05 September 2019, The Tablet

Is the Brexit tide turning?

Johnson has made his survival - and the prospect of Brexit ever happening at all - depend on one entity he cannot control, the Labour Party

Is the Brexit tide turning?

Demonstrators gather outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, on Sept. 4, 2019
unreguser/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

One should be careful about writing history before it has happened, but it may yet turn out that Wednesday 4 September 2019 was the high watermark of Brexit. In other words, from that point on the Brexit tide turned and the waters began to recede.

Boris Johnson had effectively transformed the Conservative Party into the Brexit Party (though he will have to call it something else as that name is already taken), or rather, by midweek, the "No-deal Brexit Party". Those Tories who'd voted to stop him taking the UK out of the EU without a deal were promptly expelled from the Party. It has become the acid test of a true believer.

And so Kenneth Clarke, Father of the House and wise old man of the right, became officially an Independent, as did Sir Nicholas Soames, who has Churchillian blood in his veins and who could have been said, not long ago, to personify Conservatism. They both felt Boris Johnson's party had left them, rather than they, it.

Boris Johnson's government suffered three heavy defeats in a row. So a general election is in the offing, and the question of the moment is this: could the public ever elect the No-deal Brexit Party as the party of Government? Johnson has put all his eggs in this one basket, and it will make little difference whether people are pleased or disappointed by the Spending Review announced by the Chancellor earlier in the day, when the Government itself insists that Brexit is the primary issue. So it's £X billions more for the police or £Y billions more for hospitals - not nearly enough to make good, as the Opposition unkindly pointed out, the many times more than X or Y billions taken away from those deserving causes over the last few years of Austerity. But it's a start.

And this is one of the mysterious contradictions of British politics at the moment. The Johnson cabinet was stuffed with right-wing Thatcherites, because they are the Tories most likely to want Britain to leave the EU. The distinctive characteristic of a Thatcherite is a burning desire to "shrink the State", by privatising and contracting out, by starving public agencies of funding, and by passing the taxes thereby saved back to the taxpayer.

Margaret Thatcher's own conversion from pro to anti EU was when she declared, in her famous Bruges address, that she hadn't put all that work into shrinking the State, only to see the EU expanding it again. No and no and again no.

Austerity was merely the camouflage for this policy, to explain to non-believers why it was necessary. But the Spending Review announced on Wednesday was a complete reversal of that policy. The State is being allowed to expand again. The Thatcherites have presumably swallowed this because they see it as another stage in the Battle of Brexit, the only thing that really matters to them. Austerity was costing them votes; they might even lose an election because of it. And winning an election was necessary in order to secure Brexit. So they said to themselves "We'll let the State grow a little now, and squeeze it back later."

Mr Johnson on the other hand does not look or sound like a Thatcherite. His critics may say there isn't a principled bone in his whole body, but what that means in this connection is that he is not an ideologue. He's a pragmatist, with only one burning conviction - that he ought to be in charge. If No-deal Brexit helps that, then No-deal Brexit it is; if ending austerity also helps, then do that too.

But - and it is the biggest but of all - the public does not want a no-deal Brexit, whether the pill is sweetened by ending austerity or not. Collapsing all Boris Johnson's options down to this one is a huge gamble. And he has made his survival - and the prospect of Brexit ever happening at all - depend on one entity he cannot control, the Labour Party. Labour could easily win the forthcoming election. The widely shared assumption they would not was based on the appeal of the personal charisma of the Tory leader compared with Labour's dull challenger, Jeremy Corbyn, who faces a daily bombardment of insulting invective from the right-wing press.

But one crucial thing happened on Wednesday which could neutralise Boris Johnson's personal appeal. He wasn't a fun guy any more. He was looking tarnished, ratty and peevish, not likeable at all. While Corbyn looked his usual unexciting self. If Labour got into power, even as a minority government, another referendum would become inevitable. And after the fiasco of No-deal Brexit this week, there's a very good chance Remain would win it.

What do you think?


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