Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Springtime for Johnson

In 2016 Boris Johnson famously wrote two alternative articles for the Telegraph, one backing remain and the other leave. He finally plumped for leave and reportedly told David Cameron that he expected to be defeated. It was a ploy to win a support base so that he could be next in line as Cameron's replacement. Echoing the plot of Mel Brook's 'The Producers,' he won a referendum that he intended to lose.

The consequences of winning are often more troublesome than those of losing. Losing allows rhetoric to continue unexamined. Winning brings the burden of implementing victory. That is far more difficult. In the case of Brexit, probably the most complex task any government has ever undertaken since the Second World War. The winning rhetoric was all about immediacy, simplicity, and huge benefits. The reality was that it would take many years of untangling our economy from Europe, be immensely complex with unpredictable consequences, and prove costly and yield no benefits. In the wake of the referendum, Johnson's leadership bid failed. That would have been the end of it if it hadn't been for the government making a complete mess of the process. Never a good idea, Brexit is now a comprehensive failure. The consequences are very clear. Any form of Brexit will:

a) Make the country relatively poorer.
b) Damage the country's international standing and strategic interests.
c) Reduce its power and control.

No-deal Brexit will do this in spades and adds immediate and unpredictable chaos. For what?

For the ultimate symbolism of blue passports, designed in France and printed in Poland?

Unlike 'The Producers,' Johnson profited from the mess. He got a second chance and is Prime Minister. But he arrived at No.10 in a crisis and only got there by using wild and irresponsible rhetoric to play to unrepresentative party members.

He is now demanding that the EU renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement to remove the Northern Ireland Backstop. They will not. He will fail. He says he is determined to default to a no-deal and is ratcheting up the noise. If he is trying to bluff the EU, that too will fail. He must know this. So, does he intend to carry through with no-deal against the wishes of Parliament, business, all major institutions, and public opinion? It would destroy his premiership. Is he a secret ideologue, longing to fulfil his Churchill fantasies by leading his country in an existential struggle against its … er … allies? Or perhaps he is bluffing us and his party, not the EU?

Johnson's tactic may be to defuse the ability of the Brexit Party to split the Tory vote in an early election and win a secure majority against a divided opposition, possible on as little as 30% of the vote. But even if this works, for all the sound and fury there will still be only three Brexit options for the UK: leave through the existing withdrawal agreement; leave without an agreement (no-deal); revoke and remain in the EU. One of these must be chosen.

The whole business is so strange, I can't help wondering if, whether by accident or design, this is another Producers tactic. It may be wishful thinking on my part, but, once he has glimpsed the abyss, will he refuse to jump like Tsipras before him? To be even more Machiavellian (or Mel Brooksian), his personal interest lies in failure as long as it is clear that he has tried hard and that it's someone else's fault. He may be eyeing the gathering Parliamentary opposition with glee, rather than fear. This could be the only time a Cavalier is delighted to see a Roundhead army assembling to oppose him.

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