Interregnum

10 July 2019

Until Tuesday 23 July, when the 1922 Committee announces the Tory party’s decision, we subsist in an interregnum. May’s spending commitments have scant purchase upon her successor; her ribbon-cutting on the world stage counts for similarly round numbers. Nor has the contest between Hunt and Johnson thrown up anything of substance. All we learn is that the constituency associations turn out so relentlessly hostile to May’s Withdrawal Agreement that contenders have found it expedient to belt out that new pub favourite, My Brexit is harder than your Brexit. Meanwhile, the Labour party’s strangulated progress to outright Remain means something only if the new Government loses control of events.

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The last few weeks are best seen as the calm before the storm. The new Prime Minister - OK, let’s admit that Boris is the saloon-bar choice - will start out circumscribed by tactical considerations. He will never escape them. First he must hit the ground running to wrangle the moving parts itemised in Hustings, with new Cabinet and Civil Service appointments, together with wheezes to placate former ministers, the Commons in general and the country at large. Unless he blows up in the next couple of weeks, Boris can expect to win an initial vote of confidence, as no Tory will wish to be seen as failing to give him his initial shot.

Thereafter the logic of events will hem him in. It’s odds-on that he will be able to hold the Commons at bay until his negotiating team returns from Brussels. Then for the crunch. No-one should expect the EU to throw Ireland to the wolves, but it may have wit enough to promise a Canada-style FTA within (say) twenty-four months, coupled with a “resolute preference” (or suchlike guff) not to enforce the backstop. This might well tempt Boris to declare victory, leaving the ERG to stew in the juice of its objections to unconditional payment and prolonged submission to the ECJ; and its complaints that “resolute preference” is less than an Attorney General would recognise as legally binding.

But Boris’ team is obliged to plan for the worst, in turn making it more likely. We see this if we follow the logic through. If Brussels sends our negotiators back with a dusty answer, the new Prime Minister will face just two alternatives. It could be that polling data on the topic will help him along, that is with healthy majorities feeling that the EU has been taking us for a ride. In this case he will have the wherewithal to bulldoze the Commons into no deal with the threat - in extremis the actuality - of an election. Failing that, he is as much stymied as May, in all probability out within his first one hundred days.

Boris’ team would be derelict were it not war-gaming around the central premise that it would be the second worst thing to get their man trapped in this way. The remedy is straightforward. Expect Westminster to take a more forthright tone almost immediately after 23 July. The purpose will be to prep public opinion for a moment when negotiations fail, not just with reports of strenuous preparations for no deal, but more pointedly with an animating narrative: a back-story of three years of EU intransigence, coupled with ingenuous hopes that Brussels might at last see sense. Complaints from May’s former team, domestic Remainers or the EU itself will reinforce messaging along these lines.

But it will also make no deal more likely. No-one should be surprised if a month of disobliging officialese causes Brussels and the Member-States to bridle. We should expect European blow-back at levels sufficient to sap any inclination for an offer which might command Commons support, itself made less likely as domestic opinion stiffens.

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And so to the very worst thing: excitable sorts taking an assertive tone from Government as license for expressions of Jingoism. No-one wants social media swamped with images of mobs burning flags in Belgrave Square. This puts Boris’ team on its mettle to find Goldilocks messages. Loving our neighbours to bits, with particular mention for Ireland; such a shame about the EU bureaucrats who have let us all down. Plenty of goodwill, money and technology for real issues; nothing for concocted or self-inflicted difficulties. Even so, we should brace ourselves. We always knew that the hundred days in prospect after the current interregnum were likely to be a roller-coaster. On reflection, it looks like we should be warming ourselves up to the new fairground owner greasing the skids on the ride. Hang on to your hat.