ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on the fast moving changes in parliament and Corbyn getting the better of Johnson in the Commons.
It’s Monday and it’s a sign of how badly I am sleeping, and how ghastly are the times through which we are living, that I am rather looking forward to a general anaesthetic later today. The sheer bliss of total escapism… those weird final mumbles as the face of the anaesthetist fades away, the drift into wooziness and then deep, impenetrable slumber that even Brexit cannot disturb. Bring it on, doc!
Before my friends and fans – the many, obviously – get alarmed, and my detractors and haters – the few – get excited, I am not in for major surgery, but the removal of nasal polyps which prompted one radio listener last week to tweet: “Why do you sound like you’re in a swimming pool when you say the words ‘People’s Vote?'” This is the third time I’ve had them gouged out, or whatever it is the doctors do to them once the anaesthetic takes hold.
The first time, decades back, I came round to find my nostrils packed full of wadding, yard after yard of snotty, bloody dressings that took an age to pull out when it was time to do so, and left me feeling very sorry for myself. But medical science has progressed and the last time, eight years ago, I was home the same day, without wadding, albeit with orders – not really obeyed – to rest up for a while.
I tell you this not because I want Get Well Soon cards, but to alert you to the dateline at the top. I am writing this earlier in the week than usual in case I don’t much feel like writing at all when the op is done this afternoon. With events moving as they are, the risk here is obvious, that my contribution is already out of date, so apologies if so.
What new calamities might befall our calamitous prime minister even as I am being wheeled into the operating theatre? What new sackings, defections and resignations might have eroded his non-majority even further by the time I am heading home to a day or two of groggy napping? Will Domedict Cummerbatch have gone one step further, and decided that he not the police should be the one escorting recalcitrants at gunpoint from Number 10? What new lies might Johnson have told in Dublin about the negotiations that are not happening, anywhere other than inside his head and in the Number 10 ‘lines to take’ briefing book? What new denials might have been issued of facts authored by the government on the consequences of a no-deal Brexit? How many more members of his family, armed with greater knowledge of the character of the man than the rest of us, might have joined the exodus that leaves him looking more and more isolated, floundering, out of his depth?
There are many ironies at the heart of this sad, sorry tale of UK decline, but chief among them the fact that a campaign won on the slogan Take Back Control has led to a widespread feeling that nobody is in control of anything, least of all the prime minister. We are in Anything Can Happen territory. That breeds anxiety. It explains my sleeplessness and, I would not be surprised, yours too.
There is only one set of circumstances in which I might reconcile myself to the Brexit madness: that is waking up after the op and being the Brexit equivalent of the guy in the Richard Curtis film, Yesterday, who regains consciousness after a bike crash which happened amid a global power cut, to learn he is the only person alive who has heard of The Beatles.
Yes folks, I would take it for the team… be the sole human being on earth still living in the Brexit nightmare, on condition it went away for everyone else. Yesterday … all our troubles seemed so far away, and now it looks as though they’re here to stay – recession, food shortages, medicine shortages, chaos at the ports, a hard border in Ireland, and will we run out of bloody bodybags? When you stand back for a moment and reflect, you conclude the country is gripped by a form of collective madness even to be thinking of proceeding with this.
Other countries see it, and the mess is doing incalculable damage to our reputation worldwide. I was in Denmark last week, where the Brexit shitshow, as in most parts of the world, is big news, day after day. Speaking to 350 or so Danish business and public sector people, media, and NGOs, I asked for a show of hands on whether Brexit made them view the UK more negatively or more positively… it was 100% for negative. We truly are becoming a global joke and embarrassment and the arrival of Johnson as PM has taken the tragicomedy to levels none of our European friends can even begin to comprehend.
We are now into a new phase of the madness, revolving around the question of whether the prime minister feels compelled to obey a law passed by parliament. Let that sink in.
There is more madness regarding his desperation for a general election. Again, stand back from this for a moment… forget whether you voted Remain or Leave, whether you have changed your mind or not; just ask the cold, hard question: Is an election likely to resolve it at all? Just to take one possible, probable even, scenario… another hung Parliament. Then what?
I can see why Johnson might want an election. The only other democratic route to resolution would be a final say referendum and given there is nowhere near majority support for a no-deal Brexit, he would lose it. I am convinced he would lose to Remain with any version of Brexit, but he seems very reluctant to put it to the democratic test, other than through a contest in which he doesn’t need a half of the votes, but a third.
Brexit was delivered in a referendum. If, as a result of parliamentary deadlock and continuing huge public concern it is to be reconsidered, that should be through a referendum too. It is actually wrong in principle that the issue be decided in an election.
Johnson wants to use an election as the device to leave without a deal, gambling that many who do not want Brexit want Jeremy Corbyn even less. There are some around Corbyn who favour an election for mirror image reasons – that many who might be reluctant to vote Labour because of him will nonetheless do so because of their fears of no-deal.
Corbyn has handled recent days well. He got the better of Johnson in the Commons. He did not fall into the election elephant trap Johnson was layng for him. He has engaged with the other parties to prevent no-deal. It is not easy for an opposition to resist an election, but in saying there should be certainty about outlawing no-deal before agreeing to it, he showed himself capable of doing the right – and not easy – thing. As a result Johnson’s premiership has got off to the worst possible start and even in these post-truth, post-shame days he will be feeling the pain, and fearing the end could be around the corner.
However, Johnson’s instant push for an election as MPs returned to parliament for a few days before he shuts it down – we knew both prorogation and election plans were coming because he said they weren’t – is just one element to the trap. The essence of the trap is not the timing, but the deliberate bringing together of two sets of issues which should be kept apart.
MPs rightly don’t trust Johnson, so refused to fall for any of the manoeuvres that might allow him to bugger around on the date. But even with no to no-deal on the statute book, if Johnson were to win an election he will just overturn it, not because a majority voted for that, but because the majority who oppose no-deal split their votes, for myriad reasons nothing to do with Brexit, among opposition parties.
It is actually right, on a point of principle, that this issue should be decided by a referendum not an election. It is also in the interests of the MPs and candidates.
If you’re a Labour candidate, you want to be banging on about austerity and poverty, not having to defend yourself on why Brexit hasn’t happened. If you’re a Tory candidate, you want to be out campaigning against Corbyn, not defending Johnson and no-deal.
For Tories, there is the additional problem that Johnson is quickly losing the lustre of a winner, which was the main reason they chose him. Indeed he lost more votes in a week than New Labour lost in 13 years. Prorogation, the deselections, Cummings’ conduct, the lies inside and outside the House, including to and about the Queen, the use of the police as a political backdrop, his deep unconcern for the cadet who collapsed, the non-negotiation there are many reasons why the view of Johnson is shifting. The more people see, the less they will like.
People around the two leaders may want to conflate Brexit and broader election issues. The parties, MPs and candidates should want anything but. Far better, for everyone, to have a referendum, with a choice between Brexit on whatever terms the government agrees – the mythical deal, if he gets one, no-deal if not – or… no Brexit at all.
Now you’re talking. Sweet dreams.