So just what are Labour up to?

Britain is entering a period of high political drama. All the political parties are geared up for a few months where they could have a decisive influence on events. Except, apparently, one. Labour’s policy on Brexit, the issue of the day, appears confused. They have added to to the general confusion after one of its most senior leaders, John McDonnell suggested they might not get in the way of a referendum on Scottish independence. Meanwhile the party appears riven by internal issues, not least the longstanding row over antisemitism. Just what is going on?

To outsiders the obvious answer is that the party is suffering from weak leadership that is unable to make hard choices. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has had a life in politics playing the gadfly, and has very little background in the heavy-lifting stuff. But he is surrounded by clever advisers, who live and breathe political strategy. Something more purposeful is surely going on.

The first thing to understand about Labour is that the hard left, people that I have also referred to as Leninists, took control when Mr Corbyn took the leadership in 2015. These are patient people with long-term goals. They have been dreaming for a generation and more of taking control of the party, and after that the country: they are not going to loosen their grip if they can help it. They have consolidated control over the party machinery, and Mr Corbyn is one of their own. But their hold is not totally secure, especially with so many MPs not in their camp. If Mr Corbyn was to step down as leader, they have no strong candidate to replace him. Their best bet is Mr McDonnell, who is clearly smarter and more strategic than Mr Corbyn, but is another older white male, without Mr Corbyn’s particular charisma. Somebody else could do to him what Mr Corbyn did to the front-runners in 2015. The other candidate often spoken of is Rebecca Long-Bailey. But she gets very little media space and most people (me included) don’t really understand who she is. I suspect that she is another of those popular insiders who get talked up by their colleagues but haven’t quite got what it takes for the big stage. So Mr Corbyn has to hang on in there, even though he seems well past his sell-by date. Meanwhile the internal runctions are simply part of the price the leadership pays for consolidating its hold. They think much of it is pumped up by enemies of the party in unsympathetic media channels; they aren’t entirely wrong there, though that is normal everyday politics.

The second thing to understand is what the leadership’s general political strategy appears to have been over Brexit. The inner group, in accordance with Leninist ways, is closed and secretive, so it is actually quite hard to know for sure what their game is. But they seem to be deeply scared of taking sides, and alienating either working class Brexit-supporting voters in their northern heartlands, or the Brexit-hating younger middle-class activists who do most of the work. They are mostly Brexit supporters themselves, fearing that EU regulations might limit their options in government. They hope that Brexit happens, and allow the political debate to move on, with the process being messy and the Conservatives getting the blame. They can then attack the tarnished Tories in an election, where they can move the agenda on to “for the many, not the few” (a horrid phrase designed to say less than it seems, appropriated by former leader Tony Blair to replace the much more specific old Clause 4 of the party constitution in the 1990s).

This strategy suffered a major blow when Brexit did not happen as expected on 29 March this year, prolonging the inevitable strain. When it came to the European Parliament elections that resulted, the party had nothing of value to say and performed very badly. These elections gave credibility to two alternative parties, who beat them: The Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats. The Greens also did well, surely at Labour’s expense. Labour’s voters are getting used to considering alternatives for their vote. This makes things harder.

But the strategy appears to be undead. Brexit looks likely to happen on 31 October. This will probably be chaotic and this could tarnish the Tories, as planned, while taking the wind from the sails of TBP. The Lib Dems will become irrelevant with their main anti-Brexit message pointless, and Green voters can made to realise that their cause is hopeless in the current electoral system. So keep going.

The most important question the party now has to face is what happens if the government loses a vote of no-confidence in September. This will be too late to stop a no-deal Brexit unless an alternative government can be formed with Labour at its core. What would the party do to facilitate this? The most credible strategy would be to form some short-term multi-party “government of national unity” (a misnomer if ever there was one), by ganging up with the SNP, Lib Dems and Tory rebels. This needs a less partisan and more competent prime minister than Mr Corbyn to have its best chance – some elder statesman, not necessarily even Labour. The Labour leadership appear to have ruled this out. They would have two reasons for doing so. Firstly they would be taking sides and alienating their Brexit supporters; the gambit might even stop Brexit from happening. Second it does not help Labour appear as a credible government in waiting if they accept that their leader isn’t up to leading it.

So the idea appears to be to present Labour as an alternative, minority, government, with Mr Corbyn as prime minister, and dare the other parties and Tory rebels to provide enough votes and abstentions to get it started. If it succeeds it would be an excellent platform from which to launch a general election, with the party’s credibility boosted by the trappings of power. The problem, of course, is that the party would have to take ownership of Brexit. That firstly means getting the EU to delay, which should be feasible. The party says that it wants to revive the previous government’s deal with the EU, tweak it to their liking (for example by making the objective of a customs union explicit) and put it to the people in a referendum. This is very fraught. In practice they would be likely to negotiate a delay and launch a general election. The problem with that is they want the election after Brexit, not before.

In fact what I suspect the leadership really wants to do is somehow to allow Brexit to happen with the Conservatives in charge, and then move for the kill. “Somehow” because they must do this while appearing not to facilitate it.

That all looks very fraught, but it is making the best of a difficult hand. The potential reward for the leadership is massive. They could end up in power after an election, with a lot of their troublesome MPs cleared out, and with the political sting largely drawn from Brexit. The chances of this don’t look that high, but for those Leninists who have been willing it all their political lives, it must look like the best shot they will ever get.

To observers who do not equate national with party interest, and especially those who want to put Brexit to another referendum, this is a dismal prospect. The Labour leadership could act decisively to resolve the crisis through such a referendum. That it won’t isn’t because it is weak, it is because it doesn’t want to.

A very British coup

I have returned from a ten day holiday, mainly in Austria and Hungary to find my country with a very different government in charge. There has been no election. The new government has even not been tested by our democratic representatives in parliament, and will not be for at least another month. Such is the British constitution, an odd mixture of the democratic and monarchic.

I struggle to accept that Boris Johnson is now our prime minister. This man has always been something of an outsider to the British political establishment, and somehow not a serious politician. His main claim to fame was an eight year period as Mayor of London, an office that sounds more impressive than it actually is. Apart from that he spent a year as Foreign Secretary, where he has had at best mixed reviews. He comes into his current job after a further year of making mischief from outside government. But he convinced most of his fellow Conservative MPs that he was the man for the moment, and this was emphatically endorsed by the party’s membership, who barely amount about 160,000. This does not even work by the principle that a majority of a majority is a majority – as Conservatives MPs are not a majority in parliament, and still less so in the country as a whole.

Mr Johnson then swiftly completed his coup by replacing government ministers wholesale. There was no attempt here to achieve balance across the parliamentary party. Instead there seemed to be two tests: personal loyalty to Mr Johnson during the leadership contest, and a readiness to accept a no-deal Brexit. More shocking than this is the guiding philosophy of the new government, set not just by ministerial appointments, but those of senior advisers. It has a revolutionary air: one that is eager to crush all opposition to achieve what it has decided is the will of the people. This is quite unlike any government I can remember. There are flashes of Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, but even these felt they had to make some attempt to get support from across their parties, even though it was clear that they preferred not to.

For now this gives the new government a freshness and energy, as is often the way when the tiresome ways of negotiation and compromise are suspended. The focus is on achieving Brexit by 31 October without the Irish backstop which was agreed by its predecessor with the European Union.

The political objective of this is in plain sight. Nigel Farage’s The Brexit Party poses a mortal threat to the Conservatives, as was demonstrated by the European Parliament elections. Behind this lies the frustration of much of the country with the failure to implement Brexit. So far Mr Johnson’s strategy is working. TBP is sagging in the polls. And although the Conservatives lost the Brecon and Radnorshire by election largely because of TBP, the trend is clear.

But this all looks more like a campaign that a credible government programme. Mr Johnson has laid out an uncompromising negotiating position for the EU; his ministers are making daily promises to spend money on this or that problem; there are also promises of tax cuts. There is no attempt to reconcile all this with reality. But the new government has to deal with two very big problems, even before it needs to work out how it is to run the government finances.

First is that it has a technical majority of only one after the Brecon by election, while having many disaffected MPs in their own ranks, who have little to lose by creating trouble. It is hard to see that a majority can be found to support a no-deal Brexit, unless a large number Labour MPs from Brexit supporting areas start to panic.

The second major problem is the reality of negotiating lasting international treaties. The government’s supporters claim that such negotiations are similar to those for buying or selling property, or for supermarkets buying produce from food suppliers. The US president has the same sort of idea. But their objective is not a one-off transaction, but a long-term relationship. This requires trust, which is hard if you keep threatening to tear up any deal that you unilaterally decide you don’t like. It is also hard to compromise when part of your act is to whip up your own political base with uncompromising rhetoric. Donald Trump is finding it impossible to complete pretty much any international negotiation so far, with the exception of relations with Mexico and Canada, where the power imbalance is massively in his favour. The government hopes that the threat of no-deal chaos, especially in Ireland, produces just such a power imbalance in Britain’s favour. But the politics look terrible and time is short. Also many Europeans think that no-deal represents a colossal act of self-harm by Britain, and might be tempted by the response of “Go ahead: make my day”. Some think that a chaotic British exit will be a lesson to other countries tempted to threaten their own exit.

So what on earth is the government’s strategy? There is a twin answer to the first problem. First is that by ducking and weaving the government may be able to achieve a no-deal without having to get the approval of parliament. This is tricky, but they have made it clear that they have no scruples about whether such an approach is democratically legitimate (since they are simply enforcing the will of the people, of course), and their best brains are on the case. The second answer is to fight and win a general election. That looks a tall order, but British politics is volatile and they may get their chance.

And the second problem? They appear not to care, or they may even believe their own propaganda, which is either that the EU (and the Irish government in particular) will give way and create some sort of transitional period towards a hard Brexit, or that a no-deal Brexit will only cause problems in the short-term. It would doubtless be chaotic, but politically the key is not to catch the blame, they seem to think. This looks much to sanguine to me, but I don’t live in their world.

Will they get away with it? Mr Johnson has one thing going for him: the abysmal state of the Labour Party. They may be too weak to stop him, but too strong to stop anybody else from doing so. That party’s predicament deserves a blog post of its own. Their leadership looks incapable of exploiting the chaotic situation to its advantage. If the Tories can crush TBP (perhaps neutralising them with an electoral pact, though that looks very hard to pull off), and then reassure Brexit-supporting Labour supporters with its apparent abandonment of austerity, then it is all to play for.