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MICHAEL WHITE: The pig ignorant politics of Boris Johnson

Michael White looks at Boris Johnson's Brexit leadership as the company that manufactured the 'Boris bus', Wrightbus, is posied to go into administration. Picture: Paul Faith/PA Wire/PA Images - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

In the week Boris Johnson is likened to a piglet, MICHAEL WHITE describes how ham-fisted leadership has lead to a history of schisms and war.

Boris Johnson seems to be happy as a pig in….Picture: Martin Ronson – Credit: Archant

On top of everything else about Boris Johnson, his lies, half-truths and shameless evasions, we are now invited to embrace the revelation that Charles Moore, Frankenstein editor to Boris’s fake news Telegraph column, refers to him as “the greased albino piglet”. It must be a comfort to the foreign exchange markets and working men’s clubs in Barnsley to learn this was meant as a compliment, less so in the corridors of Brussels and Berlin which he is conspicuously not visiting.

Can the greased porker escape encirclement by parliament, the EU27 and the courts as the clock ticks towards his “do or die” promise to Get Brexit Done by October 31? To widespread amazement World King Piglet and his acolytes have spent another tortuous week insisting that they can sidestep legal obstacles and tweak the much-derided Johnson plan without convincingly explaining how. France’s president Macron set a Friday deadline for a re-think, Labour and the Tory ‘Rebel Alliance’ have demanded the legal text. Quite right too.

What did they get? A fairly demented text message, “leaked” to the Spectator on Monday night, presumably from Dominic Cummings. It made wild threats to disrupt EU business and make an enemies list – “right at the back of the queue” on future cooperation – for hostile EU27 states (all of them?) which obstruct the right of the government to leave on October 31 regardless of what MPs or judges say. It’s the sort of tactic Trump deploys erratically, but without US economic and military might to back it up.

In fairness to the porcine Houdini of No.10, anyone who can persuade the DUP publicly to abandon its Orange line to allow a regulatory single market border in the Irish Sea – cue for U-turn amazement in Belfast – deserves some credit. There again, King Piglet may just be bluffing his way to a no-deal showdown, winking at Arlene Foster who is cynically playing along with the deception. Is his declared wish for a deal sincere? The parallel spectacle of the unfolding Jennifer Arcuri affair is hardly conducive to trust in the Piglet’s ethical compass. Here too Johnson’s defence is built on self-interest, deceit and rackety improvisation.

The Commons met briefly before being prorogued again, still unable to resolve how to deploy its majority to unseat the government and replace Johnson with Anyone But Corbyn: its ABC dilemma. Papers released by the High Court in Edinburgh reveal a PM willing to obey the Benn Act and write (or get an official to write) to seek a third Article 50 extension until January. Shadowy No.10 sources say he will sabotage any such letter, perhaps by getting the Hungarians to veto the extension (surely wishful thinking), or just sit tight and barricade the big black door against Corbyn and the Queen.

This is fanciful stuff, but nothing can be ruled out, except the silly and shocking idea of sending Nigel Farage to be Britain’s disruptive EU commissioner if Johnson is forced to extend. Commissioners have to be approved by the EU parliament and council of ministers, which won’t accept Thirsty Nigel.

No PM has been dismissed by a monarch since the Whig Lord Melbourne by William IV for being “too radical”. This was in 1834 at the tail-end of the convulsive Great Reform crisis which abolished ‘rotten boroughs’, extended the franchise from 400,000 to 650,000 adult males and started addressing the social and economic downside of Britain’s 50 years of rapid industrialisation – the world’s first.

It was rightly seen at the time as a major state crisis in which angry talk of civil war was squashed by the Duke of Wellington, who had seen a few. Instead it ushered in reforming decades that ended almost a century of regular mob violence in which the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots raged in London for a week. By contrast the Chartists’ radical agenda in the 1840s was pressed with little violence and the British experienced no revolution in 1848 – unlike their reactionary neighbours. Abolition of the Corn Laws – which split the Tory party, Brexit-style in 1846 – had given the majority cheaper bread. That’s promised again in 2019. What happens if it’s not delivered?

Ours is a crisis which also threatens to spin out of control. But what sort of crisis is it, anyway? Johnson’s ministers have talked much nonsense, minimising the risks of a disorderly Brexit while talking up the disorder which might arise from a further postponement. Rarely do they acknowledge what might be the worst of both worlds, disorder arising from disruptions which Brexit voters were assured they would not suffer. That and disappointment that post-Brexit Nirvana has been postponed pending more dreary negotiations from a likely position of weakness. Do I hear cries of “traitors” and “betrayal” as the blame game intensifies?

States and societies can face all sorts of crisis: economic, social, environmental and religious, as well as military and political, law and order, sometimes out of the blue – environmental catastrophe in the Amazon, the Boxing Day tsunami, pestilence. The Black Death imported into Europe in the 1340s was the Middle Ages’ greatest single disruption. A pandemic that killed at least a third of the population, it ravished trade and agriculture, pushed up wages but also disrupted society, leading to the Peasants’ Revolt (1381) and other uprisings. Its effect was far worse than 19th century cholera or the ‘Spanish’ flu pandemic of 1918, with its 20-50 million deaths. Governments live in fear of another.

In most countries, military crises are better known, sometimes celebrated, sometimes dropped down the memory hole. Most British people are vaguely aware of the existential invasion threats posed by the Spanish Armada (1588), Napoleon (1803) and Hitler (1940). Their failure shapes English consciousness in unhealthy, even Brexity ways. Paradoxically, the one date we all do know – 1066 – started as just another dynastic tussle to succeed a childless king. It was resolved by military invasion which imposed revolutionary change.

The Anglo-Saxon claimant, Earl Harold, defeated the invading Viking claimant at Stamford Bridge, marched south and was himself overthrown and killed at Hastings by the Norman candidate, William the Bastard. Much like the 16th century Spanish in Mexico and Peru, a small, French-speaking elite then seized most of the land, dotted it with castles and cathedrals, imposing the continental feudal hierarchy – lords and peasants.

Romantics like to present Brexit’s Leave insurgency as the latest in a long line of uprisings against an unjust, ruling elite, though their “1,000 years of independence” schtick invites the response: “Independent from whom exactly in 1066?” It also overlooks the awkward fact – forget Hitler and Napoleon’s defeats and two failed Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and ’45 – that England’s ruling house has been overthrown by invading forces three times since William won at Hastings.

Richard II was deposed and murdered by exiled Henry (IV) Bolingbroke in 1399. Richard III was killed in battle by exiled Henry (VII) Tudor in 1485. James II was kicked out by his Protestant daughter Mary’s husband in 1689. William of Orange was able to insist on being made joint king because his Dutch army was occupying London at the time. Muscle helps. We don’t much talk about such events because they undermine national myths.

Britain’s 20th century retreat from empire, not as bloody as France’s long war in Algeria, buried lots of brutal colonial exploitation, only slowly resurfacing over Cecil Rhodes statues and reparation claims. Civil wars? England has actually had three. Everyone knows how Charles I’s constitutional struggle with parliament collapsed into war involving the Scots and Irish too, but forget how all were crushed by Cromwell’s military dictatorship. Shakespeare immortalised the 15th century dynastic civil War of the Roses. Arguably the worst is the near forgotten ‘Anarchy’ when Henry I’s daughter, Matilda, and her cousin, Stephen, fought a war of attrition from 1135 to 1153 before reaching an exhausted compromise.

Then as now, weak leadership is usually a crucial ingredient in prolonging a crisis. King John was untrustworthy and greedy. Edward II was useless, so were Richard II and Henry VI, not to mention James II. Can you imagine subtle Elizabeth I being a religious bigot like her Protestant brother Edward VI or Catholic sister, Mary? Would an Attlee, Thatcher or even Blair have led us into Britain’s current Brexit pickle – or let it fester like Cameron, May and Corbyn, allowing populists like Shifty Johnson and Thirsty Nigel to exert Trump-like leverage on the public imagination?

What makes 2019’s drama more dangerous than Suez (1956), the running ‘Who governs Britain?’ battle with the unions (1966-85) or the IRA (1969-98) is that the past decade has fused a structural economic crisis – growing generational and regional inequality – with a cultural one – assertive identity politics of race, gender and nation, accelerated by waves of immigration. The EU became weaponised as the scapegoat, the ‘take back control’ illusion of ‘sovereignty’ promoted as the panacea. The effect was to shatter effective two-party government and create a prolonged political stalemate.

To further complicate matters EU negotiators have been encouraged by one side to believe that they can hold out for a second referendum which will reverse the 2016 verdict, an outcome I doubt. Stalemate between the executive – the government – and legislature – parliament – has finally triggered what may prove the serious constitutional crisis that breaks up the UK, upends – for better and worse – our governing traditions and legal system while making economic inequality and poverty worse, not better. We all have sensible friends who voted for Brexit “to shake things up”. Corbyn’s blueprint or Rees-Mogg’s may not have been their ideal binary choice.

This week’s detailed EU rejection of the Johnson plan and No.10’s renewed defiance point to a final Westminster showdown before or after the EU summit on October 17-18. Mishandled in the months ahead, as looks likely, the crisis may end up entrenching free market privilege – or casting off Eton and the monarchy too in favour of a socialist siege economy. Once started an avalanche is hard to stop.

Stop-gap responses can have profound consequences too. Just look at how the coalition’s 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act has accidentally crippled the Johnson government’s snap election wheeze and opposition responses to it. On Monday the same law of unintended consequences prompted the Guardian’s Larry Elliott to suggest that one overlooked factor behind Brexit-voting regions was the Beeching Report, which axed one third of Britain’s rail network when cars were the future, back in 1963. It cut swathes of the country off from growth.

Johnson’s less inflammatory speeches and the outline of October 14’s promised Queen’s Speech programme-cum-election-manifesto suggest he grasps the scale of the problems which need addressing. But there’s going to be little money to spend – more likely borrow – and little confidence that the greased piglet will stick to it once it has served its short-term purpose, detaching anxious C1 and C2 voters from Labour. The Institute for Fiscal Studies said on Tuesday that the Brexit economy is already £60 billion smaller, that Johnson is outspending Labour’s 2017 pledges, eating up Phil Hammond’s rainy day fund and piling on debt.

His alternative scenario – the dark one – is also visible. Two weeks ago, around the time when speculation first surfaced that ministers might invoke emergency powers – those designed to tackle war, flood or famine – to get round the Benn Act’s restrictions, Johnson warned publicly of “a catastrophic loss of confidence in our political system” if the 2016 referendum result is not honoured. While using inflammatory language himself, the prime minister called for calm.

It prompted a “senior cabinet minister” – anonymous briefers are never “junior” or “completely useless” – to tell the Times that Britain might face riots in the same way that Paris has done during the recent gilets jaunes protests or the six days of violent disturbances – 63 people died – in South Central Los Angeles in 1992. Even if a second referendum delivered a 
60% vote for Remain, that would leave even 1% “very angry” and it wouldn’t take many “nasty populist front men” 
on encrypted social media to get them 
out on the street, Mr Anonymous predicted.

We can all follow that risk, deplorable though the undemocratic implication of a 1% veto is. We share the concern expressed that very day by all 118 Church of England bishops that politicians moderate their language. What startled me was the paragraph in the over-excited Times splash (“Deliver Brexit or Face Riots”) where the senior briefer went on to explain: “In this country we’ve never had the gilets jaunes or the LA riots. People think it’s not possible in this country just because it’s not happened before.”

Not happened before? Where have these people been? We do not need to go back to the Gordon Riots, the Chartists or even the 1926 General Strike. The average age of the current cabinet – 48 compared with Mrs May’s 51 – is young, but a 48-year-old (b 1971) should just about remember prolonged violence, much of it by the police, during the 1984-5 miners’ strike, in a decade punctuated by IRA bombings on both sides of the Irish Sea and frequent sectarian violence on Belfast’s divided streets.

A politically-aware teenage Tory (they weren’t all smoking dope with David Cameron) might dimly recall the poll tax riots, notably in Trafalgar Square in March 1990, which contributed significantly to Margaret Thatcher’s downfall that November and the foolish tax’s replacement by the highly-regressive council tax. More recently the 2003 Iraq War put close to one million (numbers keep rising) on the streets, albeit peacefully. Though they didn’t stop that war, protesters can claim to have kept British regular ground troops out of Libya and Syria, which didn’t stop those wars either.

I could go on because such trouble does go on. Don’t Extinction Rebellion – out again this week – and the Occupy movement, mostly peaceful but often disruptive, register with ministers? Pro- and anti-hunt marches? Marches against student fees, a fire extinguisher thrown from a roof on one occasion. Our cabinet briefer can be forgiven for not remembering the Toxteth riots of 1981 – the average minister was only 10 – but surely not the riots across London, Manchester and a dozen other cities in the summer of 2011? And what about pro- and anti-Brexit marches, not yet seriously angry, but who knows if those in authority don’t keep their nerve: firm but fair policing.

Watching months of street clashes in Hong Kong I wonder if the masks, petrol bombs, arson and other excesses rare in contemporary Britain, don’t reflect societies where free expression is harder and police tactics tougher, more incompetent. Not so much policing by consent as policing by fear and facial recognition technology. I was once tear-gassed and water-cannoned by the cops during a peaceful march against General Noriega’s strongman rule in Panama City. It’s not much fun.

Thatcher’s ministers gave the police too much leeway in containing the miners’ strike, shades of Hillsborough excess and cover-up too. Tony Blair backed down in the face of those fuel tanker blockades in 2000 (very gilets jaunes tactics) and petrol prices have stayed soft ever since – despite environmentalist protests. As we’ve seen in the very haphazard police attempts to reflect changing public attitudes towards rape, domestic violence and child abuse, society expects more than ever of the police and is quick to condemn failure in mistrustful times.

Mistrust and suspicion are inflamed by social media, those in authority are duly intimidated. So Operation Midland’s effort to appease populist fears of “an Establishment paedophile cover-up” has ended in predictable humiliation and another cover-up. Deploying very similar rhetoric, the victorious Leave campaign’s appeasement of a Brexit fantasy threatens to go the same way. But if Johnson fails in his gamble on a cliff-edge Brexit deal – not so much a greased piglet as a dead parrot – we know, don’t we, that he and his allies will try to blame someone else for their own disaster. Pure Donald Trump. A schism like this could fester for 100 years.

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