Boris Johnson, within weeks of taking over as (unelected) prime minister, has outraged everyone by suspending parliament in the run-up to the Brexit deadline. Ian Taylor analyses the forces at work around Johnson, while looking for signs of strength on the left to take the Tories on.
Boris Johnson challenged MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit to a showdown by suspending parliament for up to five weeks from the week of 9 September.
It meant MPs must move to topple the government the week of 3 September. The move wrong-footed Labour, Lib Dem and Tory opponents who had been groping towards a strategy to prevent no deal without backing Jeremy Corbyn and called their bluff. Crucially, it invited the 40 or so Tory MPs opposed to no deal to fall on their swords.
The response was outrage. When else have we heard a recent chancellor accuse a Tory prime minister of something “profoundly undemocratic” and the speaker of the Commons accuse the government of “an offence against the democratic process”.
The business newspaper the Financial Times denounced Johnson “and the cabal around him” and declared: “It is time for parliamentarians to bring down his government.”
It is an extraordinary moment for the British ruling class. Johnson is the unelected leader of a minority government, holding office only with the support of the Loyalist bigots of the DUP who grant him an overall majority of one.
He became PM in July with the backing of just 92,000 Tory party members. A poll suggests most of these want Brexit even at the expense of splitting their party and breaking up the “United Kingdom” — neither outcome being much of a legacy for a man who sees himself as heir to Winston Churchill.
Johnson stands on the cusp of deep political and, in the event of no deal, economic crises. The position he has long sought hangs by a thread as he confronts the core interests of the class he represents and into which he was born.
Johnson’s position is so weak it makes May’s appear impregnable. But unlike May, he has a clear strategy — at least up to October 31. He also has, in Dominic Cummings, a senior aide who understands strategy and tactics and is capable of bullying subordinates into line. The suspension of parliament had Cummings’ fingerprints all over it.
The aim is to unite the Leave vote through a “do or die” 31 October Brexit, negating the threat of Farage’s Brexit Party, and win a general election against an opposition torn between Tory Remain, Liberal Democrat and Labour right distaste for Brexit and the greater distaste of all three for Jeremy Corbyn.
Johnson’s tactics are to talk up “no deal”, look to all intents and purposes like he means it and hope at the last minute the EU makes a concession on the Irish backstop. He summarised his plan thus: “They have to look deep into our eyes and think ‘My God, these Brits are going to leave’.”
He has surrounded himself with evangelists for no deal such as foreign secretary Dominic Raab — who advocated suspending parliament during the leadership contest — and pro-hanging, anti-asylum seeker home secretary Priti Patel.
Johnson’s Downing Street office is packed with Vote Leave campaigners and in Cummings he has an aide who cultivates an assassin’s reputation, cares nothing for convention and appears genuinely to despise Whitehall.
However, Cummings is as happy to savage the European Reform Group (ERG) of Jacob Rees-Mogg, describing it as “a tumour”, as he is dismissing Tory Remainers.
In reality, Johnson’s commitment to no deal is minimal. He seeks to remain prime minister. Insisting on serious preparations for no deal while asserting it’s “a remote possibility” and a “one-in-a-million chance” sit comfortably with this strategy.
Does this mean Johnson will succeed? No. Not only is his position in parliament weak, he is opposed by senior civil servants and business. Whitehall mandarins were reportedly incensed by Johnson’s failure to back Britain’s ambassador to the US Kim Darroch, who was forced to resign in July when emails noting the “dysfunctional” and “inept” state of the Trump administration were leaked.
If the EU does not budge, Johnson faces the prospect of presiding over a chaotic Brexit. Leaked cabinet office papers predict shortages of fuel, food and medicines, “a three-month meltdown at ports, a hard border with Ireland” and protests that “require significant police resource”.
The risks of a hard border in Ireland merit an article of their own, but in the event of no deal the government proposes to restore direct rule from Westminster and deploy extra police from Britain — with all that this implies for peace.
Only a fool would predict what will happen between now and the end of October, who will support whom or what through endless political manoeuvring, bluff and counter bluff. According to the Sunday Times, even Cummings argues, “The next month is going to be fucking weird.”
Johnson must appear uncompromising, but he will tack and turn with events. So through his first month in office, he insisted there would be no general election before 31 October. Then in the last week of August, this changed. It was reported Johnson could call an election as early as 17 October to coincide with an EU Council summit which is seen as the last chance for a deal to emerge.
The government could emerge with a last-minute, fudged arrangement and win an election. A possible way to the former was laid out immediately following the G7 Summit in late August when the Financial Times reported, “Johnson is to face down Conservative Eurosceptics by rejecting demands for a big Brexit renegotiation, telling EU leaders his only concern is to scrap the Irish border backstop.”
A deal, it suggested, could involve simply a “reduced need for checks at the border until a trade deal is agreed”.
The very next day, Johnson pulled his suspension of parliament out of the bag, signalling to EU leaders that avoiding no deal really may have to mean a concession on the backstop.
It is worth noting the view of Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Munchau who, at the end of July, queried whether EU leaders’ “determination to uphold the Irish backstop would hold”, and the opinion of Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar in August that: “There are many ways no deal can be avoided.”
Yet Johnson could also fail to attain a deal and lose an election. Should he attempt to force through no deal, a combination of the speaker of parliament John Bercow, MPs and Whitehall mandarins could well unite to stop him.
What might it take — a Supreme Court injunction, a visit to the Queen by Harriet Harman or Ken Clarke, the sudden appearance of an obscure state official, perhaps even support for Corbyn though most Labour, Tory and Lib Dem MPs would rather pursue any other course? The ruling class is nothing if not resourceful.
Johnson’s suspension of parliament has made this an even higher-stakes game than it was. Were he to pursue this to the point of a real split with the ruling class, he risks a confrontation he could not win without deploying forces he does not have.
The view of the civil service was spelled out by former senior government official Jonathon Powell in August: “The clear view of the civil service is that a caretaker government, having been defeated in a confidence vote in parliament, is not permitted to undertake controversial political acts.”
There are two things in Johnson’s favour. One is the weakness and division of the parliamentary opposition.
MP Nick Boles, an ex-Tory who has allied with “senior Labour backbenchers” (ie opponents of Corbyn) to oppose no deal, described the process of rallying opposition MPs as “not so much herding cats as dragooning rabbits”.
In late August, Corbyn agreed with the Lib Dems, Greens, SNP and others to try to block no deal through a legislative manoeuvre rather than an immediate vote of no confidence to topple Johnson.
Liberal leader Jo Swinson dismissed a proposal that Corbyn lead a temporary government of “national unity” to ask the EU to postpone the Brexit date as “jeopardising the chances of a no-confidence vote gaining enough support”. This would have involved Corbyn acting on behalf of the ruling class to protect ruling class interests. Yet Swinson noted cuttingly, “There are people in his own party unwilling to support him.”
Johnson’s suspension of parliament may force Swinson to eat her words.
However, the division within Labour reflects a second crucial split between Leave and Remain in Britain’s working class. It is a division both absurd and terrible in that it invites working class households to side either with the inequality, racism and austerity of the Tories or the inequality, racism and austerity of the EU.
This racism is all too clearly on show. While migrants drown daily in the Mediterranean due to EU policy, the Johnson government issued abrupt notice in August of an end from 31 October to freedom of movement for EU citizens.
It did so while appearing to have no idea how to impose the policy. The Financial Times noted, “It is unclear how the government will differentiate between existing EU residents who have yet to apply for settled status and newly arrived EU migrants.” The announcement therefore served only to encourage racism and ramp up uncertainty for millions.
The division in the working class is the source of the difficulties Corbyn has with Brexit, exacerbated by the incessant attacks and scandalous claims of antisemitism made by those who oppose all that his leadership stands for.
It is why Socialist Review has emphasised unity around opposition to racism and the rise of the far right regardless of attitudes to Leave or Remain.
Yet difficult as the circumstances have been, the Corbyn leadership has failed to offer a sufficiently coherent view of the EU and of Brexit to appeal beyond the question of Leave or Remain. Rather, the leadership has sought to fudge the issue, seeking to hold the party together against Blairite threats of splits while binding Corbyn to MPs who wait only to replace him.
The failure to articulate the concerns of workers has become acute. A Financial Times (6 August) report on the “left-behind areas” of Britain which voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU provided an insight into the reality of this class division.
It noted, “Very few low-income Britons referred to immigration or trading relationships. Instead, they highlighted poor quality jobs, declining high streets and deteriorating services. Many resented the government in London and its perceived indifference to their needs much more than Brussels.”
Labour has failed to give sufficient voice to the “left behind”, regardless of how they view Brexit, and now the Blairite obsession with Remain and determination of many Labour MPs to stop the election of a Corbyn government has manoeuvred the Labour leader into a position where the party may struggle to win an election.
Even now, if Labour were to call rallies and protests, attack the wealthy, focus on climate change, nationalisation and a coherent class attitude to the EU, Corbyn’s prospects could revive.
Instead, an alternative trajectory appears likely. The run up to September’s Labour Party conference will see renewed pressure to move toward a more open Remain position. The conference itself may bring some constitutional victories for the left, but thereafter the manoeuvring to replace Corbyn will resume.
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry is already touted as a left candidate to replace Corbyn, reportedly with the backing of shadow chancellor and long-time Corbyn ally John McDonnell who declared in August, “I’ll be campaigning for Remain.”
Corbyn has meanwhile been jockeyed into pledging a Labour government would allow “a choice between a deal or remaining in the EU”.
Let’s assume there is a parliamentary vote which Johnson loses and he calls an election — maybe in October, maybe soon after. Labour would be at serious risk of losing seats which voted for Leave in 2016.
The FT in early August quoted an unnamed Downing Street official, probably Cummings, who suggested, “The election will destroy the Corbyn project…without stopping Brexit.” Unfortunately, that is not a ridiculous assessment.
Alternatively, the EU could grant Johnson just enough to claim a victory and win MPs’ backing for what would essentially be May’s Withdrawal Agreement with a modified backstop. Then Johnson would call an election, perhaps in November, perhaps in the New Year.
We will see who calls whose bluff in the weeks ahead. The tragedy is the left is too weak to influence, let alone shape, events. Yet a crisis could yet trigger an eruption of forces to transform the situation. The cabinet office papers on preparations for no deal, or “Operation Yellowhammer”, warn of protests. Hong Kong should be our inspiration.