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Nothing up my sleeve

August 4th, 2019

Boris Johnson has been Prime Minister for under a fortnight and he has immediately put his imprint on government. Boris Johnson is seeking to play hardball with the EU over revising the withdrawal agreement’s terms. He has made no attempt to charm his putative negotiating partners, refusing to talk with them until it is accepted that the backstop is dead. Indeed it is not at all clear who in Brussels currently could negotiate with him, given that the new Commission president has not yet taken office and the outgoing Commission president and his Brexit negotiator now have no mandate to enter such discussions.

The chances of No Deal Brexit are, in Boris Johnson’s view, a million to one, but a Martian would conclude otherwise. Sterling has slumped on the exchange markets as investors have decided that the risk of major disruption has markedly increased. 

The Chancellor has sanctioned a budget of billions to pay for a public awareness campaign about preparing for no deal Brexit, the biggest public awareness campaign since the one in the 1980s to raise awareness about AIDS. Don’t Die Of Ignorance: wise words indeed.

There has been plenty of energy from the new government, an energy that disguises the fact that it isn’t actually doing anything. How could it? It faces the same problems with Parliamentary arithmetic that faced Theresa May. In fact, they are worse, because Boris Johnson has decisively broken with those members of his own party that oppose no deal Brexit.

What is going on? They say that the best place to hide a secret is to tell it on the floor of the House of Commons. The next best place, it seems, is to put it on the front of the Telegraph. On the Saturday after the change of Prime Minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg acknowledged that the government’s opponents probably had the numbers to defeat it in a vote of no confidence. This arresting observation was not made the lead. Talk about missing the story.

So the government is working on the assumption that it is going to be short-lived (or at least, that its longevity is out of its own control) and that it will expire well before 31 October 2019. Now if that is your working assumption, you really aren’t all that bothered about what happens after that date – the aim is to set up matters so that you can plausibly argue that you were following an excellent plan but were thwarted by rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, conmen, muggers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers and Methodists. Quite what Londoners have done to deserve that reputation, I have no idea.

This is opposition as government. The government is not so much pushing policy as anticipating its own defeat and planning for it.

This can work in one of three ways. First, if there is a vote of no confidence and no alternative government can be formed, there will be a general election that the Conservatives can fight under the banner “Who Governs Britain?” without the risks of being seen to call an unnecessary election.  Next, if an alternative government is formed, it gives an easy line for Conservatives to rally around without having to make the hard choices that would be required in a serious negotiation with the EU or that would follow a no deal Brexit. And third, Britain might leave the EU in circumstances where no one is at the wheel so everyone can avoid the blame for any disorder that emerges as a consequence.

Any of these three work on party political terms for the Conservatives. If you believe that Boris Johnson is more interested in the longevity of his political career than in the good of the nation or Brexit, it’s a logical strategy to follow.

For once, I want to end with a question to which I do not know the answer.  Imagine there is a vote of no confidence and the government loses. There are then 14 days during which attempts to form an alternative government can be made. During those 14 days, Parliament continues to sit. Who controls the Parliamentary agenda during those 14 days? In normal circumstances, the government sets that agenda, but it has just been defeated. Would MPs take back control of that agenda? And if so, what would they do with it? That seems to me to be a very important question indeed right now.

Alastair Meeks