The political debate is about to get bigger than Brexit

PUBLISHED: 10:03 28 October 2019 | UPDATED: 10:03 28 October 2019

James Ball says a Conservative majority will spell Game Over for those wanting to stop Brexit. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA.

James Ball says a Conservative majority will spell Game Over for those wanting to stop Brexit. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA.

PA Wire/PA Images

The political debate is about to be transformed, says ZOE WILLIAMS. And that creates opportunity for Remainers.

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"Febrile", everyone calls this time; or "fluid", or "unreadable". Nothing is certain until it's happened. There are two distinct strands to this uncertainty, and they meld together in the generalised sense of unease, but they shouldn't.

The first is the parliamentary numbers: Will the DUP agree to anything at all, or is it in their DNA to say "no"? How many Labour MPs will rebel, and what's their long game? How far will the ERG go to accommodate a leader they longed for? What to make of the Tory rebels, with their innate conservatism, their undreamt of tug-of-war between party loyalty and the rule of law?

It all comes down to the numbers: If there are enough to reject the programme motion - as they did on Tuesday night - would there be enough to pass a Kyle-Wilson amendment, to make a deal conditional on a second referendum? To insert a customs union? If there are enough to thwart the prime minister at every turn, surely there are enough to lift the agenda from him? It is as compelling as a game of bridge: You count all the cards as they go past, make a patchwork of the obvious and the guessable, then stand by for results you can't predict, the elements of luck, chance and Lisa Nandy.

And then there's the bit that isn't a game, the terrain that is vast and unknowable for the simple reason that the information will not be released. Sajid Javid refuses to publish an impact assessment of Boris Johnson's deal. The Conservative government refuses to discuss the future of workers' rights, environmental protections, except with an airy assurance that it will all be fine, which is chilling precisely because its lack of detail signals the lack of seriousness beneath it.

Hard facts, when they do emerge, offer no more than a snapshot of the problems ahead, but a pretty vivid one: In the event of no-deal, a lobster would need four different certificates to be exported to the Netherlands; chemotherapy drugs are imported, bespoke for each patient, from Germany and France, a supply chain in which even a grain of friction would cost lives.

It's a hellscape of detail without clarity - these outcomes are legally impossible, and yet millions have been spent "preparing businesses" for them. They are manifestly against the national interest, and yet senior government figures still brandish them as options or threats in a debate that is ever more degraded but, one senses, has yet to reach rock bottom.

So, it's like trying to play bridge in the midst of Battle Royale; make intricate assessments of probability and behaviour at the same time as accepting that all assumptions of responsibility, accountability and consequence have been upended.

It is understandable that we grasp any victory in parliament as an important one, and fair enough to look for the positives in an ambiguous result on Tuesday night. Immediately before the defeat of the programme motion, MPs passed the second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.

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It got through with the support of Labour rebels, who should have had the whip removed, and didn't; but perhaps they have a long game. Perhaps the second reading isn't important, and they'll dig in their heels at the third.

Perhaps it won't affect Labour's support in a general election, that they decry Brexit and yet never quite find what it takes to oppose it. Perhaps figures like Jim Fitzpatrick - who unaccountably appeared on television to say he hadn't read the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, had no idea what was in it, had no intention of finding out, and yet was going to vote for it anyway - have some smart invisible agenda, rather than a base motive which will reveal itself when they fetch up in the House of Lords.

Perhaps Jo Swinson has a trick up her sleeve, and isn't just reshaping as the 'Rejoin' party for an advantage over Corbyn. Or perhaps we'll be saved by a deus ex machina - I doubt Donald Tusk has ever been called that before - and the EU will grant an extension so long or so flexible that the parliamentary deadlock just dissolves into an election.

Yet the government, with its large uncosted promises of new hospitals and bobbies on the beat, has been effectively running an election campaign since July anyway: So how will that change anything? How can it deliver what parliament needs, which is not about numbers, but transparency, maturity and responsibility?

Immediately after Johnson's latest defeat, and his move to hit pause on the Brexit bill, Tusk announced on Twitter that the UK would certainly be granted an extension, as per the request of their unsigned letter. It turned out that not signing it wasn't quite the genius super-move that the prime minister hoped. The landscape remains deceitful, rancorous and chaotic, none of which will be improved by a general election campaign.

Yet the picture has changed: Part of Johnson's appeal and momentum was that he could bring MPs into line by sheer force of will, and that has been disproven. At every point at which he needed hold-your-nose loyalty, he didn't have the numbers.

He's bet the farm on a parliament versus the people message, but forgotten that the voters to whom that idea appeals - who value strength over compromise, authority over pluralism - were looking to him for the dominance and vision which he has now spent three months parading his lack of.

And this conversation is about the get bigger than Brexit; that will be his undoing, and it will bring a unity amongst his opponents that so far they have been lacking. Johnson's offer, besides the raw cunning of his entourage which turned out to be mainly swearing, was boldness and trenchancy.

No more shilly-shallying about trying to have it all ways: He would spell out what he wanted for the United Kingdom, which was an allegiance with the US rather than the EU. And so, inevitably, he will be fighting an election on the realities of that: Deregulation, vassalage, free-market fundamentalism. Or, for more detail still, a wide-ranging and non-negotiable unwinding of workers' and consumers' rights, just as the price of entry into American trade negotiations; and an acceptance of US interests as the prevailing factor in every decision, with the UK as the smaller and supplicant party (a different president might have sweetened the pill; Donald Trump is unlikely to be tactful about this reality).

Johnson will not be able to fight this with two faces, as the man who builds new hospitals but sells the NHS, who loves the environment but backs away from international cooperation on climate change, who supports British workers but destroys manufacturing, who wants to make all our lives better but unwinds the rights we had to fight our own corners. He has now emerged as the politician that a rump of Tory members were waiting for: the cuddly, sort-of progressive veneer that coated his actions as London mayor has completely corroded.

Undoubtedly, the coming general election will unearth some hard truths about the electorate: That a surprising number of people don't care about sick pay, or holiday pay, or maternity leave, or animal welfare, or carbon emissions, or the rule of law. But it will, at least, be bigger than Brexit. It is the paradox of Johnson's period as prime minister, that it has been furtive, mendacious, obscure and obfuscating, yet it has nevertheless brought total clarity, finally, on Brexit's underpinning: a radical, hard-right agenda such as even the softest Remainer will know how to fight.

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