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MICHAEL WHITE: Boris Johnson’s last-ditch effort to deliver Brexit

Michael White says the election is another last ditch attempt by Boris Johnson. Picture: Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE asks whether the prime minister’s gamble will pay off.

Will we, won’t we, get a December election as a substitute for that “do or die” Halloween Brexit? Now that Jeremy Corbyn’s fingers have finally been clawed off his comfort fence, it looks like ‘yes’. But it’s tempting to see this week’s undignified manoeuvres by MPs in all parties great and small as putting narrow party advantage – “is the 9th better than the 12th for me?” – ahead of the national interest. Let’s try and rise above such negativity.

New European readers take for granted that “national interest” begins with a B where blustering Boris is concerned. So do I. There is no U-turn, no betrayal, no flaky tactical briefing to the Daily Toady to which the self-styled World King will not stoop to have his wicked way with us. “Of course, I’ll marry you, darling,” he tells the electorate, fingers crossed behind his burly back, already making alternative arrangements on Tinder in case he gets the brush-off.

Yet even Boris Johnson can plausibly argue that it’s in now the national interest to resolve Brexit – in or out and on what precise terms – after nearly four years of dither. By narrowly voting for his deal (by 30 votes, including 19 Labour ones) MPs acknowledged as much last week. They simply don’t trust him not to rat on previous undertakings and the verdict of most informed public opinion – business, unions, experts too – in order to achieve a no-deal outcome. He has spent years earning that mistrust.

So pinning down World King Boris as best they can is a national interest justification that the ragbag opposition parties – Team Letwin included – has legitimately been asserting, despite the tsunami of abuse from zealots and toadies which Donald Macintyre reported in this column last week. That’s not to exempt them from self-interested calculation too, almost as naked as Boris in flagrante delicto at a Spectator party.

It’s almost comic to hear Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson (she’s had a good week) citing the student Christmas holiday dates to justify the December 9 option – when the scholars will be concentrated in those winnable city seats. As for the SNP, Ian Blackford earnestly proposed the hasty addition to the electoral roll of votes for 16-year-olds, whom we call ‘children’ except when we want their votes. Labour’s contributory dodge is votes for EU “settled residents”. Whichever way you look at it, a December election in the dark depth of winter is a thoroughly bad and selfish idea (“Christmas, Bah, humbug”) unless absolutely justified.

I’m with Ken Clarke. This one isn’t justified, not really, and even conscientious voters will be hacked off. So are many decent Labour and Tory MPs. The last time this happened, on December 6, 1923, it was because the novice PM, Stanley Baldwin, had succumbed to oh-so-familiar Tory protectionist forces and felt he ought to consult the voters on his U-turn. They kicked him out. A daft but decent enough error, and ‘Safety First’ Baldwin was back within a year, to become the dominant political figure at Westminster until his retirement in 1937. The ‘khaki election’ of December 14, 1918 – barely a month after the Armistice – was much more like 2019, a blatant attempt by the Conservative-dominated Lloyd George coalition to cash in on victory before things went sour. It worked.

At least Lloyd George’s crew had actually won the war (though they went on to lose the peace). Team Johnson hasn’t achieved its promised – “no ifs or buts” – Halloween Brexit and the World King is decidedly not “dead in a ditch” either. That’s part of the Lib Dem/SNP calculation too. It keeps alive their best raison d’etre as the anti-Brexit parties, hoping to harvest votes from pro-EU Tory and Labour voters, the latter fed up way beyond their back teeth with Corbyn’s trademark dither and duplicity down to the wire. Hoping to do so before Alex Salmond goes on trial too.

Of course, it also keeps Thirsty Nigel Farage in business too. He slipped quickly off his bar stool as soon as it became plain to all but the most innocent members of the Boris Fan Club that the WK had no intention of dying in a ditch – nasty, cold and wet things at this time of year. “Betrayed,” cried Thirsty Nigel, his popular one-word manifesto working its lazy magic again. As the pollsters keep reminding us all (“what do these experts know?”) a 16% Tory lead over Labour today is no guarantee of anything this time. Have they already forgotten last time?

It’s surely better to let this parliament, unheroic but by now experienced, struggle on towards a rough consensus before letting Boris see if he can do better than May fighting an election (by no means certain for this divisive Marmite character), as he failed to do on the substance of a withdrawal deal. It could also devote more time to the important task of electing a suitable successor to John Bercow. It’s not something that should be left to a novice Commons, easily misled by whips and flattery. Johnson’s hopes of a more pliable speaker must have some basis. Bercows don’t come along often.

Meanwhile Johnson evidently dare not risk proceeding with his revised withdrawal bill – now in “limbo” according to Bercow’s theology, or “purgatory” in Mogg’s – for fear that the Rebel Alliance might impose an all-UK customs union on it, for which even the DUP could vote to bridge the Irish Sea. It is hardly a ringing endorsement of his ‘people versus parliament’ bombast. In 1918, pro-coalition MPs were given a coupon as a sign of official approval. A similar arrangement in 2019, one that delivered a Commons dominated by approved Brexiters, would not be bound by its predecessor – no parliament is – and might vote to tear up the withdrawal legislation and start again.

Brussels says it would not reopen the negotiations, but it always says that and usually does. Dark days loom for them too. Matteo Salvini’s nationalistic Lega did well in Umbria’s weekend election, Germany’s nationalist AfD and the left wing Die Linke both squeezed the centrist CDU and SPD in Thuringia. When Britain’s EU budget contribution finally ends Germany’s is set to double – to 33 billion euros – while those of the other ‘frugal five’ northern states – Sweden, Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands – will also rise. Under the shadow of recession and resurgent nationalism, none of this is good for EU harmony.

Why has the puritanical Emmanuel Macron recently been so flattering about Johnson, whose indisciplined character, lecherous and lazy, he must despise? It doesn’t matter, the tactic failed and France fell into line. The EU27 agreed to a January 31 “flextension” without even waiting for Monday’s 299-70 defeat (145 short of the necessary two-thirds majority) on the WK’s third attempt to get an election. Like everyone else, they don’t want the blame for failure either and so passed the buck back to London. No ‘November 15 Brexit if you pass the bill’ French rescue for Number 10. But no further extensions either (if you believe them).

All the same I hope we all enjoyed the Bulgarian politician’s Twitter joke about British applications for another Brexit extension becoming a popular Brussels tradition over the next two centuries, one which attracts hordes of tourists who no longer know the origins of the quaint ceremony. Together with the Treasury’s postponement of the November 6 budget, the special Brexit 50p coin and the Halloween champagne put back in the fridge, it adds to the harmless gaiety of the nation as the World King fails to expire in a ditch of his own choosing.

In the search for credible ways forward the untimely infighting inside the People’s Vote campaign – on which Alastair Campbell and James Ball report elsewhere – further diminishes it as an option, even in tandem with the general election, as Tony Blair ingeniously proposed. Ministers have been improvising too. On Sunday they dismissed as a “gimmick” Swinson’s announcement of the Lib Dem/SNP plan for a short ‘December 9’ bill to get round that two-thirds majority blockage. They changed their tune before nightfall. Next day it became official policy.

So a stand-alone Brexit election is likely to be what it turns out to be. Labour will attempt to decorate the Johnson Christmas tree with enticing promises to tackle austerity, inequality and battered public services. Dominic Cummings has moved to outbid John McDonnell with easy-money pledges for hospitals, schools, police and transport, all aimed at winning over Labour Brexiters in the Midlands and North if Thirsty Nigel doesn’t get their first.

But they weren’t born yesterday. If canny voters mistrust Labour’s fatuous spending pledges why believe Tory ones? In the Commons, Sajid Javid’s contribution on the Queen’s speech programme – manifesto is a better word – painted a feebly unconvincing picture of a vibrant UK economy, but one minus a Brexit risk assessment. Labour’s Anna Turley rightly it dismissed as a “parallel universe” for many of the voters whom Team Johnson hopes to woo.

All of which notwithstanding, if I were a betting man I would have to place a grudging fiver on some kind of Johnson majority when the moment comes. Petulance spoiled Number 10’s two Commons wins last week: The second reading majority of 30 (including 19 Labour votes) by the “limbo” pause on the bill, the 16 vote endorsement of the Queen’s Speech manifesto by the undignified threat to “go on strike”.

But in a moment when an academic poll reports that a majority on both sides of the Brexit chasm think violence against MPs would be a justifiable risk to secure victory, the kind of inflammatory language the Archbishop of Canterbury deplored on Sunday has already coarsened the argument. As in 1918, numbed by years of real violence, cynicism stands to be rewarded.

It may just be that, if Johnson gets a compliant working majority, cynicism will liberate him from past promises to all and sundry as easy talk about negotiating Britain’s future trade relationship with “our friends in Europe” – or our special friends in the US and beyond – become grinding reality. After all, he’s already betrayed the DUP in mid-Irish Sea. Why stop there? Betrayal is one of his strong suits and he may not need Steve Baker or Mark (“gun in my mouth”) Francois. It’s what his alter ego, Donald Trump, would do.

It happens that, while Don Macintyre has been minding the columnar shop here, I’ve been on holiday, staying with family in California. Sixty miles south of the nearest flames, which are burning forest and homes north of San Francisco Bay, we could still smell smoke and a hint of the fire’s lethal wind stirring the giant redwoods in our neighbourhood. We had anxious “are you safe?” texts from the UK too. In truth this vast country makes most things feel remote, even fires upstate.

So the incessant chatter about the president’s possible impeachment inside the Washington’s M25, the Beltway – it’s as close to London as it is to San Francisco – can’t compete most days with local fires. It can’t compete with compulsory evacuations of 200,000 people, with looting and with the power companies shutting off electricity to homes and offices to prevent their overloaded systems adding to the conflagration. Did anyone mention climate change in this unseasonably hot and dry California autumn? The usual suspects do, most people would rather worry about the short term, so pupils get lessons on earthquakes, fires and school shootings.

Brexit doesn’t cut it much either, except as an applause line for the president’s followers. The redoubtable New York Times covers the issues well. But for the San Francisco Chronicle or the San Jose Mercury News, let alone the small town free sheets, it’s usually worth a 100 word inside page brief. This is a wonderful country in so many ways, with its share of kind and decent people, clever and energetic too. But its outlook can also be pretty insular and it’s getting worse.

So is ours, hollow “Global Britain” rhetoric a symptom of insularity, not its repudiation. Yet our politics currently seem to be on telepathic convergence under populist leaders not averse to provocative use of language and constitutional shortcuts that have to be curbed by the courts. What did Johnson’s threat to take his ministers out on strike remind me of? Those budget stalemates between Congress and the White House which shut down inessential parts of the US federal government when the money runs out. Trump’s Mexican Wall row (“who pays?”) triggered the last one. His petulance did him no good at all and he retreated. That’s why it’s not called Unpopulism.

Faced with the populist wind, nationalist and authoritarian, sweeping through liberal democracies and illiberal autocracies alike, one response has been a resurgence of street protest movements of both left and right. Gilets jaunes and Chilean workers against austerity, Hong Kong against Beijing tyranny, Extinction Rebellion against, well, climate-change extinction, they achieve mixed results and influence. Like everything else touched by Brexit, the outcome of the People’s Vote rallies in London – the latest less than a fortnight ago – is still unclear.

Yet the most noteworthy protest I caught in the US during October was orchestrated by Republican members of Congress who noisily broke up a private evidence hearing in the Democrat-led impeachment investigation into Trump’s dealings with the new government of Ukraine, this on the grounds that the hearing was in “secret” and a form of “Soviet” justice, not an inquiry into presidential abuse of power for re-election purposes.

The demo was a tacit admission that on the substance of the issue – whether the president used improper or illegal threats and private channels to bully Kiev into “investigating corruption” involving his 2020 rival, Joe Biden’s family – it had been a damning week for this chaotic White House. So they concentrated on attacking the process, albeit improperly, as a federal judge later confirmed. Sound familiar? It should. That’s what our hooligans do too: Attack process and people, ignore inconvenient substance.

That goes for other substance too. I had forgotten how this country works, its prodigious capacity for waste, even while its citizens earnestly preach restraint to save the planet. I had forgotten how commercial so many of life’s transactions are. When my wife sprained her knee the only sensible advice she found online was on NHS Choices, the site that didn’t tell her to spend money but to exercise wisely. And the extremes of poverty and jaw-dropping affluence which means some private schools are said to have bursaries for kids whose parental income is below $400,000.

I could go on, but won’t. Ah yes, I can’t say I knowingly ate chlorinated chicken, though I probably did. But I had also forgotten the salt and fat in the food, so much of it, and the sugar too. Sugar in everything, no wonder only the rich and educated are thin. Do we really want to import more of this stuff and the manipulative attitudes behind it? If you want to feel more European, I say visit the US – and don’t let Boris tell you otherwise.

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