We have a new PM. During his leadership campaign Boris Johnson adopted the harshest of language on Brexit. This was of little surprise to me. After all, it was the votes of the Conservative membership he was courting, not those of the wider country.
YouGov polled Conservative party members in June. On virtually every measure, from breaking up the Union to crashing the economy, the party faithful thought Brexit would be worth it. In fact, the only step too far was a Corbyn government, and then only narrowly (51%) with 39% being happy to deliver Brexit if it led to that scenario. Nearly half (46%) would be happy to see Nigel Farage become leader. I have no doubt that this information did and will continue to colour the actions of our new Prime Minister.
The new appointments to cabinet also speak volumes. We are witness to the biggest of political manoeuvres of recent history. Johnson is not fighting an ideological battle to deliver Brexit. Remember when he infamously wrote both a pro and leave EU column in the run up to the referendum?
Whatever the posturing, there are some realities to overcome. The Conservatives do not command a majority in the House. The will of Parliament remains against a WTO/no-deal Brexit. Those buoyed by the hardline Brexit rhetoric in parliament are likely to be offset by those loudly speaking in opposition to it. More remain MPs than Brexit backing MPs may be nervous about their seats come the next election based on 2016's referendum result, but nearly six million marched against Brexit, and overtly pro-EU parties in the European elections attracted roughly the same as the Brexit party. The ‘Brexiteers’ are talking a confident fight but they will be calculating popular opinion and potential voter intentions perhaps more than displaying a pure belief in Brexit.
In March I made some predictions - how did I fare? I said I did not think we would crash out of the EU on 29 March. We didn’t. I thought a longer delay would be granted and we’d take part in the EU elections. It was and we did. I thought we might have a series of indicative votes but that these would take us no further forward because Brexit as a single idea cannot command a consensus. I thought May or MPs might push for a revocation of A50 if public opinion continued to shift against the referendum result. That didn’t happen.
Overall we are where we have been for some time. Deadlock. There is no easy way out. So what happens now?
I believe that Johnson is not, despite his protests to the contrary, an ideological believer in Brexit. Former senior Conservative minister, Lord Heseltine, rather cuttingly said Johnson, ‘waits to see the way the crowd is running then dashes in front’. Whether you love him or loathe him there is no doubting that Johnson reads the political landscape rather well. He has timed his move for Number 10 perfectly and will wish to remain there.
As in the run up to the referendum, Johnson will now have two strategies; one a hardline exit and the other binning Brexit entirely. Which way he will jump will depend on the mood in the country and whether the ‘Remainers’ unite. He will have no fear about junking his strategies at a moment’s notice if needed. His decision not to stand in the last leadership contest is testimony to this. Johnson fights to win.
I think a deal is dead. In my view it is improbable that, having united for the past three years, the EU will suddenly shift on the big stumbling blocks. It’s not impossible of course, but would be against the flow thus far. I don’t think we will crash out on 31 October - he doesn’t have a majority, and MPs on both sides of the House don’t have the stomach for it. Revocation of A50 is more remote because remain-leaning MPs have failed to unite behind a single position meaning votes in a general election would be split.
In my view, the polls will hold the key. A general election will only be called if it’s almost certain that Brexit party supporters would back Johnson and opposition parties continue in disarray. Johnson will remember that in the run up to the last election May thought Labour could be put to the sword and then only succeeded in losing her majority. He will be loathed to repeat the experience.
If the polls show a shift towards remain (particularly if they show a shift towards a remain-backing Corbyn’s Labour) Johnson will not call an election, preferring instead to revoke A50, blame it on the remain camp and the EU and sit it out until the next election. To be safe, charities should plan for the possibility of both a general election and a no deal.
I will leave one final observation. I have deliberately referred in this to ‘Johnson’ and not Boris. Whatever your political persuasion our new PM is neither a buffoon or a jester - he is a deliberate political being who has purpose in everything he does. Take him seriously.
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