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AC GRAYLING: It’s not Boris Johnson we should fear – it’s the extreme Brexiteers pulling the strings

Boris Johnson sits down with his cabinet. (Photograph: AARON CHOWN/AFP/Getty Images) - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

AC GRAYLING argues that Boris Johnson does not believe the right-wing bluster he sprouts – but how he operates acts as a useful distraction from the far-right hard Brexit clique pulling the strings. These are the people we should really fear.

After three years of increasing chaos in the political order of the UK, we have arrived at a situation in which the hard-right Brexit clique are in control of the government, with Boris Johnson as prime minister theatrically asserting his determination to make Brexit happen at the latest by 31 October this year. Despite Johnson’s determination to press the fast-forward button in a way that makes the various scenarios and outcomes surrounding this plan appear bewildering, we who are on the other side of the argument need to take a clear-eyed look at the situation in order to understand it – so that we can defeat Brexit.

First, let us analyse Johnson himself. He is an intelligent man, with considerable charm and charisma. Charm and humour are his weapons, showmanship his method of deploying them. Though intelligent, he is lazy and unprincipled. Charm and humour are his substitutes for serious long-term application and mastery of detail: that is the laziness flaw. Those who were surprised at the sudden appearance – in fact, illusion – of mastery of detail in his House of Commons performance on becoming prime minister need to know this: that most of the questions asked from his own back benches were planted, and he was coached in the responses to give; and his advisors anticipated opposition remarks and prepared him for those too. It is a safe bet that if he were asked any of those questions again now, he would not be able to answer them other than with his characteristic fudge-and-blather response, along with the ‘dead cat’ technique of diverting attention from the point as soon as he can.

As to his lack of principle: the most notorious example of this (his career gives plenty of other examples: for just one, his first opposing then backing gay rights) is his indecision about whether to back or oppose Remain in the 2016 referendum, at the last minute choosing to back Brexit as better for his ambitions. In this one and only respect, he has been proved right. But he would wish you to forget, in his current espousal of a No Deal ‘do or die’ Brexit, his emphatic support for membership of the Single Market during the referendum campaign.

His track record is very poor: dismissed from The Times for falsifying a quotation, writing notorious falsehoods about the EU as Brussels correspondent for The Telegraph, being reprimanded by his party leader for lying, being forced to apologise to the city of Liverpool and to the entire country of Papua New Guinea for offensive remarks about them, wasting tens of millions of pounds on vanity projects as Mayor of London, spending two embarrassingly disastrous years as foreign secretary after years of making outrageous remarks about other countries and their leaders, he would seem to be the last person who should be prime minister. And he is. But he is not prime minister despite these failings: he is prime minister precisely because of them: and the reason is his usefulness to the far-right hard Brexit clique.

To understand why he is useful to them we need to note two things. The first is that the far-right hard Brexit clique are in something of a panic. By means of electoral fraud in the 2016 referendum, which cost their main campaign about £200,000 in fines and costs, they managed to get 37% of a deliberately-restricted electorate to back Leave. The lucky play of figures translated this into 51.89% of votes cast on the day, which they have falsely claimed as an unimpeachable mandate for Brexit – indeed, any form of Brexit including the hardest of no-deal Brexits, despite the 2016 Leave campaign having been predicated on promises of retaining ‘the exact same benefits as EU membership’. The hard Brexiters’ panic arises from the fact that every poll since August 2017 has shown that a steadily increasing majority of the electorate views Brexit as a mistake. The hard Brexiters know that a second referendum would stop Brexit. They are desperate to get the country out of the EU before the people are given a chance to state an opinion, now that they know some facts and can see some consequences, on whether we should continue with a Brexit or Remain in the EU.

The second point is to understand what these Brexiters want. They want our country to become a deregulated tax-haven. They do not care about the union of the United Kingdom; indeed, they think that Northern Ireland has been nothing but a constant and expensive irritation for decades, and Scotland is not material to their interests – England has 85% of the UK population and massively the major part of its economy (UK GDP is $2.6 trillion, Scotland is $252 billion, nearly ten times smaller). If Brexit means the break-up of the union they are not concerned.

So the hard Brexiters are in a hurry, and they do not care how we leave the EU just so long as it happens without an Irish backstop or any other lingering commitments. They will not themselves suffer any of the consequences that a huge and long-term no deal hit to the economy will cause. (Jacob Rees-Mogg, remember, has already moved his profitable hedge fund business to Ireland to keep it in the EU). They need to throw dust in everyone’s eyes, they need haste and confusion, they need noise, to cover up the last stages of the heist they are engaged in. That dust, that noise, that confusion, both is and is provided by Boris Johnson.

Note a very significant fact about the similarity between Johnson and Donald Trump, both of them useful front-men for right-wing projects. They are performers, showmen; they are full of rhetoric and bluster; they say outrageous things, and make incredible promises and claims; they do not care how they sound to amazed rational thinking-thinking people, because these latter are not the people they are speaking to, and anyway are a minority. They are putting on a show for the ‘base’, the hardline supporters, who don’t pay much attention to the detail of what is said but they love the sound ofhow it is said. This is the Steve Bannon Playbook for the Age of Populism. Say anything, only say it loudly and arrogantly; strut and gesture; Mussolini is the model. Talk fast, keep talking. Distract. Keep up a smoke-screen.

You have only to pay attention to Johnson’s rhetorical style to see this. He is better at it than Trump because Trump does not have his intelligence. Watch Johnson speak: he hardly ever pauses at the end of a sentence but rushes immediately into the next sentence, often changing the subject as he does so. His pauses occur in the middle of sentences while his auditors are waiting to see what the sentence says. Hurrying from one point to a different one is an example of the distraction technique, the ‘dead cat drop’.

An important difference between Trump and Johnson is that Trump actually believes his rhetoric. Johnson does not. He is an opportunist merely. They both bloviate and bluster, but whereas Trump is taken in by what he hears coming out of his own mouth, Johnson is only intent on fooling everyone else.

The distraction provided by Johnson allows the far-right hard Brexit clique to implement their programme. What is it? Here we need to pause again. The smoke and dust being thrown up by Johnson has the commentators guessing about what their Brexit plan can be. The EU has already rejected the Brexiter rhetoric and detail-free assertions about getting a different deal from the EU with no Irish backstop provision – which latter means: no arrangements to protect the interests of people on the island of Ireland, until recently torn by civil war, violence, murder and misery, all waiting to explode again. Parliament has repeatedly refused to accept a no deal exit, and the majority amongst MPs against doing so has almost certainly risen since Johnson became prime minister. Is ‘Johnson’ (now using ‘Johnson’ in ‘scare-quotes’ to denote the clique for which he is the front man) aiming for a general election after both the EU and Parliament have ‘frustrated the will of the people’?

You might think that with a cabinet packed with the hardest of hard Brexiters, and with Downing Street now housing the Leave campaign team that was found guilty of electoral crimes, some clever ruse is being plotted. But the poor records of those cabinet members, and the dodgy nature of the Leave campaign team, does not quite add up to their being a group of evil genius Dr No and Svengali-like Machiavellians. Whereas it is by no means unlikely that a general election bouncing off the ‘frustration of the will of the people’ is the aim, it is equally likely that the hard-right Brexiters, in their desperation to get Brexit done, are in fact just pushing the accelerator to the floor and hoping to crash through the gates. The gates consist of parliament’s opposition to no deal. To smash through those gates the hard Brexiters need some trick, some way of subverting the parliamentary process. That is what the would-be-Svengalis of Downing Street might be hoping to achieve – and only then following with a general election.

The political commentator Neal Lawson has warned against thinking of Boris Johnson as a buffoon, and has correctly observed that it would be a mistake to ‘chase every hare he sets running’ or to waste time focusing on his unscrupulous and mendacious character. Lawson is right; so, note in the foregoing that I say Johnson acts the buffoon and sets hares running as a deliberate ploy to distract. His lack of principle and mendacity should have been a reason to ensure he never achieved responsible office; it’s too late for that now.

Lawson also says that we should not waste time on the fact that Johnson has no mandate to be prime minister. Here I disagree. It is a shocking indictment on our constitutional order that anyone can become prime minister on a vote of a tiny fraction of the population, to lead a minority government bent on forcing through a catastrophic policy which every opinion poll indicates does not have the consent of the populace. This is so staring a travesty that it has to stay right in front of our noses from now until reforms have rescued our constitutional and political arrangements from the trash-heap where they currently lie.

One of the principal reasons why our country has gone so far down the political and constitutional sewer precipitated by the Brexit referendum is that there has been no effective opposition party. A very large amount of blame attaches to Corbyn and his hermetically-sealed pro-Brexit clique of ‘advisors’, defying the opinion and desire of the vast majority of Labour members and supporters to oppose Brexit unequivocally. Corbyn has been proved an ineffective leader, leaden-footed, not very bright, stuck in a bog of ideas from the early 1970s when he sat at the feet of Tony Benn and Peter Shore as they opposed entry to the EEC. He is a classic example of the kind of politician who loves being in opposition, to complain and accuse, to blame and go on demos, to advocate utopian solutions to national and global problems – and secretly hopes never to be called upon to actually make them work. One of the urgent necessities in opposing Brexit is dedicated and intelligent leadership of all the Remain interests in our country.

If there is one thing clear in the current storm of smoke and dust being blown around by Boris Johnson’s mouth, it is that we need a united and effective alliance of opposition so that when the walls come crashing down in the autumn, as this last desperate bid of the Brexiters plays out, we are all ready. We need an alliance to rescue our country: allowing party tribalism and personal egos to get in the way of this profoundly serious need would be unforgivable. Personally, I should like to see a government of national unity formed by the sensible elements in parliament from all parties, tasked with calling a clean and well-informed second referendum in which all those with a material interest in the outcome are given a voice.

What the Brexit crisis has exposed is the hollowness and dysfunctionality of our constitution. It needs serious reform: of the electoral system, of the relationship between executive and legislature, of Party systems and careerism in politics. But the first priority is to stop Brexit. The far-right hard Brexit clique now in control, with front-man Johnson distracting attention with his antics and hullaballoo, are in their Last Chance Saloon phase: we must beat them.

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