Lame duck prime minister limps into the final battle

PUBLISHED: 09:24 28 September 2019 | UPDATED: 10:51 29 September 2019

Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to appear on the BBC's Andrew Marr show. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to appear on the BBC's Andrew Marr show. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire.

The final battle of Brexit now looms, and JOHN KAMPFNER says the prime minister will enter it seriously weakened.

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One of those adages you are taught in leadership colleges is that when the flak is flying at you, you march straight towards it. Boris Johnson, it seems, is doing just that. Is it the result of too many Eton Wall games, a courage borne of privilege and supreme self-confidence? Is it because that's all he has left, all he knows? Or is it the result of a set of principles in which he has been long imbued?

It is easier to answer these three rhetorical questions ('yes' to numbers one and two) than it is to predict the fate of our once-great nation. One could not have imagined a verdict of the 11 women and men of the Supreme Court that could have been more devastating. It was unanimous. It was legally clear. It was linguistically chilling and under-stated. It didn't need to say that he lied. Everyone knows he did.

Yet the prime minister's first instinct when informed of the news while in New York was to bluster on. No regrets. No apology.

The UK, he insisted, is still set to leave the EU on October 31. Come. What. Bloody. Well. May. He paid lip service to the independence of the judiciary and separation of powers but extended the 'people vs politicians' mantra to include the courts as the other enemy seeking to subvert the popular will on Brexit.

He forgot to remember that his lawyers had previously insisted that Europe had nothing to do with the decision to prorogue parliament.

All through his life, all through his career, Johnson has winged it. I remember starting my career with him at the Telegraph. From the get-go he was lying, inventing stories about straight bananas. He was sacked twice by newspapers.

He was sacked from the front bench. He has had multiple affairs and fathered multiple children and carried on regardless. He knows no other way. Because almost all of the time he has got away with it.

As mayor of London he briefly became the darling of the metropolitan left. The pay-as-you-go bicycle service was even known as 'Boris Bikes', even though he had merely taken them on from his predecessor, Ken Livingstone. Amazing though it is to recall, but there was a time when some people thought that he was good for the capital city.

Now questions are being asked about various mayoralty hand-outs, including one to the Californian entrepreneur, Jennifer Arcuri. The London Assembly has formally tabled questions. It will be interesting to see if the Whitehall civil service now acquires a little spine or just goes through the motions in its investigations.

As a would-be biographer of Churchill (it wasn't bad in places, but the attempted cross-referencing at himself with the war leader was laughable), Johnson has at least a smattering of historical knowledge.

He sees himself in the pantheon of Great Men. He is aware that he is in danger of going down as the shortest-serving prime minister in history. He will do everything he can to avoid that ignominy.

Given that resignation is the last thing on his mind, he is likely to be safe for a few weeks yet. Opposition parties worry that a no-confidence vote has two dangers. It might not succeed, and even if it did, it might have the unintended consequence of allowing a no-deal Brexit to sneak in, even though parliament has voted to rule it out.

Better to allow a battered and bruised Johnson to stagger on, his hands and arms flailing around at the despatch box in a desperate attempt to assert his authority.

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On the eve of the bombshell Supreme Court judgement I was one of those who was quietly resigned to the possibility, even probability, that he might cut a deal and get Britain out by October 31.

Not because of some extraordinary act of cunning or charisma in the negotiations, but because all our European partners are heartily sick of us.

They just want to be shot of us. It was surely was not beyond the wit of both sides to rename the backstop the 'Irish protocol', conjure a couple of other tweaks to allay British concerns, and job done.

The gang of 21 softie anti-no-deal dissidents would be brought back in, or enough of them to break their resolve. The Brexit ultras would be reconciled to this new-variant deal.

The confidence was palpable. At the end of last week, at a social function, one of Johnson's advisers was telling me that this was just the plan. Deal under the belt, it would be plain sailing on the domestic agenda. An election would follow soon after.

The Brexit Party would mount no meaningful challenge; Jeremy Corbyn's polling numbers remained a car crash, while the Lib Dems would help the cause by taking on Labour in key seats, allowing Tories to win marginals where they might otherwise have been in danger. I asked whether the majority would be 50 or 100. Either would do nicely, but expect the upper end, my interlocutor said.

I wasn't sure whether to be amused by the hubris or chilled by the prospect. Whether they believed it or not, they were willing it to be true. And self-belief, in politics and public life, gets you some of the way to your destination.

Johnson has amassed an array of vested interests desperate to keep him in place. He owes them; he will ensure that any Brexit in his name would be of the harder variety, and that a post-Brexit future will be based in US-style low taxation and low regulation.

Now what will come of that confidence? Even though parliament is back, in one respect nothing has changed. The big moment was always going to be the middle of October, and the final weeks before deadline day.

In another respect, everything has changed. European governments are sniffing that Johnson may be a lame duck. They will now play harder ball, knowing that a.) he will struggle even more than before to get a deal through, and b.) he might not be long for this planet. He and his ministers will continue to portray the process as Britannia telling those pesky Europeans to fall into line. They will shake hands coolly and smirk.

If anything is possible to predict, it is that another extension of Article 50 is more likely now than before. The EU would grant the UK, reluctantly, another three or six months. If they want to be mischievous, they might insist on a longer prolongation, and we would be in no position to resist.

The front pages of pro-Johnson newspapers were in full defiant flow the morning after the Supreme Court ruling, helping him to prepare the ground. Expect more of the same in the next five weeks, ahead of October 31.

Johnson's people are preparing their rhetoric in advance... 'I'm doing this, under duress, because my hands are tied. Our parliament, aided and abetted by our courts, is defying the will of the people. But I will soldier on.' That will be the message of the Conservative conference next week, and they will adore him even more for it. The real battle is yet to commence. A general election in the spring? And the Conservatives elected with a comfortable majority, to 'finish off the job'? That Johnsonian dream is looking a little less achievable; but it has not disappeared.

His operation has already shown itself adept at dark attempts to manipulate our democracy. Expect more to come. Meantime, the mess that is Labour's Brexit position will be ever more exposed. The Labour conference already feels like a long time ago, but it is worth remembering how incompetent and chilling it was. Even now Corbyn remains obsessed with fighting internal battles rather than putting a compelling proposition to the voter. He is playing straight into the Conservatives' hands.

Johnson is the ultimate chancer, perhaps even more so than his mentor, Donald Trump. In his two months so far, he has: lost six votes in parliament, lost his majority, lost two dozen MPs, been forced to reconvene parliament, been humiliated by the Supreme Court and been rumbled for lying to the Queen. That is some record.

He will dust himself down and keep buggering on. That's what he does. Even if it ends in tears, he will regard it as a great caper that was worth all the effort.

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