MICHAEL WHITE on Boris Johnson’s baptism of fire and the burning challenges of our age
Fearless Jess Phillips says that if Brexit proves an economic shambles she won’t hesitate to “fight” for Britain to rejoin the EU. Her frontrunner rival for the Labour leadership, Keir Starmer, argues that the election “blew away” the party’s case for a second referendum which he worked so painstakingly to construct, that it’s time to move on, healing the deep divide and providing proper opposition to Boris Johnson. Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Continuity Corbyn candidate, criticises Starmer’s record on Brexit, but fails to provide clarity of her own. All three positions will attract both support and derision between now and the leisurely result on April 4.
Who’s right and who cares very urgently? Vanquished Labour has a mountain to climb and the tracker poll run by Lord Ashcroft’s influential website, ConservativeHome, reports that 92% of Tory activists now expect Johnson’s government to win the next election too, the one not due until January 2025. Hope springs eternal in politics. But, in a week when Donald Trump has sanctioned the assassination of the highest-ranking foreign military commander since Admiral Yamamoto was shot down in 1943, it’s also worth remembering that misplaced optimism is the first cousin of tactical impulsiveness, not a substitute for strategic planning.
The New Year mood of “Get Brexit Done” (GBD) ministers and media handlers had been bullish, markets and business leaders relieved by what they fondly believe to be Brexit ‘clarity’. That is until the American president unexpectedly ticked the ‘assassinate Soleimani’ box from the Pentagon’s options list. Apparently the normally cautious Trump had become enraged by attacks on the heavily-protected US embassy compound in Baghdad while watching cable television on holiday in his Florida palace. No one knows how this dangerous flare-up will end. But getting involved in another ‘blood and sand’ war is the opposite of what candidate Trump promised isolationist American voters in 2016. They want him to concentrate mind and money on the Mid West, not the Mid East. Why does the Tweeter-in-Chief think – as he seems to – that more bloodshed will help his re-election?
But, as we all have noticed by now, campaigning requires different ‘sugar rush’ skills from the sober arts of governing. States can usually do with better government, but in the current populist mood – where feeling matters more than analysis and headlines beat substance – those we elect are often merely good campaigners or can be packaged as such by their handlers. Scott Morrison is a topical case in point. Scott who? Yes, the prime minister of Australia, the one you probably saw being shouted at by angry citizens whose homes had been consumed by raging, apocalyptic fires which they blame – in part – on his neglect of climate change.
Climate change matters to the whole world and this week I worried for the first time about which modern global city might perish first – Sydney by fire, Calcutta or Jakarta by floods? – as so many have in the distant past. But Morrison also matters to us because his Liberal/National coalition in Canberra was re-elected against all expectations last May thanks to the campaign wizardry of Lynton ‘Dog Whistle’ Crosby’s boys. The same team helped Johnson over the line on December 12.
A former child actor, Morrison is a marketing man by trade with a career in tourism. He made his name as a controversial immigration and borders minister. As finance minister he became an enemy of stricter banking regulation or tougher curbs on fossil fuels. He doesn’t like the media either. That doesn’t stop Morrison being cute. In 2017 he held up a lump of coal in parliament and said: “This is coal. Don’t be afraid.” His talk of “paranoid” environmentalists doesn’t look so cute now.
Sound familiar? Of course, it’s just a coincidence that Scott Morrison was on holiday in Hawaii (his office lied about it), slow to react to the unprecedented scale of fires in eastern and southern Australia, just as our man was slow to respond to the Soleimani killing from his 12-day bolthole in Mustique. This despite Boris having been similarly wrong-footed and dragged back from a holiday in the Rockies during the 2011 London riots.
Though he’s now home from the poolside, he’s still diving in without checking if the water is deep enough, all tactics but no discernible strategy. During Wednesday’s London meeting with the new EU commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, he planned to urge a fast-track negotiations towards a bare bones trade deal by next Christmas (no further extensions, please!) despite UvdL’s publicly voiced reservations. That sounds like a repeat of Theresa May’s mistake with Article 50, one which allowed Brussels to run down Michel Barnier’s clock to London’s disadvantage. In thinking that heavy reliance on fragile, limited World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and president Trump’s goodwill are such good ideas, what does Team Boris know that the rest of us don’t?
With the likes of Sir Iain Duncan Smith and the reliably unreliable Liz Truss – always do the opposite of what she suggests – also wanting him to pile on the pressure by twin-tracking 2020’s trade negotiations with the US as well as EU (reports suggest he’ll take Liz’s advice), you can see why World King Boris was tempted to skulk behind a banana tree. He could hear Trump’s echo, Mike Pompeo, fulminating against those feeble Europeans for not being thrilled at the Soleimani killing on which they’d not been consulted.
So foreign policy again pushes Johnson back into Europe’s embrace, just as he caresses Trump’s knee on trade. Has he noticed, do you wonder, that the EU-US tariff war might be triggered over French plans to extract more tax from Silicon Valley’s digital giants or the EU27’s plans to impose their own regulatory regime on digital content. As on the Iran nuclear deal, old Britain’s instinct would have been with Europe on this one and UK ministers are talking tough on tax and regulation too. But with new Britain’s Boris, you can never be sure. Did anyone mention China and Huawei’s cyber-security policy? Coincidence and bad luck – “events, dear boy, events” as Harold Macmillan once put it – will rapidly serve to put the spotlight on Johnson’s instinct for jokey obfuscation. A British PM doesn’t always have to take sides, he/she does have to take a position sometimes – and keep it.
But it’s no coincidence that the Tory campaign was marked by Trumpish fake news (that aide “punched” on a hospital visit), deceitful tactics on social media and bullying of mainstream media, all buttressed by cynically effective slogans. They reminded voters that Labour and the Lib Dems would only delay Brexit further and that a vote for Thirsty Nigel – no K for him – would help Jeremy Corbyn into power. True as far as it went, but one wit summed up the Conservatives’ own message as “Vote Tory to make it all go away” – the biggest porkie of them all. We’ll see how that plays out.
It’s too late to do much about sharp tactics deployed by Crosby protégé, 36-year-old Australian, Isaac Levido, his pollster colleague, Michael Brooks, and a couple of clever digital players, Sean Topham and Ben Guerin. Both hail from pristine New Zealand where smoke and ash from Aussie fires 1,200 miles away are now turning the glaciers orange.
Dominic Cummings apparently defers to Levido’s crew on election matters, a multifaceted process compared with his own specialist subject, the binary Yes/No referendum. That’s interesting for a further reason. As a flurry of incredulous headlines revealed last week, Cummings has moved on. Sufficiently satisfied that he had the right mix of Vote Leave veterans, tabloid Tories and Antipodeans to beat off Corbyn Labour, the beanie-wearing Svengali’s shifted his own sights to his more substantial enemy: the machinery of government in Whitehall. Hence the personal blog appealing for “weirdos and misfits, wild cards, artists” and people who grew up in slums and left school at 16 to sign on and help him shake up the SW1 Blob. Scientists too, especially mathematicians, so much preferable to Eng Lit graduates from sheltered backgrounds, said this public-school-and-Oxford man.
Cue for outraged condemnation from the usual suspects. Actually, we should be able to see the point. Whitehall has never fostered highly-specialist skills in the higher echelons of the civil service as the French post-graduate grandes écoles have done since the 1940s. Just look at the shambles over HS2 or London’s third runway which makes a mockery of glib talk about investing vast sums in big infrastructure projects and – rather simpler – more affordable housing. We will hear much more of it from chancellor Javid in the run-up to his March 11 budget, but actually doing it will be harder.
Cummings is right to be interested in and impatient about the structure of government, but wrong to pick avoidable fights that will make his reformist zeal much harder to achieve. He sounds more like combative John McDonnell than Johnson’s hero, Churchill, who also liked to hire off-the-wall weirdos who caused trouble. It’s not as if Trump’s preference for ill-qualified but complicit weirdos in high office has yet proved a resounding success.
So the Cummings blog has had to be hosed down since Boris put away his sun cream. Normal recruitment processes will be respected. The Department for International Development will not be folded into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Ministers will not be massacred in the February reshuffle, nor their ministries put to the sword, the Daily Brute has been assured by sources close to Sir Humphrey. As with so much about the new government, we will have to wait and see what happens next. Boris Johnson travels light, free of convictions that might weigh down his destiny.
What should Remainers do in response to a future which is now certain – Britain will leave the EU on January 31 – yet also deeply uncertain? This week’s New European is full of suggestions worthy of consideration. As a pragmatic Remainer my hunch is closer to Keir Starmer’s than to Jess Phillips’s bid for the core Remain vote, a pitch from which she later drew back. The priority now is to minimise the damage that may come from a hasty, one-sided deal that will hurt what pro-Brexit champions dismiss as fading, legacy industries like cars (!). The time may come – “events, dear boy” – when a significant swathe of Leave voters decide they made a mistake in 2016. But there’s no sign of it yet.
So Remainers should accept with as much grace as they can muster that Brexit is an imminent fact and help to make the best of it. Brexit enthusiasts have begun urging the EU to adopt the generous negotiating tactics which prime minister Lord Shelburne eventually imposed on his team at the Paris peace talks which ended the American War of Independence in 1783. Generosity on the breakaway US’s trade access to British ports and its potential to expand to the Pacific unimpeded was unpopular at the time. Shelburne lost his job. But it proved right in the end and the two nations became firm allies, they say. Far from Britain going into irreversible decline, as widely predicted at the time, it prospered mightily.
You can follow their train of thought, though I fear Commission president von der Leyen may not share it. Brexit Britain is not a breakaway colony 3,000 miles away and, far from expanding into a vast continental hinterland, it risks the collapse of its own union with Scotland and Northern Ireland. All the same, generosity when combined with firmness is a good principle. Nor is trade a Trump-ish zero-sum game, though Brexiters might do well to note that the much-vaunted trade deal between the EU and Canada (seven years in the making) has so far benefitted EU cheesemakers far more than it has done Canadian farmers.
So energetic Remainers – of whom there are still plenty – might sensibly stop fighting the lost cause of Remain and a second referendum, stop telling Michel Barnier to hang tough, Mr Blair, concentrating instead on tangible benefits that may be grasped and tangible risks which should be exposed. Both exist in Britain’s new relationships with the outside world, but also within the country: human rights, migration policy, the ties between the four home nations – who gets the repatriated powers from Brussels? – emotive fisheries policy and a better environmental policy than Scott Morrison has yet devised in Canberra.
The parliamentary opposition is weak and distracted by leadership contests and SNP independence manoeuvres. The Conservative ranks have been deprived of experience and talent, but “events, dear boy” will rapidly disabuse the eager newcomers of their illusions and innocence. A wise government would encourage them to focus some energy on the search for the consensus which ‘One Nation’ Johnson says he wants on social care. It is a challenge that can’t be blamed on either Europe or our departure, so might add to the healing process. With mutual forbearance we can all play our part.