A Study in Vacuity
Boris Johnson, who has occupied Downing Street since July but turned up to Prime Minister’s Questions only once, ducked parliamentary scrutiny again on Wednesday to take his message to the party faithful at the Conservative Conference in Manchester.
Tories make no policy at their annual gathering. It is an opportunity for well-lubricated networking, studded with stage-managed set-pieces from the Cabinet. Press allegations swirled about Johnson’s mistreatment of women and siphoning of public money to friends, but the conference, largely stripped of dissidents, was remade in the leader’s image. Ministers regurgitated policy cud – Priti Patel smirked over ending free movement; Sajid Javid reminded us of his improbable conversion to countercyclical spending – but Johnson’s speech was a study in vacuity, reminding his audience that he wants to leave the EU, loathes Jeremy Corbyn, and is tired of Parliament. Boos and applause echoed on cue.
The conference’s slogan was blazoned everywhere: ‘Get Brexit done: invest in our schools, NHS and police.’ It’s a canny piece of political positioning: it borrows the cut-and-dried finality of the Brexit Party’s euphemism for No Deal – a ‘clean-break Brexit’ – without commitment to that outcome, and promises a spending bonanza on the areas that previous Tory governments starved. Yet never has a colon done so much heavy lifting. The slogan implies that Treasury munificence will come both after and because of Brexit. Little matter the bean-counter questions: why the forty new hospitals turn out to be six old ones, or whether the crusade against migrants will cause trouble staffing them, or whether a hard and chaotic Brexit will have a detrimental impact on the economy.
Throughout his press interviews, Johnson pivoted repeatedly to his One Nation credentials, especially to dig his way out of awkward questions about his treatment of women. The kaleidoscopic quality of Johnson’s politics is well known, but it’s hard to reconcile the show of beneficent paternalism with last week’s sneering bully at the despatch box, dangling his toes in the linguistic swamp of the alt-right. Yet this, presumably, is the general election plan: offer one face and then another to the country, threading them together with sheer chutzpah and an attack on whichever enemy – Labour, Parliament, Europe – seems most convenient. It’s a strategy that tries to consolidate the Brexit Party vote with just enough of an offer to Tories dismayed by Johnson’s leadership.
For all the bombast, the next two weeks involve two difficult dances for Johnson, one with the European Union and one with Parliament. Conspiratorially minded Remainers may find it hard to believe, but both Johnson and Cummings still want a deal: Farage and Francois might cry blue murder, but the balm of victory would soothe most disgruntled Brexiters, and – so the leadership hopes – unite them behind the Tories. All the same, the Tory leadership is not entirely averse to No Deal. The government’s more optimistic defenders still say it’s a bluff, a way of concentrating minds among the EU; but it’s also a viable, if sub-optimal, route through the crisis for them.
The important thing for Johnson is to have someone else to blame. If a withdrawal agreement isn’t signed before the end of October and he provokes the EU into refusing another extension, then he can blame them for the turbulence that ensues. If he finds himself obliged to seek and accept an extension, then he can paint himself as the standard-bearer of Brexit, having offered a harder deal than May’s, but with his hands tied by a sinister cabal of Europeans, parliamentarians and spider brooch-wearing judges. Johnson calculates that a clear history of confrontation will keep the bulk of Brexit Party votes behind him, and deliver the ‘People v. Parliament’ election he believes he can win.
Since the passage of the Benn-Burt Act, obliging the prime minister to seek an extension if no deal is agreed, the government’s insistence that it respects the law yet is determined to leave the EU regardless on 31 October is an unsustainable contradiction: in the next two weeks it must break one way or the other. When pressed, ministers allude to a secret plan – Schrödinger’s loophole – that they will reveal only when the time is right.
Parliament is still a headache for Johnson: he has a negative majority of -45, he’s lost every votes that’s gone to division, his lengthy prorogation was bounced back by the courts, and when he deigns to appear at the despatch box he kvetches, rambles and sulks. If Parliament is sitting in the two weeks before the European Commission meeting, he must fear further attempts by MPs to seize the order paper and compel the release of further Brexit planning documents, or further fetter his manoeuvres on Europe.
The government has therefore mooted a brief – presumably, this time, legal – prorogation next week, and a new Queen’s Speech and parliamentary session just days before the crunch meeting with the European Council. In the short term, the logic is obvious: it suspends an unruly Parliament for the few days when negotiations might take place with Europe, and ties MPs into the procedural rigmarole of a State Opening. But it is a high-wire act: it seems vanishingly unlikely that a Queen’s Speech will pass the Commons, and historically such a defeat is a clear indication the government has lost the confidence of the House and should resign, as Baldwin did in 1924. The principle may have been muddied by the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, but the FTPA governs the procedure for calling an election, not the principle of confidence itself: it does not remove the possibility of resignation, or the importance of retaining confidence as the basis for prime ministerial office. Yet as this government has demonstrated its willingness to plough through convention as it pleases, the UK is likely to be heading for a legitimacy crisis just a day or two before its deadline at the European Council.
Such an act of self-immolation would be a risky strategy, and its dividends in an election uncertain. It would, the government hopes, set the terms of an election firmly and exclusively around Brexit, and paint the opposition – the Labour Party in particular – as defenders of the established order. From one electoral flank it is perplexing, as it seems tacitly to accept likely losses of Tory remain voters to the Liberal Democrats in a number of marginal seats; for that cost, the government hopes to stem losses to Farage while eroding the Labour vote. Victory will depend not only on transfers from one party to another, but on convincing other parties’ voters to stay away from the polls. It is a tall order, and a recipe for a rancorous and dirty fight.
With all political questions now bending towards an election, priorities among opposition parties will pull in different directions. For both the Liberal Democrats and SNP, though for different reasons, parliamentary containment of the government and a Brexit-focused contest are still priorities. For Labour, however, a shift to a wider political contest in which Brexit is filtered through more searching and fundamental questions about the country’s future is essential. To make that turn in a five-week campaign period will be difficult: perhaps, like the government, Labour needs to recognise that the election has already begun.