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MICHAEL WHITE: Brexit strategy is no clearer as time ticks on

Michael White believes Boris Johnson may lose a vote of no confidence in September. Illustration: Michael Rowson - Credit: Archant

Michael White says setbacks and delays at Downing Street reveal the Brexit plan is all tactics and no strategy.

Conservative Party leadership candidate Boris Johnson brandishes a kipper during the final Tory leadership hustings – Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Don’t laugh, but I was greatly cheered by a recent visit to the cinema where we saw Richard Curtis & Danny Boyle’s romantic comedy, Yesterday. Suffused with Beatles nostalgia and an heroic role for the Leave-voting Norfolk port of Gorleston-on-Sea, the film’s only comic villain was a rapacious Hollywood producer. Yesterday’s inclusive warmth made me think of an Ealing Comedy. “Perhaps this country really can come together again after Brexit,” I mused.

The upbeat mood didn’t last and not just because two days later I saw John Malkovich’s monstrous portrayal of a Harvey Weinstein predator in David Mamet’s strangely flawed play, Bitter Wheat. Hard to stay cheerful after such a pummelling in a week when Q2 GDP dropped 0.2% and the bond market signalled looming recession. There was also John Bolton’s menacing visit to promise an early US/UK trade deal he can’t deliver – Arghh! – and Nigel Farage’s attack on the Windsors, made on the lucrative speaking circuit in Sydney. Was that a portent of alt-right republicanism to come if Brexit goes badly wrong? Shades of Napoleon III’s “democratic” French coup in 1848.

Every day becomes a battle between reassuring continuity (does the football season usually start this early?) and growing ill-ease over the erosion of familiar norms. On his way to the G7 summit in Biarritz, Boris Johnson flew off to dine with Angela Merkel, then with Emmanuel Macron, his younger rival to be World King. What could be more normal? Except that it was preceded by a chippy letter to Donald Tusk “laying down the law” over the “anti-democratic” Irish backstop – instantly given to the media, itself a bad sign – and what sounds like a bad-tempered hour on the phone with Dubin’s Leo Varadkar. He also spoke to Trump (again). ‘Buy us, we’re warmer than Greenland.’

It’s hard to see how this seat-of-pants approach can end well, though the World King remains “confident” that the other side will blink before Halloween. Exiled Philip Hammond, glibly accused of disloyalty by serial disloyalists, merely for speaking his mind, says No 10 has deliberately set the Irish border bar too high. But if Leave.EU voters now have a Leave.EU government which puts the politics above the economics – the fantasy of “take back control” – why should the EU27 not do the same?

If backstop posturing wasn’t enough incoherence for one Monday, Priti Patel’s tabloid pandering also rushed out a ‘Freedom of movement will end on October 31’ policy shift from the Home Office. That undeliverable pledge, made without the promised consultation, confused the 2.6 million EU citizens living here who have not yet managed to sort out their UK settlement status. It alarmed civil servants (who have to try and make it work) and angered businesses which are short of staff. Poland’s anti-immigrant regime has had to back down for similar reasons. So will ours.

Needless to add the August surprise was promptly offset by soothing noises from the Cake-Eater-in-Chief. Everyone is welcome, except those who aren’t, says Boris. Even Patel’s Labour shadow, Diane Abbott, was quicker than she was over the original Windrush affair to spot potential injustice. And how can you detect EU criminals trying to come in if your no-deal Brexit has cut you off from the EU’s databases, she pointed out? Perhaps they’ll come over that Irish soft border Boris seeks, adds me. The Home Office promises details “shortly.” Legislation perhaps? That’s one thing ministers dare not risk for fear the Commons will attach amendments blocking no-deal to any passing bill after their September 3 return.

As sane a Tory thinker as Ferdinand Mount – no rabid leftie, he was briefly Margaret Thatcher’s policy chief at No 10 – now thinks it his patriotic duty to warn against the risk of “nationalist dictatorship” under Boris Bonaparte, whose “right-wing coup” has casually abandoned constitutional propriety. We’ll come back to Sir Ferdy’s essay in the London Review of Books. But first a nod to trendsetter Arron Banks’s nasty suggestion that teenage Green, Greta Thunberg, might suffer a “freak yachting accident” during her carbon-free voyage to the UN.

That’s meaner than spectators at Lords booing Steve Smith after Australia’s star batsman was concussed by a bouncer from Jofra (would Priti Useless have let him in?) Archer. What’s climate change to do with Brexit Bad Boy Banks, you ask? Only a rejection of evidence in favour of wishful assertion, so common among Brexit champions and those opposed to rules that benefit all but inconvenience them. Not-so-coincidentally, evidence-resistant Britain lost its measles-free status this week thanks to weirdo campaigning against the MMR jab (take a bow, Daily Mail and Donald Trump). Vaccination carries risk, but not as great as non-vaccination.

Ditto Brexit, says the latest tranche of confirmatory evidence about Operation Yellowhammer, leaked to the Sunday Times. Ministers dashed to the nearest microphone to insist the lurid Whitehall analysis was out-of-date (it wasn’t) and much too worst-case gloomy, though town halls and the NHS are saying much the same. Michael Gove was also saying it in April. Labour reasonably demanded publication of the latest assessments. But that might trigger panic. Instead panic will be more expensively achieved by the government’s own £100 million advertising campaign (‘Keep Calm, But Prepare for No Deal’?), replies business, which has been required to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements, Harvey Weinstein-style, on their Brexit discussions with Whitehall.

Predictably the World King himself blustered that the Yellowhammer papers had been leaked by disgruntled ex-ministers – I think he means you, Spreadsheet Phil, the former cabinet colleague whom Johnson had earlier accused of “collaboration” with Brussels to stop Brexit altogether. Phil and what government spin doctors falsely describe as the “Remain Alliance.” It is now a conspicuous feature of Dominic Cummings’s election alibi strategy, echoed in the toady press, that attempts to block a dangerous No Deal are rebranded as the latest Remoaner plot to keep Britain in the EU. Remain has not been Hammond’s position – or even Ken Clarke’s – for a very long time.

Collaboration. It’s another nasty Arron Banks word, freighted with painful memories for millions of EU citizens who lived under regimes where collaboration with Franco or the Stasi were once daily realities. Boris may be a toe-rag, but unlike Trump he’s not ignorant, he’s an educated rabble-rouser. Yet recently the FT ran one of those positive articles it likes to print suggesting that the world may be passing “peak dictator” danger. “All You Need Is Love,” as they sang in Richard Curtis’s Beatles rom-com.

The FT was encouraged, not because it thinks President Xi will refrain from invading Hong Kong or that Messers Putin and Trump have mended their ways. It’s because people power has pushed back in Slovakia, Romania and the Czech Republic against mini-me authoritarians aping neighbouring Hungary and Poland – not to mention Eastern Europe’s ancient, invading enemy, Erdogan’s Turkey. Excellent, but the Italian parliament’s no confidence vote on Rome’s left-right populist coalition is this week’s canary in the populist cage.

By resigning as Home Secretary the nationalist Liga’s Matteo Salvini, potentially the EU and Eurozone’s most dangerous populist, has forced out his technocrat PM, Giuseppe Conte. But, in a shambles that eerily resembles our own, his gamble on winning an autumn election may yet backfire – as it may for Bunga Bunga Boris.

Like that cerebral liberal Tory Ferdinand Mount, I’m doubtful. In India Narendra Modi’s BNP is changing the secular, inclusive state created in 1947 into a Hindu nationalist version and getting away with it because elite greed and incompetence has gradually destroyed Nehru’s Congress Party. Sounds familiar? Mount sees Johnson’s style – “optimism with a hint of menace” as the Sunday Times admiringly called it – as turning the rump of his party into a Modi-style British BJP or vain Napoleon III. Fanciful stuff? Let’s hope so, but Trump’s similar path has captured craven Republicans. “Asymmetrical polarisation” is what US liberals call it, one where the old right-wing fringe moves centre-stage but becomes more intractable, not less. Think Steve Bannon.

If ever there was a moment for a credible party of the centre-left to step into the vacuum created by the collapse of the respectable centre right it is now. But it isn’t happening anywhere we look, is it? Macron’s France? Justin Trudeau’s Canada? Well, maybe. The crowded Democratic field trying to find a leader who can drive out Trump next year? I’ve not spotted a potential winner yet, though it’s early days. At Westminster and in the country there is no majority for anything. A YouGov poll this week reported that, by 45% to 38%, Brits would rather have a no-deal Brexit than a Corbyn government, though a stonking 17% have no opinion on this existential choice.

Hence the August stalemate over options for the autumn: a no confidence vote leading to a government of national unity (GNU), more accurately Disunity, led by whom and leading to what exactly? Another Article 50 extension pending a general election – or a referendum?

Jeremy Corbyn’s letter to leading opposition politicians, seeking their support to make him a caretaker prime minister, beautifully illustrated the poverty of alternatives. It was all tactics and no strategy, designed to get the Labour leader through the summer weeks with something to say, albeit in the full knowledge that most pro-Remain MPs would happily make him a caretaker – a day job at last – but never a caretaker prime minister. In our untrusting world Corbyn’s minders have managed to make him less trusted than World King Bozzie Bear, from whom only 13% of voters would buy a used sofa. Prince Andrew is probably more trusted over Jeffrey Epstein than either of them. That the Corbyn initiative was designed for public consumption, not serious private consideration, was confirmed by the fact that it was issued to the media almost as soon as it hit the recipients’ inbox, leaving them no time for thought, let alone consultation. For the same reason Johnson’s letter to Tusk was also posturing, not serious negotiation. Jo Swinson reacted too swiftly and too negatively at the moment when a spot of noisy pondering would have been more politic. But she’s half Jezza’s age and new to Vince Cable’s job. Let’s cut her some slack. By mid-week Corbyn had to backtrack too. So will Bozzie Bear. Pundits of all shapes and political sizes do the maths most days, but they can no more construct a Commons majority for Caretaker Corbyn than I can. Listen to Labour spokesfolk explaining what they’d do next and you can see why. What exactly do avuncular John McDonnell or Corbyn’s other MP pal, Diane Abbott mean when they say on Radio 4’s flagship Today that they’d “personally” campaign for Remain in a Remain vs Labour Brexit referendum choice, but can’t say what the shadow cabinet would do; this on a day when their ‘leader’ says he might stay neutral and is reportedly poised to go on a “fact-finding” escape trip to Ghana. The very stones should weep.

Corbyn’s speech to a party audience at the childcare centre in marginal Corby contained a good phrase – “Not so much a no-deal Brexit as a Trump Deal Brexit.” Did I read it in the newspapers? No. Did he promote it on R4’s Today? No. Most of the speech was an earnest Labour wish list of spending plans – to be paid for, as usual, by the “rich” – many of them laudable, but not credible. Check it out. Corbyn is entitled to claim that Labour has “won the argument” over austerity and forced Johnson to get out the cheque book. But he seems unaware that voters often prefer Tory men and women to implement leftish measures – as Disraeli showed Gladstone.

So talk of Corbyn invoking the 2011 Fixed Term Parliament Act to try and form a government in the 14 days allowed misses the point that the incumbent will try to do the same too, as Gordon Brown did in 2010. Johnson just may lose a vote of no confidence in September, he is unlikely to lose a second if Corbyn is the alternative. Far better to use fast-dwindling time to block no-deal if that proves possible in seriously private talks than pursue the illusion of GNU. The Halloween clock ticks on.

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