MICHAEL WHITE tries to ignore the sound and fury in search of the real significance of recent events.
The Halloween Brexit crisis is getting so dangerous now that we can all agree on the importance of dialling down the aggro a bit, right? No, not right, it seems. Boris Johnson appeared to raise his game when he defended the independence of the judiciary the other day. But the World King of Chaos rarely sounds consistent for longer than it takes to fry an egg and David Cameron was hardly setting his fellow Bullingdon hooligan a fraternal example by the weekend, was he?
Bless my soul, what’s this? Surely not nice Jo Swinson joining in to cuss Boris and Jezza at the Liberal Democrats conference? Are they both “socialist dictators”? Yes, and when Johnson was finally moved to hold his first face-time meeting with Uncle Jean-Claude Juncker – no hurry, is there? – the prime minister of Luxembourg, whose name is about to come to me, felt the need to let rip. His on-camera tirade of EU27 frustration (“we want and deserve clarity”) against the whole Brexit business was as tactless as it was candid. EU leaders do it all the time in private.
Ah yes, Xavier Bettel, I knew I’d get there. Forty six and J-CJ’s successor as PM of the city-state (pop. 613,894) since 2013, he’s a media-savvy lawyer-turned-professional politician, a pro-market, socially-liberal ex-mayor of his capital city too, Boris. Bettel’s CV is pure Euro-elite, right down to that Erasmus scholarship. No wonder his refusal to move his Anglo-Lux press conference indoors (“we don’t have the room”) to avoid noisy, anti-Brexit demonstrators was condemned as “Le Stitch Up” by the aggro-merchants of Fleet Street, even by the sober Times.
Leaving the UK’s podium empty to accentuate the emptiness of its negotiating stance was a good visual device by this former talk-show host. Boris out-Borised, eh, forced to flee the field, an Incredible Hulk gone yellow, not green. I once heard a Luxembourg journalist say that, though his country has six daily papers, it wouldn’t tolerate ones with “extremist” views of left or right. In its own sheltered way that’s no more reassuring than our aggressive media partisanship. But on this occasion grandstanding Bettel outplayed Boris at his own game.
A decent two-hour lunch followed by blandly encouraging remarks about “high speed” negotiations from soon-to-retire Uncle Jean-Claude could hardly match Boris vs Bettel for headlines or YouTube clicks. Downing Street suddenly wants us to believe it really is trying to cut an 11th-hour deal, but there’s no visible substance behind ministerial loyalists’ claims.
Plans are always going to be fleshed out, talks intensified too, “next week”. Next week at the UN General Assembly? Or next month after the Tory conference is safely over on October 2? Bettel’s message was: we don’t believe you, go away.
While we all wait, attention is focussed on the prorogation distraction (“Claptrap, M’Lords”) in the Supreme Court, the most high profile and risk-strewn case that a full house of 11 smart judges have ever adjudicated. Live on TV too. Wow! That’s another Brexit-driven shake-up of old ways. Did Boris lie to Her Maj? Why not? He does to everyone else, not least to himself. But that’s politics, not law, remains my hunch.
We’ll come back to those Cameron memoirs in a minute, including Dave’s unexpected lurch towards the referendum option to bind up the Brexit wounds. Who’d have predicted that, eh, except he was always a fan of Tony Blair’s style of politics, just not so good at it. First, a topic which should be more wholesome, Liberal Democrat activists enjoying their cheeriest conference week in the Bournemouth sunshine since before what has become the unmentionable C-word calamity of 2010-15.
Actually, the Coalition wasn’t such a calamity. Despite crudely partisan austerity, useful reforms were made. The Clegg contingent also curbed some Tory folly which has since become more visible, including the populist Queen’s Speech programme which ministers are meant to be stitching together during the lengthy prorogation. But rubbishing past governments as illegitimate – both incompetent and venal, as Blair once bitterly remarked – is built into the populist aggro-mechanism society increasingly takes as normal. Untrue and unhealthy, it benefits only aggro-authoritarians of left and right, again emerging from their shadows.
Despite which I am braced to be mean about the Lib Dems, though I never enjoy it and – like so many other Labour pro-Europeans – actually voted for them in the EU elections. The party of Cyril Smith and Jeremy Thorpe is mostly full of decent, well-meaning people who do well by their communities and wider society. But they are temperamentally as unsuited for the robust world of hard choices in national government as Jeremy Corbyn is. Allotment lover Jezza would himself be regarded as a bit of a Lib Dem in some regimes he admires.
Deep down those ex-Tory and ex-Labour asylum-seekers know this. The six MPs who have swum to Jo Swinson’s rescue boat from their crowded dinghy aren’t daft, just exhausted and light-headed. Like the Prisoners’ Chorus from Fidelio, the Sarahs and Sams, Lucianas and Chukas have cast off the chains of their former party’s articles of faith, their unspoken compromises and shifty evasions. Now they sing enthusiastically – and voluntarily – for Lib Dem motions which they know won’t change much. Some are so carried away they predict victory at the polls, as David Steel once did.
It’s an exhilarating moment, hard not to share their enthusiasm even as old lags remember how often they have witnessed similar occasions. Rare indeed is the party transplant successful in worldly terms. For every Reg Prentice (remember him?) or Peter Hain there are a dozen David Owens, whose talents never won office again. At least Owen’s strange European journey ended up in the Lords. For most, the outcome is a political bedsit. More sensible talent wasted in a shrinking talent pool, alas.
Sorry, but duty requires me to join the party poopers like Norman Lamb MP and Caroline Lucas of the Greens. The Lib Dems voted overwhelmingly in Bournemouth to enter the likely November general election committed to revoking the Article 50 trigger of EU withdrawal without the authority of a second-thoughts, re-run referendum. Swinson and her allies argue that winning a Commons majority on such an explicit manifesto would give them the moral as well as political legitimacy to do it.
That’s right, of course, but also wrong, not just because 18 current MPs are not going to win a Commons majority either, even if they are polling 18% and took 700 council seats in May. A mere 22 constituencies currently exist where the yellow rosette came a decent second (within 25% of the winner) in 2017, according to pollster John Curtice.
So they will likely gain a few seats with the help of disaffected and homeless Labour and Tory moderates, as well as lose some of those new arrivals slipping off the dinghy, as defectors usually do. Anything might happen in the 2019 election, but not this. There will be no prime minister Jo.
The party’s new stance, its unequivocal USP among anti-Brexit voters, feels wrong tactically as well as strategically. Tactically because Boris (“let’s look on the bright side”) Johnson is belatedly returning to his old journalistic haunts in apparent search of a deal. Did unpaid Brussels bar bills keep him away? But what if he and the Commission succeed in cobbling something together that a coalition of cross-party MPs, desperate to get it over with, actually endorse? Where would leave the Lib Dems in the election that would surely follow?
Logic suggests they would use their A50 stance as a springboard to campaign for re-joining the EU, not that Xavier Bettel sounds keen to have us back. It’s all unlikely stuff, I realise, but nothing is impossible in a year when Nigel Farage has admitted both former revolutionary communists and those from the far-right to his latest pop-up party’s candidates list, when Dave’s memoirs have called his ex-pal Govey a “fleck-foamed Faragiste” and a sitting Tory PM has expelled 21 distinguished loyalists from his party.
Unlike some fence-sitters we won’t embarrass – not yet, Jeremy – the Lib Dems have been admirably consistent in promoting a People’s Vote for three years as a means of resolving the Brexit impasse. Their new position, basically the ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ slogan enshrined in manifesto language, must have been market-tested. It is built around the belief that the politics of identity – Remain vs Leave, outwards vs fearful – now matter more than left-right values. Only superficially a progressive conclusion, it is designed to highlight Labour’s continuing ambiguity.
The new emphasis will work among ardent Remainers and further alienate Leavers. But will it offend potential switchers who believe a referendum result can only be overturned by another one? Is it a more subtle manifestation of the new aggro which brooks no compromise?
Polling suggests a majority of voters – around 55% to 45%? – now think the 2016 result was a mistake. But that must include a swathe of ‘let’s get it over with’ pragmatists who prefer an orderly deal, but add a pinch of salt to Operation Yellowhammer’s alarming predictions of no-deal chaos at the ports. And how does Swinson’s equidistant disdain for both “nationalism and populism”, for both Johnson and Corbyn, work in practice? Does her declared refusal to work with either as PM make the risk of a no-deal crash on October 31 less likely, or more so?
How might it limit her government of national unity (GNU) options if Johnson did resign rather than seek a Halloween extension? Or her possible king-making role if the eventual election delivers another hung parliament split four ways between Tory, Labour, Lib Dem and assorted nationalisms, including the English variety – as it might well do? It’s all a gamble, as bold in its way as Farage’s ‘no-deal only’ condition for a Boris-Nigel election pact, and for the same reason. Both have much less to lose if it goes wrong for them.
It certainly went wrong on an historic scale for David Cameron, whose admissions of failure and sleepless nights – as documented in newspaper extracts from his long-delayed memoirs – don’t yet seem to grasp the condemnation he may face if his own Brexit gamble both goes badly and leads to the final break-up of the United Kingdom.
As Fleet Street has gleefully reported, Cameron couldn’t believe how badly some of his colleagues were prepared to behave. Not just self-serving Boris (who knew, eh?!) and foam-flecked Govey, but Priti Patel and Penny Mordaunt, who told voters Britain had no veto on Turkish admission to the EU (not that others wouldn’t have vetoed it first) and didn’t withdraw her claim. We’ve not heard from her lately either, have we?
It’s rarely wise to judge a 700-page book on extracts alone. But what struck me was the sheltered innocence of his belief that a token renegotiation could defuse simmering resentment about all sorts of things out there beyond the M25, anger about inequality and immigration, schools and the NHS, which coagulated around “Europe”, the aggro stoked by social media and dark money. His half-baked referendum turned a very real party management problem into an existential crisis which has split the nation.
Do you remember Cameron’s lofty insistence that there should be no ‘blue-on-blue’ character assassinations during his ill-fated referendum campaign? He let Gove, Johnson and their outriders Farage and Ronski Banks, run rings around him in profoundly disloyal and dishonest ways and only now admits it. It’s a bit late to change your mind and put the boot in, Dave. The damage is done.
Never mind Xavier Bettel’s outburst, there was even flag-fuelled fighting at the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday. Is nothing sacred any more?