The last week in politics has been remarkable, even in a period that has been noticeable for remarkable weeks. The revelation of a series of ‘business meetings’ in Westminster last Christmas, replete with wine, cheese, presents and games has led to what seemed impossible just a few days ago, the possible end of Boris Johnson’s premiership.
But what will that mean for Brexit? Here, our regular contributor, John Walker, gives his personal take on what ‘PartyGate’ could mean for the pro-EU struggle.
In these febrile times, events of the past few weeks in and around Parliament and Number 10 grab our attention, as they should. But the immediate stink of corruption, incompetence and dishonesty must be balanced with the slow burn of the long-term damage to our security, our union and our economy caused by the continuing disaster of Brexit.
The report recently published (The cost of Brexit) on the impact of Brexit is sobering reading. The question arises about what effect the drop in GDP and trade will have on events in the next couple of years and beyond. If you find the dire economic figures surprising, then you haven’t been paying attention. But what will they mean in terms of policy, strategy and actions from the main political parties?
The government will be quite fearful. Their best hope is that no one will pay much attention and the economic malaise will continue to be blamed on Covid.
Assisting the government in this blindness is the Labour front bench. They don’t want to rock the boat in case it frightens their fickle Brexit-supporting northern voters whom they want back, and reminding them of the stupidity of Brexit is not in the plan.
As for Johnson, he just wants to muddle through for a year or so, calculating that the party won’t ditch him close to an election.
He may be in for a shock. If the result of Shropshire North shows a big swing to the Liberal Democrats, then quite a few of his fellow MPs will be sweating. If the Liberal Democrats win, and it’s a possibility, the green benches on the government side will be taking on a darker, more earthy hue.
But would they ditch Johnson, their election-winning man-of-the-people? You bet they would, in a flash. With the Patterson affair fresh in the public’s mind, the Christmas party that wasn’t a party, dog repatriation and a new Covid variant rampaging over Christmas, there will be many in the party thinking that a change is on the cards. Liz Truss is on manoeuvres channelling the shade of the sainted Margaret, and Rishi will be sending out his helpers to ensure a pole position.
Yet there will be some in the party, senior and well-connected on the grandee scale, who will be looking at all this, and the Brexit figures, and thinking that it doesn’t add up. All of the present cabinet, in fact most of the MPs on the Conservative benches, are so invested in Brexit that a change in policy is inconceivable to them. But it won’t be inconceivable to some, those who see the present fixation leading to long-term stagnation and malaise.
Change is coming and you can see it in the difficulties the government has in getting one of its own to put their head above the parapet in the morning media rounds. Even cabinet regulars who can usually be reliably sent to defend the indefensible against enemy flak, are refusing to take fire for Johnson.
If you think that the Conservative party cannot change its mind on Brexit, then think again. All their MPs profess the Brexit dogma, but most were once fervent Europeans and could become so again. And the economic figures are stark and not lying.
If Johnson remains in post until the next election, then the Conservatives would be looking at a much reduced majority at best, and the possibility of a drubbing. However, recent events could be the excuse to dump not only their leader, now a serious liability, but the majority of the current cabinet of Johnson enablers. A new leader, pragmatic and able to face the ERG, could persuade MPs to turn about and accept that a return to the Single Market and Customs Union is in the national interest. How could they be so brass-necked?
I can imagine a Today programme interview talking to, say, Jeremy Hunt, or even a returned Rory Stewart, and hearing how it was still the Brexit that the public voted for, but now retaining, as had always been expected, access to the Single Market and Customs Union. Saying it with a straight face would be difficult, but not impossible.
The Labour party, blind-sided as always, would be left trying to soak up the ex-Labour Brexiters, by now a confused, fractious and disillusioned bunch of angry left-behinds. The Labour party could become the party of Brexit and the Conservatives that of renewing EU links.
There is a dilemma in Labour. Most of the members and activists are urban and urbane, educated, young and internationalist in outlook. Yet they want to appeal to the old Labour stalwarts. There is a veneration of the idea of the working class (the idea, though often not the working class themselves). The appeal of Jeremy Corbyn was of the authentic socialist, an Old Testament prophet bringing the Word from on high. Yet what modern Labour heard was tinged with outmoded ideas and frankly embarrassing opinions. They wanted the wise old prophet who thought exactly like they did, but got a tetchy old man with poor leadership skills as he had previously nothing to lead. The voting public didn’t like what they saw and the prophet was banished back into the wilderness.
In trying to rebuild itself, Labour is trying to strengthen its working-class roots. But that comes at the cost of reduced flexibility. There’s no turning on a sixpence to exploit situations if every change involves a major internal party fight between different wings. So once set on a path to “make Brexit work”, they cannot exploit new data showing the failings of an unworkable Brexit.
Starmer is probably trying to work out if it is better to oust Johnson soon using a full-on studs-up attack. If it succeeds a major scalp would cement his position as a strong Labour leader. But it would give the Conservatives time to regroup under a new leader. Maybe, he calculates, it’s better to let Johnson limp on until the next election and take him out then rather than risk fighting fresh blood.
But that next term, 2024 to 2029, must be a poisoned chalice. Dire finances from the fall in trade, the huge debts incurred to keep thing going under Covid, threats to the union from Scots Nats and then the loyalist voters of Northern Ireland finally coming to terms with their humiliation. There are no safe and easy routes through this swamp.
If there is a major government collapse with mass resignations including that of the Prime Minister. If there is a general election putting in a government with a mandate to clean up the cesspit left by Johnson. If the new government can persuade the country that their task is recovery and renewal. If major constitutional reforms are seen as the price to be paid to escape our present ignominy. All those ifs need to align. Let’s see how lucky we can become.