What is Boris Johnson’s strategy? To be prime minister and screw everybody else. His calculating eyes and sly grin as he soaks up the camera’s gaze betray the energy and attraction of the seducer. We all love a bit of transgression, don’t we? The only promise you can rely upon is his promiscuity. Nothing is ‘meant’, no commitment can hold him back from making another different commitment, provided it ensures he remains ‘on top’. He is the personification of the British constitution that Adam Ramsay talks about and Laurie Macfarlane nails. Its core principle is pre-democratic: that its sovereignty is absolute, it can do what it likes.
Three questions follow. What lies behind his rise to the top? How is he likely to carry out his strategy? How can it be frustrated?
The simple answers are: first, he is the candidate of global finance opposed to regulation; second, he wants office and this means he does not want ‘No Deal’ (if only because he must hedge his bets on next year’s US presidential election) but wishes to confound his opponents with a Brexit agreement and an eye-watering promise of a programme that lets him call a post-Brexit election; and third, he can be stopped only by an alternative government led by the one MP who can command an alliance as a stop gap and at the same time provide a sense of forward movement essential if suspending Brexit is to be seen as legitimate.
Another question follows. How is it possible that this hitherto incredible scenario might be plausible? The answer resides in the flagrant breach of constitutional norms that has just taken place, for this is a test of the character and culture of the UK’s parties and institutions.
Johnson and his strategy
Johnson represents the global forces of deregulated capitalism, characterised by his repeated celebration of London as the “eighth emirate” and the tax havens his policies never address. He is the candidate of the oligarchs. To be their candidate requires being completely shameless and having the popular touch. It means a lack of any intrinsic qualities or principles apart from speed and being smart and daring. The emptiness of the man, his lack of seriousness and his ideology of ‘boosterism’ must not blind us to the seriousness of what he represents. As a person he is vacuum surrounded by charisma. But the force that funds his propulsion is a deadly enemy of democracy and equality.
This is why I was convinced when he became prime minister that Johnson would go for No Deal. It is classic ‘shock doctrine’ economics. But I no longer think this is the case. So a summary of his strategy will take two paragraphs.
To drive through No Deal will demand an election either before or after it takes place. While Johnson is certainly in full pre-election mode, calling on the country to back an unpopular, uncertain outcome that maximises opposition to him is very high-risk. Furthermore, even if he forces No Deal through it might not deliver what he wants. For what he wants is his own majority in Parliament and five years in office, and for that he needs to stay close to the US. With a recession more likely than not, Trump could be defeated in little over a year. A No-Deal UK backed by the White House is one thing. With Warren, Biden or Harris in residence, cutting the UK loose from the EU is something else. Whatever parliamentary majority Johnson commands after a snap election, if both the US and the EU are determined to put an end to his adventure he will be out on his ear.
What Johnson wants is five years in office and a deal. This means replacing the current Irish ‘backstop’ with another arrangement that secures an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic but allows the UK mainland to follow a course that increasingly diverges from the EU and its regulatory space and single market, so as to eventually leave its orbit. What matters is the direction of travel. May’s withdrawal agreement was designed to keep the country as close to the EU as possible after Brexit. It is this aspect of it that Johnson has to reverse to serve his masters. Then, they can take their time. If Trump wins in 2020 and Johnson has a deal he can intensify the speed of distancing from Brussels; a Democratic administration, on the other hand, won’t be able to reverse it.
So there is a danger for those of us intent on stopping Johnson. If we base all our opposition to him on the premise that he is going for No Deal we may be blind-sided. Why shouldn’t the EU agree to proposals that, for example, keep all animals and animal products in the single market, what is apparently called phytosanitary regulation (after the outbreak of mad cow disease even a Northern Ireland Unionist minister conceded that while the citizens of Northern Ireland are British, their cattle are Irish). Of course, Johnson will have to bribe and threaten the Democratic Unionist Party into submission to secure his parliamentary majority. But the EU states are fed up with Brexit and don’t want No Deal, least of all in Dublin. If there is an honourable, practical way they can secure peace and get rid of the Brits they will take it.
So Johnson’s strategy is to challenge Parliament to pass a no-confidence motion and then sit it out. He’ll say OK, I’ll come back in October after prorogation with a deal and a programme of government and see how you vote then. The Commons won’t vote down a deal. Then he will call an election with an agreed Brexit and that programme of government will include more money for the NHS.
How he can be stopped
There is only one way Johnson can be stopped: by the Commons placing its confidence in another one of its members, the effect of which will be to oblige the Queen to ask him or her to form a new government. This candidate will have to be backed by the main opposition party, Labour. Obviously, it would be the Labour leader himself if these were normal times. As they are not, the Liberal Democrats think Ken Clarke, a Tory survivor from the Pleistocene epoch, is the man to take the country into a safe harbour, aided perhaps by the ‘Mother of the House’ Harriet Harman.
Even if this unlikely job-share took off it could not fly with any success for very good non-party reasons. An interim administration elected simply to extend Article 50 and call an election and/or hold a referendum is not merely interim. Stopgap it may be, but what kind of stopgap it is will decide whether it is publicly acceptable. The Lib Dems seek a restoration of the days before the referendum. They have selected Harman and Clarke not because they are wise but because they are safe.
Safety at a moment like this is regressive. You cannot stand still in a hurricane. We need boldness and daring that is bolder and more daring than Johnson. Johnson claims to represent the future, or at least a future. It may be a bleak intensification of Thatcherism, yet it appears modern in spirit and positive in its claims. As an electoral showdown is looming whatever happens, Johnson and his boosterism must be opposed by a person and a set of arguments that make a better, more credible, higher-energy claim on the future, to mobilise the forces against him in a way that is appealing and not just polarising or, worst of all, reasonable in a Harman and Clarke kind of way.
The only way to stop Johnson, therefore, is with the widest possible alliance of forces who oppose a dangerous rupture with the EU, led by an MP who is backed by Labour. If Corbyn can command such a majority the job should be his. But his very qualities of unbending integrity count against him as an alliance-builder. And his claims to lead the country against a Johnson Brexit have been undermined by the catastrophic error of regarding relations with the EU as a secondary issue that can be weaponised to lever Labour into office, rather than a fundamental call about the nature and direction of the country. I don't know the House of Commons, but everyone seems to agree that Corbyn cannot command the widest possible alliance. In which case he has to ask someone else who can. Someone who can do it for all of us.
There is only one MP who is so qualified: Caroline Lucas. She personifies the commitment to democracy, the desire to unite people and an outstanding record on the environment, and is not tainted by participating in the old regime. She also has the advantage of her weakness: she does not represent a party threat to any of those calculating their own benefit.
Why we can win
MPs could unite in sufficient numbers to give Lucas the confidence of the House and therefore oblige the Queen to ask her to form a government. Of course any such government would have mainly Labour leaders filling the high offices of state. Critically, for Labour to propose her would mean John McDonnell in the Treasury, especially now that he appears to be a fiscal conservative compared to the current Tory incumbent!
What may have seemed absurd yesterday is possible today because reality has altered dramatically. In particular, Johnson and his strategists have acted like campaign managers, not a government. By so doing they may have misread the country.
By ‘the country’ I don’t mean a majority of an opinion poll but something embedded in our institutional culture. If indeed they have broken with its spirit and if – I agree a big if – its spirit is still alive and sentient, then the demand that they must be stopped could be overwhelming.
To take one example of what I mean by the deep institutional culture of the country, cabinet government has been shredded by their decision to prorogue Parliament. This may seem a digression but I’m seeking to measure the degree of transgression they have committed. The grotesque yet brilliant power of the British state and its constitution is its unfettered, absolute sovereignty. Nothing could bind it. This gave it centuries of flexibility. When Bagehot celebrated this aspect of what he called ‘The English Constitution’ in 1867, he rejoiced in the way it fused legislative and executive power, unlike the paper constitution of the US that had led it into civil war.
But the instrument that enabled this concentration of parliamentary sovereignty to work, he showed, was the Cabinet: a collective of executive ministers recruited from the legislature. This was the heart that pumped the accountability of power and ensured that it was exercised with consent.
That consent was often referred to as the will of the people, not in the populist spirit of Rousseauism, but rather in terms of the slower, considered feeling of a majority and its acceptance of a sense of direction, led by practical women (even when they did not have the vote) and men of substance. There was a sense of ‘how we do things’ that was an amalgam of greed, fairness, ruthlessness and practicality; of what has been called gentlemanly capitalism. It may be on its last legs but they are tough old legs.
Cabinet government works when it works. It did not when it signed off the invasion of Suez in 1956. I’m not here to sing its praise but to note that it has a role in ensuring that all branches of the British state accept policy as legitimate. Its capacity to deliver this was effectively broken by Tony Blair, as I have argued in ‘The Lure of Greatness’ and David Owen has documented in ‘Cabinet’s Finest Hour’. We witnessed a striking confirmation of its loss of independent authority when Theresa May sent off her letter triggering Article 50 to the EU and only informed the Cabinet of its exact contents after it was on its way to Brussels. Back then, however, in 2017, and it already seems another age, at least ministers knew it was being drafted and would be sent. And afterwards she still felt she had to try and keep the Cabinet on board. No one thought it was a case of incipient fascism.
Today, the surprise move of proroguing Parliament for a record-breaking five weeks has been taken without many senior, or would-be senior members of the Cabinet having any idea it was about to take place. Indeed they read in yesterday’s Sunday paper that the prime minister’s office flatly denied any such move was under consideration. This is no way to run Britain.
In a campaign, the element of surprise can itself be half the battle. But by carrying out a supreme act of government – of whether or not Parliament itself sits during a period when the country is in crisis – in this way, Johnson and his dangerous factotum Dominic Cummings are not governing but dictating. In effect they are campaigning against the way the country has been run. Not openly and not in order to replace it by more and better democracy and a fairer, rule-based system, but on the contrary by conspiring in the dark to unleash the powers of absolutism that have always resided, coiled but contained, in the uncodified constitution.
Can Johnson get away with it? One moment made me think he may not. This was his interview he gave saying the prorogation was entirely normal and just a matter of getting on with things. In its first headline the Daily Mail called it the “nuclear option”. Indeed it is. Leaving aside that the whole point of nuclear options is that they are used to deter and not be used, if you do suddenly decide to flatten the House of Commons you need to be grave and justify yourself. By presenting the unprecedented and unexpected as nothing out of the ordinary Johnson has launched his boldest stroke yet with a lie.
He’d not recognise it as such, as he was born without a veracity gland. But everyone can see that he is pulling a fast one. This is what I mean by a breach with the old culture that, for all its deceits, prided itself on its integrity. Put it this way, would Winston Churchill have deliberately triggered a constitutional crisis that brought many thousands onto the streets in protest across the land while pretending it was nothing out of the ordinary?
Johnson and Cummings seem to have fallen in love with their own audacity, something seducers are prone to, I’m told. It can prove fatal to base your strategy on the assumption that your opponents will not overcome their weakness.
They know they do not have a majority in Parliament. They have based their move on the assumption that those who oppose them have not got one either. To overcome their weakness they have made a daring move. But they have bet the future of the country on the inability of a fractured opposition to unite. Yet the way they have done so, by tearing up the last shreds of norms of British government, could mean, if as much in sorrow as in anger, that enough MPs, above all Labour ones including Labour’s leaders, are sufficiently alarmed by the prospect of Johnson exercising absolutist power, that they band together to stop him in the only way they can. And that is also why we have to take to the streets to persuade MPs to do so.