Five weeks with no checks on Johnson’s and Cummings’ behaviour

By Thomas Lines – September 8th, 2019

Yesterday I received an e-mail from my MP, Caroline Lucas, which says:

‘This week has seen politicians from all parties unite to block the Prime Minister’s plans for Britain to crash out of the EU with no deal.

‘It’s a huge achievement and Greens have played a leading role…

…we have called out his trap.’

This confident statement reflects the sense of buoyancy and even triumph on display among MPs on the rostrum and members of the crowd at last Wednesday’s rally in Parliament Square, which took place as the Commons vote on that bill was going through.

But hearing the news this morning I could not help thinking that, with Parliament about to close down, that mood is at odds with what is actually happening.  Today’s big story is Amber Rudd’s resignation, just as Friday’s was Jo Johnson’s.  Commentators are dismayed by the Prime Minister’s callousness and insincerity, and the devastating implications for the Conservative Party.

But I think this misses the point.  We need to consider what happens next, not look back on the latest outrage against the usual norms.  Here, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings remain one step ahead of their opponents.

Stories this morning from inside the government camp seem deeply sinister and worrying.  This should not surprise us, since it seems that both Johnson and Cummings are utterly ruthless and sinister men.

Sabotaging the EU’s business

Thus, it was reported that Johnson intends the government to do all that it can to sabotage the EU’s business over the next few weeks (since, after all, the UK is still a member), in order to provoke the other 27 into rejecting the request for an Article 50 extension.

Meanwhile, they will set about suborning the civil service as well as the Conservative Party to their own political diktats.  In this too, any resistance will be broadcast (I use the word advisedly) as acts of Remoaners and the metropolitan élite who are out to sabotage the People’s Will.

These reports came from behind the scenes and, of course, are impossible to verify.  But they are in keeping with the whole demeanour of the Brexit campaign since Johnson, Gove and Cummings collaborated in Vote Leave.

They are particularly sinister simply because Parliament will not be able to keep a check on them.  The means of achieving that were themselves instructive: Johnson manipulated a constitutional convention (that the Queen must always accept Prime Ministerial advice) to make her officially legitimise something that reminds me of nothing more than the fatal mistakes of her forebear, Charles I.  This is one of many signs that Britain’s antiquated institutions are not capable of constraining a man with Johnson’s character (see my blog of August 6th below).

Applauding the Leader

Inside the anti-Brexit bubble it is easy to ignore how well last week’s events – and Johnson’s personality in general – seem to have gone down with some of the public.  Many people are not holding up their hands in horror but applauding a Leader who is At Last Getting Things Done.  One man on Twitter on Friday said how much he was warming towards Mr Johnson with his ‘alpha-male’ character.

I am sure that is not a majority of the population.  I doubt strongly whether it is the 40 per cent or so that are usually required to get a British government elected (another outmoded mechanism in a situation of multi-party politics).

But to all appearances it is something like one-third of voters.  And as long as the opposing parties are electorally divided, while (conversely) the pro-Johnson media can continue to represent them all as playing to the evil Jeremy Corbyn’s tune, it is probably enough to win a good majority in a forthcoming election.

What leads to these reactions from people?  I think there are two sources.  The first is the cult of the Leader, which has been a factor in British politics since Mrs Thatcher’s time.  When people feel uncertain and insecure, many put their faith in a Strong Leader whose demagoguery seems to offer reassurance than in the tedious processes of democracy.  This is as true in Britain today as in Germany in the 1930s or, it seems, Russia nearly all the time.

Secondly, we cannot dismiss the real sense of grievance felt by many in the fact that, over three years on, the UK is still in the EU.  This cannot be as easily dismissed as the mostly specious arguments we’ve heard for leaving the EU itself.

Pro-European commentators tend to look on hardline Brexiteers as people from another planet – deluded, wild-eyed fantasists who want to have their unicorns and eat them.  But we must not forget that many Leave voters dismiss the alternative case just as firmly, as no more than diversionary tactics from Project Fear.

Wanting to see the back of us

Moreover, it is now looking entirely likely that the 27 other member states will reject the request for a further extension of Article 50 – with or without any further provocation from Johnson.  The week before last, there were reports that they were thinking of offering an extension without being asked, as a way of undermining Johnson’s cause.  But it did not happen.

Instead, in the last few days we have heard that some of them just want to see the back of this country.  France in particular is making noises to that effect.  This of course would play directly into Johnson’s hands.  But in their state of utter exasperation with it all – and contempt for what they already know of Johnson the politician – whoever could blame them for that?

We are about to enter something quite unknown in modern Britain: a month in which Parliament has been constitutionally debarred from scrutinising the government.  If indeed the UK crashes out without a deal, last week’s new law notwithstanding, the best hope might be now that the consequences of that event will finally reveal that all the warnings were not Project Fear but fully justified.  A mid-November election might then circle around how to repair the colossal damage wrought by three years of political hooliganism from the Brexit camp.  And that, perhaps, is the optimistic scenario.