Floundering

30 September 2019

Dominic Cummings may have a brain the size of a planet, but no-one wants to see their boss cheesing off party grandees, the Commons and the Supreme Court all in one go, then leave half the population wondering about his safety in taxis. Best to say that things aren’t going 100% to plan and Johnson’s antagonists, be they Judges, principled Remainers, Her Majesty’s Opposition at its most opportunistic, or journos raking over twenty-year old coals, have him on the back foot. His rowdy instincts are pushing him into choppy seas. Johnsonian dog-whistles are getting uncomfortably close to the play-book from across the pond, provoking his adversaries, animating his supporters and damaging public discourse.

Of course, there is a sense in which some of his ill-chosen words are right. There is an enormous amount of humbug around, but you know, time and place… Meanwhile, the Government gives every appearance of floundering: it has but one supervening policy - get Brexit done; and apparently but one strategy - put it to the voters. There, we must give credit to Tony Blair who warned Corbyn off a premature vote of no confidence, ushering in a parliamentary stance which may make the Labour party look silly, but has certainly left Johnson high and dry.

How is the Prime Minister to escape the predicament in which he finds himself? No doubt there will be an election within a couple of months, but he will not find it easy to go to the country apologising for missing a deadline he has turned into an article of faith. Voters do not reward leaders who have failed and blaming the other fellow looks even worse. So how then is Johnson to keep his word and leave in thirty-one days?

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Maybe he will have a deal. If so, it can’t be more than lipstick on a pig. There is little evidence of Johnson putting much forward on the backstop, though mind you, Moses himself could come to Brussels with tablets of stone and Barnier would say he’d seen nothing concrete. On the other hand, there is no evidence whatever that our negotiators are raising either money or adjudication. So it could well be that the team is going for May’s deal with some frills.

The biggest hurdle to this is not the formal Parliamentary opposition but the Spartans of the ERG. This suggests one explanation for Johnson’s inflammatory tactics. Consider the timeworn if brutal motivational technique: lambast the guy on the left to goose up the one on the right. This would be on a view that the brouhaha upsetting Labour MPs is at least as much upsetting Tories, who in the nature of things deplore turmoil. On this view, Boris’s tactic (Cummings’ tactic? we know he despises the ERG) would be to make the Spartans reconsider the price of voting down a deal.

So far, the conduct of the ERG at the Tory conference shows little evidence of thinking again. But you know what? they could always see it another way. After all we’ve been granting something along the lines of extraterritorial jurisdiction to the Americans since 1943, in agreements for first Army, then Air Force, bases. And that £39bn: maybe it’s not so much over several years compared to a £800bn budget or a £2tn economy. Not so long from now, the Spartans could find themselves scratching their heads about these things.

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Alternatively, Boris will have no deal. How then to overcome the Benn Act? There is late-night talk of Orders of Council, self-denying letters to Brussels, or invoking the Civil Contingency Act. This seems loopy. Outright defiance would take the Government back to a Supreme Court which has given a unanimous signal of its lack of sympathy. What’s more, no matter how much fun it may be to preach to the converted with talk of Benn’s “Surrender Act”, it would be disastrous to perpetrate events which gave Remainers grounds to challenge the legitimacy of the very act of departure from the EU.

Might one of the EU member states be persuaded to help Boris out by vetoing an extension? These are deep waters but can’t be ruled out. We see this if we look at the sums. The figure most often ventilated for our contribution to the EU is £1bn a month, that is £12bn or €13.6bn pa. To take some more figures out of the air, the Estonian budget is forecast to be €11.3bn for 2019. That’s a tidy sum, but still less than the annual contribution we would be saving. Or look at some of the tiddlers: last year Cyprus’ budget was €889m and Malta’s was €210m. These are rounding errors to HM Treasury and some may feel giving scope for backhanders to EU Member-States pushing things along in the right way.

Admittedly, these are the nether reaches of speculation, but what else do we have to go on? The dog and pony shows in Manchester and Westminster tell us nothing, particularly now the opposition has given up for this week on a caretaker “send a letter” administration. Then again, it’s all too likely that the Government is doing no more than what it looks like - floundering.