tonic after the ‘miserabilism’ of Theresa May’s administration. The opinion polls have responded with a steady ‘Boris Bounce,’ breaking the Conservatives free of the four-party quagmire May’s perfidy had relegated them to.
Yet for all the bluster, whether Boris will succeed in leading Britain out of the European Union on October 31st – and keeping the kingdom united while doing so – are of course the only questions that matter. In legal terms, it is relatively simple, whereas in political terms it can look like an assault on Mount Everest. All Boris’ government has to do is survive, the necessary legislation having been passed a year ago, but if it is clear that this is their strategy it won’t. Too many MPs on the Conservative benches are opposed to leaving with ‘no deal’ that they have to be convinced that there is indeed a prospect of one to prevent them torpedoing their own government. The parliamentary arithmetic is so tight that the government is likely to be in a minority position by exit day in any event, yet the destination of potential defectors is the key factor. For it is the position of the official opposition that is one of the most intriguing chapters of the whole Brexit story.
As leader of the Labour Party, Corbyn has an even more mutinous crew to hold together. Despite being a confirmed eurosceptic in the tradition of Tony Benn, the bulk of his MPs are progressives from the Tony Blair era for whom membership of the EU is a sine qua non of their political makeup. The party members are more diverse, with Corbyn’s own hard-left supporters clearly dominant, of which perhaps only a plurality is currently engaged in a long campaign against those very same Blairite MPs. The membership is broadly pro-European, if not so pathologically europhile as the leftish intelligentsia that dominates the political and media classes, yet they have a greater commitment to the socialist cause than the more abstract EU project. Especially as the dominant ideology of EU politics has always been of the Monnet strand, which progressives find so agreeable, rather than the more communist Spinelli variety that has never yet gained the ascendancy. The Labour vote is more split, with their traditional heartlands in working-class areas opting for Leave while their metropolitan strongholds were heavily for Remain.
Unlike US Congressmen, British representatives are rarely geographically tied to their districts. So while some Labour MPs might be Londoners and fully paid up members of the Fabian Society, they often represent seats outside the capital with a majority for the hardest Brexit imaginable. On top of that, they may be fighting deselection attempts from members who, ironically, actually agree with them on the EU, if little else. While some Remain-voting Labour MPs do respect their constituents’ views, added to the half-dozen or so Labour Leave MPs they number thirty at best, perhaps enough to counter the ultra-europhiles on the Conservative benches, perhaps not.
Nevertheless, the majority of Labour MPs are desperate to stop Brexit while the Corbyn leadership is actually quite keen for it to happen, so long as they can be seen to have kept their hands clean of a ‘Tory Brexit.’ Only outside of the EU can their socialist vision be realised and, should the prophecies of doom surrounding ‘no deal’ prove true, they would be odds on to win at the next general election. The Labour leadership, therefore, has to tack and weave from camp to camp so as to prevent the EU issue, and the broader culture war it has unleashed, becoming a wedge and pushing the members into the arms of the supposed Labour moderates. Hence Corbyn’s policy of ‘constructive ambiguity’.
Which brings us back to the Tory rebels. To vote no confidence in their own government is tantamount to political suicide, as the ensuing general election would see them either standing as an independent or for another party with little hope of returning to the Commons. The four Conservative MPs who have already left know that the next election is likely their last, an example to would be defectors and wreckers. Their only hope is joining one of the other parties and forming a stable enough coalition to govern until 2022, in the teeth of democratic outrage. Many of them would find a natural home in the Liberal Democrats, but are loathe to join that party now for the same reason they did not join it in the first place; their ambitions would be thwarted in a party that has been a political dead end for almost a century.
The prospects for these MPs are even slimmer in the Labour ranks while the Corbynistas are in charge. Yet it is only by joining the official opposition in sufficient numbers that, constitutionally, can they hope to change the Parliamentary game. A minority government can survive a three-party face-off, but the Palace could be obliged to step in if Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition has enough MPs to threaten a minority Conservative administration. A Labour leader in the Blair mould could hope to attract the required number of Tory europhiles, but the Marxist Corbyn is a step too far. Bringing down a Conservative government to install Corbyn would lead to a general election in which recalcitrant MPs from all sides could expect to wave goodbye to their political careers, not to mention their prospects outside of parliament. Nor is it clear that Corbyn would actually stop Brexit in any event.
So, while Corbyn remains as Labour leader, Boris can breathe slightly easier. If he manages to maintain a strong enough lead in the polls then his own MPs will be even less tempted to precipitate an election that would lead to them losing their own seats, while he would return with a working majority. For that poll lead to continue, Boris has to woo Brexiteers with a hard stance, while not shutting the door completely on a compromise so as to keep his own MPs on board. Yet while managing this tightrope walk, especially if he does so too successfully, it is always possible that a weakened Corbyn could be overturned and replaced with a so-called centrist who could unite the anti-Brexit majority in Parliament.
Fittingly, it will be in the House of Commons where the really consequentially action will have to take place. The media have shot their bolt, only now, after three years of negativity, while they haven’t managed to move the needle they have at least removed any lingering claims to impartiality. That won’t stop the media hysteria increasing, but their inability to set the political weather outside of the Westminster bubble has now compromised their influence inside it. This could also end up helping the government. The more the media ramp up the ‘project fear’ narrative, the more convinced Brexiteers burnt by May will be that Boris is for real, consequently the government’s poll rating will climb back near the fifty percent achieved when everyone thought May was serious.
After the summer recess, Parliament will return for a couple of weeks before rising again for the party conference season. When it returns again, midway through October, there will be only a few weeks before the default exit day; in essence, of the three months left, the government has less than a month of parliamentary days to survive. As the October session will be dominated by the scheduled EU Summit, it is the short time in September which holds the most risk for the new government. In October, Boris will be able to control the narrative more as he will be the only representative of Great Britain at the EU Summit, providing the perfect bully pulpit to either sell a deal or play the Churchillian card if he has not secured one. It will also be too late by then to stop the legal default kicking in should Boris lose control of Parliament.
For that to happen Corbyn would have had to be defenestrated at his party conference. As the September session precedes this, it will be Corbyn opposite Boris at the despatch box and only the leader of the official opposition can table the vote of no confidence required to threaten the government, whether it has a majority or not. If Corbyn is content to let Brexit happen, then he can resist his own MPs by pointing to a healthy poll lead for the Conservatives. Indeed, should the government win a confidence vote then it is almost as damaging for the opposition as empowering for a government with a majority of just one. It would also, by convention, give the Prime Minister the ability to prorogue Parliament at any time he likes, a nuclear option but one that delivers game, set, and match for those happy to leave with no deal. With Corbyn truculent, desperate Remain MPs are planning to seize control of the order paper again, as they did back in the spring, but, as they then had the tacit backing of the then Prime Minister, it is unlikely to be successful a second time. There will be parliamentary fun and games all the same, but that is why Jacob Rees-Mogg was appointed Leader of The House. Survive September, so the thinking goes, and only then will the EU realise that Boris is the only game in town.
For what it is worth, I think Britain is set to leave at the end of October without a formal agreement. The EU will not want to lose face by buckling to Boris, the bête noire of Brussels, for whom there is a special place reserved in hell. Nor do I agree with those who think he is bluffing or not a real eurosceptic. I grew up, politically, reading Boris’ Spectator and one does not read a weekly magazine for years without gaining an understanding of the editor. An opinion I hold more strongly now having formed a view of the current editor in the same way, before the era of podcasts arrived and provided confirmation of my assessment of his character. I also share the benefits of a classical education with the new Prime Minister and know that it provides a different worldview to the majority of the political class; Boris is conscious of a history far greater than the small snapshot the intellectual yet idiot elite are aware of, and he aspires for a Statesman’s place comparable with a Churchill or a Pericles.
While I do not know Boris personally, my mother was at school with his aunt so I have childhood memories of staying at her farm on Exmoor – a small snapshot into the summers that Boris himself spent there twenty years or so before me. As well as knowing where he comes from, I have seen him at work both at press conferences and behind closed doors. Once, when he was Mayor of London, he joint-hosted a meeting with Michael Bloomberg when the latter was Mayor of New York. Although it was held at Bloomberg’s London headquarters, the cameras were not present so this was Boris the practical politician. He owned the place and made Bloomberg look like a political pygmy by comparison.
Political charisma comes in many different shades, yet there is a certain je ne sais quois observable in leaders that I have come across professionally. Blair had it, as did Nicolas Sarkozy and Vladimir Putin. May did not, nor did Secretary of State John Kerry or Mayor Bloomberg for that matter, though they had a hint of it beyond the usual supreme level of self-confidence one finds in American public figures. I did not see President Obama when he was over here for the NATO meeting a few years back, but a close colleague did and he described something similar. I believe it comes from having ascended what Disraeli referred to as ‘the greasy pole’. Boris has now achieved that, May did not as she won the leadership by default, nor did she lead the successful referendum campaign.
What Boris promised in that Bloomberg meeting was realised, gloriously, at his first appearance at the despatch box as Prime Minister. Boris has rarely impressed during his parliamentary career, either on the Treasury or back benches. Yet here he was ‘to the manner born’, effortlessly mastering the Commons. Never mind that he is arguably the most precariously placed Prime Minister since Pitt the Younger formed his administration in 1783, parliamentary power is projected or it is nothing, as May, who could withstand but never master the Commons, found to her cost.
If Boris can survive the next three months he will prosper. The Labour Party will destroy themselves, perhaps fatally, over Brexit and an election next spring is likely that should return a majority government. The left is hopelessly fractured by too many parties fighting over the same ground, while the opportunity to unite the right is enormous. A clean break with the EU will see the Brexit Party fold into the Conservatives, with their best MEPs adopted as Tory candidates while ‘Sir Nigel’ will be made a reality in either the New Years’ honours list or the Queen’s birthday one. The remorseless logic of Brexit will gradually lead public policy in a more competitive direction, while free trade will become the fulcrum of the government’s foreign policy. Calls for Scottish independence will fade as without the umbrella of the EU the already flimsy economic arguments of the nationalists will be destroyed. The SNP know this only too well, which is why they oppose Brexit so vehemently. Nor will Northern Ireland be leaving the British Union just yet. Although Irish reunification might be inevitable in the longer term, it will not happen until the Irish themselves leave the EU, something else the economic realities of Brexit dictate will probably happen sooner or later, especially if their other major trading partner, the US, puts up tariffs.
For the EU the Parthian shot of Britain exiting with ‘no deal’ could be its undoing. The hole in its budget left by Boris’ refusal to pay the Danegeld would emerge just as its anemic eurozone economies teeter on the brink of recession and both Italy and Germany face another banking crisis. The UK leaving the EU’s customs union and opening its own market will inevitably lead to a decrease in the Europeans’ market share, whether Britain puts up reciprocal tariffs or adopts unilateral free trade. Add to that the stupidity of Brussels trying to punish London and the EU will be cutting its nose to spite its face, just as it will be cutting its own people’s access to Europe’s financial capital. Rational people would argue that their recent unsuccessful experience in trying to bully Zurich would deter them, but the EUnarchs who run the modern Tower of Babel are more akin to religious zealots than enlightened rationalists. The divide between Brussels and the European peoples will only grow wider and, with the UK thriving outside it, the EU is doomed if it does not reform, something it has never managed yet. Even if the EU survives, as it did the Euro crisis, without Britain’s votes the balance of power switches to the French-led Mediterranean countries with spending demands unpalatable to the Germans. The end is nigh for the EU, perhaps, as a 2005 National Intelligence Council report to the Bush administration sketched out, in 2020. Some might find this proposed scenario alarming, but if I have changed one opinion in the last three years it is on the EU itself; Bruxelleo delenda est. It is a relic of interwar thinking, made defunct by the nuclear age before it was even born, that serves nobody but big government and big business.
The boy who cried wolf was of course right in the end. So it is possible that I have misread the economic effects and that the ‘cliff edge’ narrative may prove correct for once. In which case Britain ‘crashing out’ of the EU could cause such a severe disruption that the price of Brexit is a Corbyn-led Marxist government. Horrible as the prospect is, at least it would be democratically elected and could be dismissed at a subsequent election, something impossible with rule from Brussels. Yet I do not believe the cost of Brexit will be that high. The ‘doomsters’ have proven as accurate in their predictions as the augurs of Ancient Rome and just as political as those priests in antiquity. There may have been a boy who cried wolf, but there was also one who dared to point to an emperor wearing no clothes.
In Boris Johnson, Britain has the greatest champion of the West since Lady Thatcher was in office. An American born Atlanticist, a true friend of Israel, a believer in the Anglosphere and the tradition of liberty shared by them all. He will make some mistakes, he is perhaps too enamoured with ‘the good that government can do,’ but he believes in freedom even more. The future is bright for the UK, and that is a good thing for all English speaking people.