DONALD MACINTYRE on Boris Johnson’s galactic gamble over the future of the UK.
Heaven forbid that Boris Johnson, in his make or break Commons week, should be compared to Palpatine in the sequence from Star Wars film Revenge of the Sith during which the evil chancellor declares himself emperor before the Galactic Senate after seizing absolute power through a series of Machiavellian deceptions. But when his henchman Anakin Skywalker (D Cummings?), later aka Darth Vader, tells Obi Wan Kenobi “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy”, he prefigures the grim mood in which the Johnson administration this week set about trying to force through its Brexit bill and emerge at last triumphant.
It wasn’t just that this sentiment – perhaps in those very words – must have been expressed dozens of times this week by Johnson’s whips to Tory – or ex-Tory – waverers and DUP MPs. The government, and a cheerleading press hardly less turbocharged than it was in Margaret Thatcher’s heyday, also swiftly identified a series of Jedi-like public enemies. For widely varied reasons these did not deserve to be so identified. But that wasn’t the point, which was to give Johnson’s supporters some scapegoats to unite against.
It only half-worked. By Wednesday the bill was in what Jacob Rees-Mogg called “purgatory” after passing its second reading thanks to the support of 19 Labour MPs – Johnson’s first significant Commons victory since he took office. But MPs rejected – by 322 to 308 – a three- day timetable for its passage, so unprecedentedly fast that it would have eliminated normal scrutiny. And did so despite Johnson’s threat to pull the bill and push for a general election unless they accepted it.
The first public enemy of the week had been Sir Oliver Letwin, whose treachery was to spoil Johnson’s Big Day last weekend. His amendment on Saturday withheld approval of the UK-EU deal until the legislation on it had been passed and required a deeply resistant Johnson to seek, however grudgingly, an extension from the EU, thus ensuing there would be no revived threat of no-deal if the prime minister lost his bill.
The cerebral Letwin was swiftly depicted as a dangerous oddball – that picture of him in a toga a mere 18 years ago coming in particularly useful here – in thrall to his alleged handler Lord Pannick QC, now marked out as a sinister subversive hell bent on overthrowing the new order. (Letwin had merely taken legal advice from Pannick over the wording of his amendment.)
Saturday’s supposedly historic sitting was thus an anti-climax, but not a damp squib. Indeed, you have to admire Johnson’s rhetorical flexibility when addressing an assembly rubbished by Dominic Cummings as “popular as the clap”, by attorney general Geoffrey Cox as “dead” and, most gleefully of all, by the prime minister himself in his Tory conference speech: “If parliament were a laptop, then the screen would be showing the pizza wheel of doom. If parliament were a school, Ofsted would be shutting it down.” Suddenly on Saturday, according to a new, (temporarily) emollient and consensus-seeking Johnson, it was “this great House of Commons” which had “to come together and bring the country together”.
Well, it didn’t, since MPs voted by 322 to 306 in favour of Letwin’s amendment – bringing to eight the number of Johnson’s successive Commons defeats. (And this despite the threats – and bribes – Johnson and his whips doubtless started dishing out in the hope of saving the day. Watch the next honours lists for the peerages and knighthoods for both hardline ‘Spartans’ and one-time Remainers brought into line this week.)
Whether a victory in Tuesday’s second reading debate marks the turning point after that dismal record remains to be seen. But back then, at least, it seemed that if Johnson was a football team, to vary the PM’s own trope, he would be looking at a new coach or near-certain relegation.
What Saturday’s debate did expose were the glaring inconsistencies in Johnson’s efforts to harness support across the varied spectrum of waverers. From Labour would-be Leavers worried by the new deal’s lack of the legally binding assurances on workers’ rights which had been enshrined in Theresa May’s version, all the way to hard-line free market Spartans only too delighted that such assurances had been transferred to the non-binding Political Declaration. As Labour’s MP Pat McFadden pointed out, Johnson was simultaneously promising the Spartans the “deregulated future of which they have always dreamed” and Labour Leavers “a new-found love” for European workers’ rights. In fact publication of the bill on Monday showed an even weaker commitment on such rights than the Labour Leavers had feared.
Similarly, as in Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of Silver Blaze there was a dog that didn’t bark. Step forward – though he didn’t – the imposing ex-military figure of John Baron, the ultra-Leave Tory MP, mysteriously persuaded to withhold the challenge he had vowed to pose to Johnson. This was to have him confirm the – to Baron, welcome – assurance the MP had earlier been given by Dominic Raab and Michael Gove, that if the UK failed to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement by December 2020, it would be leaving without a deal – the “trap door to no deal” that Keir Starmer dwelt on in his forensic dissection of the EU agreement. When Labour’s Seema Malhotra posed the Baron question instead, Johnson dodged it, promising merely to work for a “great new trade agreement”.
The critical vote on Saturday was the DUP’s. You can argue that Arlene Foster’s party brought its acute problems on itself when it allowed its anti-EU prejudice to blur its core ideological objective by signing up for Brexit in the first place. Within the EU, the integrity of the UK remained inviolate. It was nevertheless impossible not to sympathise with the palpable anger – expressed with force in Saturday’s debate by Nigel Dodds – over Johnson’s comprehensive betrayal of Ulster unionism by agreeing with the EU precisely the border in the Irish sea that he had told the party only weeks earlier “no British Conservative government could or should sign up to”.
Which was partly why the DUP voted against Johnson’s timetable on Tuesday, and might even consider backing Ken Clarke’s amendment seeking UK membership of a customs union with the EU – one which would go a long way to reducing the grievance over the maritime border. After all, when the bill was published it became clear that Johnson’s betrayal was a bit worse than even first thought. Yes, the government later admitted, truck drivers would have to fill out an “exit summary declaration” before shipping goods from Northern Ireland across the Irish Sea to the UK.
But back to Letwin, whose demonisation was hardly justified given his support for Johnson’s deal. It might even prove that he had been unwittingly helpful to Johnson, by ensuring that this was not the do or die or moment for his EU deal. It’s an unprovable counterfactual, of course, dripping with psychological speculation. But without the amendment MPs would have been pressed to support a bill they hadn’t seen, and a treaty they had hardly had time to read, without any economic impact assessment of the costs, with the whips’ work only half done, and at what they would then have seen at the last moment they could reject a deal without – thanks to the Benn Act – no-deal being an alternative. Might a very narrow majority have – just – turned it down then and there? We’ll never know.
Public Enemy #2, not for the first time, was speaker John Bercow. His Monday ruling that the government could not bring back its meaningful vote provoked the usual tirade from loyalists and their press supporters.
The Tory MP David Morris made headlines by describing Bercow as a “poor man’s Cromwell”. This was hardly the best analogy since it had been Cromwell who, in 1653, made history by ordering musketeers to drag speaker William Lenthall from his chair before shutting the Commons down by force. Given the soon-to-be Lord Protector’s famous rant that day against parliament – “Ye have sat long enough unless you had done more good” – it was more fitting to describe Johnson as a “poor man’s Cromwell”. All the more so after Downing Street reacted to Tuesday evening’s defeat, in sub-Cromwellian terms reeking of Dominic Cummings, by castigating a “broken” parliament which had “blown its last chance”.
For the decision by Bercow – the “gurning gargoyle” in one of columnist Richard Littlejohn’s more generous descriptions this week – to block a meaningful vote was in fact wholly justified. What possible grounds could there be for asking the Commons to vote again on something it had decided – as amended by Letwin – only 48 hours earlier? Bercow is not the easiest of men. But for this and all the other ways he has stood up for parliament against an overbearing executive, history will judge him, like Lenthall, kindly.
Public enemy #3, inevitably, was Jeremy Corbyn. “Fury at Labour plot to wreck Brexit” screamed the Daily Mail splash headline on Monday, as if opposing a bill demonstrably more dangerous for Britain’s economy than Theresa May’s, was an act of treason. Never mind that productive business – from the Food and Drink Federation to the Society of Motor Manufacturers – continued this week to highlight the costs of a deal that no longer prescribed regulatory alignment with the EU. Had they backed the agreement, it’s a safe bet that their calls would have had the coverage that mainly eluded them.
But there was another reason why the Mail’s denunciation threatened to prove wide of the mark. If Johnson decided to bring back the bill on a longer timetable – rather than push for the early election he threatened – there would be still room for amendments beyond the possible attempt by pro-European Tories to extend the deadline for negotiation of a Free Trade Agreement with the EU beyond December 2020. Earlier in the week, Labour Remainers – the large majority of party members, MPs, senior shadow cabinet members and supporters – were still clinging to the hope that if a ‘wrecking amendment’ in favour of a customs union could pass, a majority of MPs might finally then be persuaded to back a second referendum. Yet not only has Corbyn long been resistant to such a course; it looks as if the parliamentary votes for it may if anything be slipping away.
Indeed, amid signs that Remain would now win against Johnson’s deal in a public vote, it was hard not to imagine the landscape if Corbyn had acted differently since his ‘original sin’ of calling, immediately after the 2016 referendum, for the immediate invoking of Article 50. Even then, instead of disenfranchising at a stroke the 48% who voted ‘no’ to Brexit, the Labour leader might have said: “I fully respect the outcome of the referendum but just as I would after a defeat in a general election I will try to change the public’s mind in time for them to decide in another referendum whether they agree with whatever deal emerges.”
At many stages since then – for example after Theresa May failed to secure a majority in the 2017 election – he could have changed course. He could have galvanised Momentum behind such a strategy; he could have headed a national movement embracing much of business and pro-European Tories. Without even jettisoning his own deep Euroscepticism, he could have argued in an analogy deeply embedded in the Labour movement – and used both by Starmer in his private talks with the unions, and by not a few shop stewards in closed trade union meetings – that any offer from the employer should be put back to the members; a second vote, in other words, the democratic course whatever your views. Most self-interestedly from Labour’s point of view, he could have vastly strengthened his chances of winning the possibly imminent general election the polls suggest he may lose.
This should not however eclipse Johnson’s contemptuous treatment of parliament – effectively Public Enemy #4. Johnson insisted on his indefensibly rushed timetable partly because he was fixated on his unnecessary promise to take Britain out of the EU by October 31. And partly because he wanted to avoid scrutiny of – and improvements to – a bill that now threatens severe damage to Britain’s economy, as well as the break-up of the Union, not only with Northern Ireland but with Scotland, to whom he has gifted a new casus belli for independence. But hankering after a ‘parliament versus the people’ election he also strikes at the cornerstone of the constitution, long accepted as such by the British public.
If he succeeds, he will be hard to stop. In Return of the Jedi Darth Vader finally turns on the Emperor and hurls him to his death to protect Luke Skywalker. In the fictional timescale envisaged by George Lucas, that was two decades after he came to power.