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.