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Grave errors from all sides in the election let Boris Johnson get away with it

Grave errors. Illustration by Martin Rowson. - Credit: Archant

All sides must take their share of the blame for letting Boris Johnson win the election, argues MICHAEL WHITE.

So Boris Johnson is using his electoral mandate to toughen his negotiating stance against the EU by denying MPs the power to extend the process beyond next Christmas, to weaken workers’ rights, wallop the constitution and batter the BBC before his triumphalist backbench novices realise that what looks tactically cute may prove strategically reckless. Are we downhearted? Not necessarily. World King Boris changes tack with every puff of wind. A resolute EU, a stalled economy and a wounded, rampaging Donald Trump may quickly run his pirate ship aground.

By unfortunate coincidence I attended not one, but two funerals in the aftermath of the election. No, not for the Labour Party or even for the Liberal Democrats. With imaginative, intelligent leadership and a credible mix of policies, they will adapt and recover in due course. When the failed Corbynistas are busy stitching up the succession for one of their own (“it’s you, Rebecca Long-Bailey”) I realise that looks a tall order. But it’s too soon to write “they’ll never win again”, as happens every time – even to the Tories too when they were hammered in 1966 and 1997. Not that it ever stops the apocalypse merchants, as Alastair Campbell reminds us on another page.

Alas, my funerals were real ones, with drink and gossip thrown in after the main event. The ashes of my old pal, Robert Armstrong, former rugby correspondent of the Guardian, were laid to rest in a micro-cemetery above the sea on the crumbling Jurassic coast of Dorset in strong wind and bright sunshine. Later, in the pub, a mainstream Labour ex-minister provided a shrewd guide to the likely runners and riders for Jeremy Corbyn’s job. “We will rejoin the EU one day. The young people will see to that,” he predicted.

More of that anon. Monday’s funeral in London was for Frank Dobson, Old Labour war horse and health secretary under Tony Blair. Neither a Blairite (“Frank was a hairy man, not a smooth New Labour one,” son Tom told the congregation), nor a Corbynista, Dobbo used to describe himself as “sane left”. We know what you mean, Frank: Radical but practical. So did plenty of the 500 mourners who celebrated his life before gossiping about candidates, though possibly not Corbyn. He sat quietly in row six. “If we don’t get it right this time, there’ll be nothing left of the party except funerals,” confided one of Labour’s 203 surviving MPs. Not even unprintable jokes from Dobson’s legendary archive could lift the mood for long.

But first, Boris Johnson’s “stonking” clean sweep. We’ve all had time to digest its implications since Number 10’s court photographer snapped Boris and First Girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, in triumphant delight as Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ was first breached in Blyth Valley. Full of naively fawning guff for days, most newspapers cropped Dominic Cummings from the shot. But he was there too, on the edge of this supposedly spontaneous domestic moment. There will be more soft focus manipulation like this while Cummings tries to fulfil his revolutionary plans to put Westminster and Whitehall’s under-performers before the firing squad.

Those of us who are paid-up Johnson sceptics have to acknowledge that the rascal got away with it. “Get Brexit Done” (take a bow, Dom) worked among disaffected voters in Britain’s Labour heartlands while not alienating fatal numbers of moderate Tories in the Remain regions. By his standards the World King also seems to have stayed attentive enough since Friday to grasp that he’d better put our money where his mouth has been. That means actually fulfilling some promises – on the NHS, schools, crime, housing and big ticket infrastructure – or citizens who “loaned” him their votes will trigger a run on the Bank of Boris by withdrawing the deposits.

The point has been widely made in the toady press, obviously with Number 10’s encouragement. Big business and the City, mostly pretty feeble during the campaign, are now bravely saying that a soft Brexit won’t be as bad as a back-to-the-1970s Corbyn government. They’ve also discovered it’s a splendid idea to invest lots of borrowed money in neglected regions. “Get out of London,” sneer Leave cheerleaders, who never got further out than Oxford and used to oppose regional devolution. Maybe, but at least Remainers know that EU regional funds have done more for ‘Objective One’ areas like Cornwall and the Welsh valleys than the average hedge fund donor to Tory funds. “Get out of Britain and shed some illusions,” would be a suitable Remain retort. And wasn’t Cummings the mastermind who thwarted John Prescott’s referendum on regional government for the north east?

All the same, at the risk of offending more tribal TNE colleagues and readers, it’s best in the wake of such a resounding defeat for the vanquished to take a deep breath and both acknowledge what went wrong for progressive parties – plenty of that in this newspaper – but also to give the victor enough credit, space and time to see what he does with his victory. Johnson has been the first leader of a mainstream G7 party to see off a right-wing populist challenge, say Boris’ more cerebral sycophants.

That boast will be credible only if he turns into the compassionate, One Nation interventionist his old friends insist is the real Boris. While Priti Patel remains home secretary on a “lock ’em up” ticket then it looks more of a populist reverse takeover – like Canada’s Tories after they merged with the western populists in 2003. Never the same again.

Either way a political leader can’t buck the electorate when it speaks. Divided Remain parties may have won more votes, but Johnson won the election where it mattered, among less educated and poorer voters in the Midlands and north, so this week’s polling analysis confirms. The Corbynistas can’t really blame bad luck or hostile media coverage. Fleet Street is always hostile to Labour. It’s like the weather, get used to it.

“Imagine what John Smith or Tony Blair would have done to May or Johnson,” murmured a Dobson mourner at the reception. What Thursday’s verdict shows is – as many said at the time – that Corbyn’s impressive showing in 2017 was part novelty but mostly the consequence of May’s ineptitude among voters certain Jezza couldn’t win.

Against a more formidable opponent the Corbyn project collapsed on impact. The reckless Tory gamble on a December election was predicated on Corbyn’s evident unsuitability. His youth vote receded, his support lay with the educated and well-off, YouGov reports.

But with so many Labour candidates now saying they didn’t believe in their own manifesto, leader or campaign strategy, it’s also reasonable to ask how much they believed their dire predictions of what an unfettered Johnson would do. When he became London mayor in 2008 similar lurid warnings were uttered. In the event his City Hall generated more noise than substance, mostly bland and complacent, resting on the hard work of others. My hunch is that his premiership will turn out more like that than either crypto-fascism or ceaseless Heseltine-style interventionism before breakfast, lunch and tea.

On the basis of what we’ve seen so far my impressions are mixed. Promising to shake up the structures and procedures in Whitehall are fine, merging departments too, though a bit retro. There has been too much of it. Bringing proper procurement expertise into the Ministry of Defence? Excellent. The Department for International Development and its huge budget back into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)? Fine by me. Gordon Brown’s idea of using aid as ‘soft power’ was always flawed. In any case the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour wrote a shaming article last week, reporting a weighty analyst saying Britain – should that be “Global Britain”? – hasn’t had a real foreign policy success since the Syrian war debacle of 2013. Since when its ministers have virtually given up cultivating foreign leaders. He means you and Dave, Boris. So there is much to put right in your promised review. Pity our charmless foreign secretary has narrowly survived the voters of pro-Remain Esher and the reshuffle – so far.

Johnson has promised to rush through a second reading of yet another version of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement this week. Oh dear, a new “red line”. Not a good sign. But to reveal – as he did on Tuesday – that the bill will make it illegal for MPs to extend the transition period beyond next December 31 is infantile and a gimmicky abuse of legislative procedure. We all know that “die in the ditch” Boris will make the sheep repeal the clause if he has to. Either that or he intends to engineer a minimal free trade agreement (FTA) and hope for the best – or still believes the EU 27 will finally crumble rather than lose our export markets and cash. Here we go again. Isn’t that a definition of madness?

It’s true that the German-led new commission in Brussels has its own problems – its ambitious carbon-curbing plans threaten a major confrontation with Eastern Europe’s populist regimes, coal-burning and increasingly authoritarian.

But Boris’s advisers behave as if their faith in World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) fall-back rules isn’t being pulverised by the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ campaign to stymie its workings. Brussels and London are posturing before talks start. But Johnson and his negotiator, ‘Trust Me’ Gove, seem to be repeating May’s error by setting the clock so that time works to the EU’s advantage. Cheerleaders – including David Davis and Liam Fox if you remember them – say the future lies in new industries, biotech, AI and the like. Here Britain has an advantage and can afford divergence from the EU’s “stifling” regulations. But they want to stay aligned where it suits them: More cake-ism that won’t get far. It’s another version of “Do as I say or I’ll blow my brains out.”

Johnson’s new voters in the north and Midlands may not care much about FTA negotiating tactics or the FCO’s world role, though they disliked Team Corbyn’s unpatriotic instincts. They do care about crime, affordable homes, shorter waiting times in A&E and better trains across the Pennines. Many will know they don’t need more gimmicky legislation to “guarantee” extra spending on the NHS, only political will and the money. The rest is showbiz.

Johnson’s team is assiduous in briefing friendly papers – not the BBC’s Today programme obviously – to generate headline impressions of dynamism. A fresh determination to break the dreary Stormont stalemate in Belfast? Good, but overdue. Repealing the coalition’s Fixed Term Parliament Act? Fair enough, it was mere expediency. But muzzling the Supreme Court watchdogs? Disgraceful. Threatening to decriminalise TV licence dodging? It sounds like sabotage against Britain’s only globally-powerful media brand? Not economically smart, but definitely spiteful and gimmicky. Let’s hope it’s just a dog whistle headline designed only to cower the Beeb.

The overall effect of week one for the new government is one of pyrotechnic fireworks, colourful and noisy, but not likely to last. Government by press release was a Blairite weakness which Cameron copied into the 24/7 social media era that followed. Actually making a difference to people’s lives – real lives, not virtual ones – is much harder. This is a new parliament, 109 Tory newbee MPs alone. They are long on enthusiasm, short on experience – as indeed is Johnson, who expelled some wise old sweats, but kept Bill Cash and John Redwood. A mediocre local government leader, a veil has been drawn over his cringe-making performance as foreign secretary. Cummings, his political brain, is a ‘move fast and break things’ man who soon hit the buffers when advising Michael Gove how to shake up the educational ‘blob’. Yet Number 10 seem to be trying to move on all fronts at the same time as the boss threatens people who can obstruct his ambitious plans – senior officials, judges, military brass, ministers he says he might just sack in February or merely overrule.

It has the makings of a circular fire squad, rarely a good idea. Nor is briefing the Daily Toady about wannabes who might get Nicky Morgan’s important job at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, then letting her do this important job from the Lords. That will rankle in the 1922 committee which is no more in love with Boris than the PLP was with Jezza. Boris the Clown may be good at funny photo-ops and one-liners, but the joke will soon sour if that’s all he does while the Demon Dom runs amok. For want of a better alternative, voters have given Johnson another chance. Even in the age of post-fact news he’s unlikely to get two. The postponed Jennifer Arcuri investigation or that suppressed intelligence committee report on the Tory rouble trail may quickly spoil the honeymoon. Scotland or Ireland could suddenly unravel, though Alex Salmond’s looming trial on sex offences may give McBoris a lucky respite. That is, unless Nicola Sturgeon decides the case is so awful that it needs a distraction like an illegal referendum, Catalonia-style. We live in irresponsible times.

Good or bad, all this should provide rich pickings for a new Labour leadership determined to show it’s learning the lessons of last week’s election car crash. Accountable government needs an effective opposition, so conspicuous by its absence for more years than any of us care to remember. Alas, that’s not yet in sight. The news that Angela Rayner, who lacks self-belief, has decided that the northern, left-wing working class woman of John McDonnell’s dreams should not be her, but Rebecca Long-Bailey, suggests that Rayner has the better judgement.

“This is worse than 1983,” plenty of old hands told me over post-funeral drinks for Dobbo. Why? Because in 1983 Neil Kinnock was waiting in the wings to take over from his pal, Mike Foot, and modernise the party’s machinery and policies to better reflect what Labour voters wanted. I know, it proved a long haul in which Kinnock himself never reached the Promised Land and John Smith’s untimely death robbed novices Blair and Brown of a useful apprenticeship in government. But they got there eventually and did much better than the Jeremy Corbyn-Paul Dacre axis allows.

A media pal at the funeral confirmed that Momentum’s eternal student leader, Jon Lansman, sees the Left’s priority as retaining control over the Labour party machine by installing another pliable leader, not winning power to do things and help Labour voters – as Frank Dobson did for his Camden constituents for 37 years. “Frank would not have endorsed Keir as his successor if he thought he was just a phoney lawyer,” said one veteran Starmer support who sees ‘northern left-wing working class woman’ and ‘no more metropolitan leaders’ are slogans designed to stop Starmer, the number one north London candidate, they protest. Few of the gossips mentioned Emily Thornbury, none Jess Phillips, let alone as a serious prospect.

The soft left might unite around Lisa Nandy, whose Wigan brick in the Red Wall survived the Thursday night massacre. But the implication was clear, the mourners expect Unite’s Len McCluskey, his close friend Karie Murphy and former close friend, Jennie Formby, plus no one’s close friends, Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray, to rig the coming contest in favour of Long-Bailey. Like the reactionary French Bourbons, some people forget nothing and learn nothing. Nice one, Boris.

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