openDemocracyUK

Boris who? Didn’t he use to be famous?

Johnson’s coup has ignited the possibility of a united opposition from below. Now we need to keep our eyes on the electoral prize – and not fall into Cummings’ traps.

Mark Perryman
3 September 2019
Boris Johnson outside Downing Street, 2nd September 2019
Boris Johnson outside Downing Street, 2nd September 2019
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Victoria Jones/PA Images

On Saturday in the small East Sussex town of Lewes, at less than 48 hours’ notice, 400 demonstrators filled the bridge across the River Ouse to protest Boris Johnson’s ‘coup’ in closing down parliament. A small echo, perhaps, of Lewes as the place where Tom Paine famously wrote The Rights of Man? Or as the site of the 1264 Battle of Lewes, where Simon de Montfort and his rebel barons initiated the centuries long forward march towards parliamentary democracy? Or indeed, of what Lewes is most famous for; bonfire! (As a home-made placard put it, “In Lewes we know a Gunpowder Plot when we see one.”).

But whatever the history, this was all about now. The success was its localness. We could have traipsed off to join the crowds thronging Whitehall or filling up The Level in Brighton, but instead we stayed where we are to maximise the impact. And there were lots of other protests like ours across the country. Same day, more or less the same message – a network of protest. A movement. A contrast to London protests that grab media coverage but are written off by large parts of the rest of the country as “oh, that's London”.

The message in Lewes, as elsewhere, was clear. “The coup isn’t just about leave vs remain. It’s just wrong.” The remain campaigners of course were there in force and very welcome. But the broader nature was welcome too. Because – and sorry if this offends very welcome allies – but wrapping yourselves in the EU flag is both a sartorial and political error. The EU itself is not an institution that has ever been held in huge affection by the Great British public. It’s a flag only ever worn when Europe wins the Ryder Cup, and since 2016 on anti-Brexit demos. We're not going to shift the indifferent and grudging support for the EU by waving the EU flag in their face. Rather it’s about Britain remaining part of it and working with political allies across Europe to make it better so that it doesn’t prevent the radical transformation of our own country.

“Bollox to Brexit” stickers were out in force too. Ok, they make the wearer feel good, but is this how to win friends and influence people?

And that’s exactly what we need to do, and fast. There’s been too much time and effort shoring up our own side while telling the other side what they believe in is ‘bollox’, or in the newly printed version being dished out in Lewes on Saturday, ‘bonkers’ (mildly more polite, just as bad).

Nor must be we get too bogged down in the whys and wherefores of prorogation. Let’s be clear – 'Stop the Coup' has only niche appeal. There's plenty out there thinking “oh just get on with it, do something, anything, it’s boring”. There’s no point getting carried away with ourselves. And “Seize the Streets” is the radical version of the same fantasy. An entirely apolitical strategy based on no meaningful understanding of the balance of forces. There are not hundreds of thousands champing at the bit to blockade Britain in the cause of parliament. Pretending that there are just makes us look ultra-foolish, let alone ultra-left.

But what last week did do was bring together the opposition. Our 400 demonstrators included local Labour, Greens, Lib-Dems, and Lewes4EUnity Peoples’ Vote campaigners. And it felt good. Just a few weeks ago that would have been impossible. The successful meeting on Tuesday between all the opposition parties was why Johnson suspended parliament. It’s a sign of his weakness, and our strength.

And what this means is a huge chunk of those votes in the EU elections that Labour leaked to the Lib Dems and Greens are coming back Labour’s way. Forget about a majority Labour government – Labour is a million miles from that – but with those votes stacked up in the key marginals, Labour the biggest party and a coalition led by Jeremy Corbyn becomes a real possibility.

Likewise by working together both in and out of Parliament, there will be plenty of Labour voters in Tory/Lib Dem marginals where Labour is distant 3rd (or worse) who will be lending the Lib Dems their vote. Or SNP or Plaid, if they are main contenders, and Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion of course. For these parties it’s a win-win and makes a Tory majority that much harder.

From above, a formal electoral pact is almost impossible to achieve. None of the party leaderships are likely to agree. But ‘from below’ this hardly matters. If we live in a seat where our preferred party is destined to finish a distant third or worse, forget about campaigning there. Almost everywhere, there will be a nearby marginal where our own party is the main contender vs the Tories. In Lewes Labour members and supporters have the particularly juicy proposition of travelling to Hastings to topple Amber Rudd (346 majority over Labour, Lib Dems a very distant 3rd). Go to seats like this to help instead, and forget your own seat if third is the best your party going to do.

And what next? Who knows? Gina Miller, Tom Watson, Jo Swinson et al will try the judges but the courts aren’t where this should be settled. Nor of course should it have been the Queen either. It’s for Parliament to decide and parliament alone. The Queen should never have been put in this position. Johnson didn’t even have the guts to meet her himself, instead sending Rees-Mogg. Like all bullies, Johnson is a coward too.

The only option now is an early general election. Now it must be for the country to elect a new government to sort this mess out. The opposition surely must avoid extending Article 50 at all costs. That one act gifts the 'we the people' argument to Johnson and Cummings. And it’s obvious the latter has been planning for this all along.

We need a General Election as quickly as possible, before 31st October. There’s a public out there who want an end to this.

Labour's position is necessarily nuanced. In power, most likely in coalition, it would seek to negotiate a better deal, but any such deal would be subject to a referendum, with ‘remain’ also an option on the ballot paper. The people decide. Labour as in '75 could enable members to campaign for its own deal or remain. It seems like a bit of a nonsense to me, to send Keir Starmer off to Brussels for six months negotiating a deal which the vast majority of his party then campaigns against. However, the prize remains ‘No No-deal’ and a referendum. And what kind of choice on the referendum ballot paper? Surely only one that includes No Deal will have any credibility. No deal vs Labour's Deal vs Remain. Messy but perfectly possible.

Prorogue, the posh word for a coup. Johnson’s really started something now, and it’s up to us to give him the worst possible ending, going down in history as the Prime Minister with the shortest stay at Number Ten of all. Boris who? Didn’t he use to be famous?

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