Ex No 10 insider: This is exactly what Johnson wanted

Our undercover corporate lobbyist unpicks the PM's strategy.

by The Secret Brexiter
Last Updated: 12 Sep 2019

Ask yourself a simple question: when Boris Johnson headed to each of his six Commons defeats in as many days, do you really think he expected to win? 

Much of the Westminster commentariat has interpreted his Parliamentary reversals - MPs passing the bill forcing him to request an extension, the loss of his working majority, the failure to call a general election, now possibly having his decision to prorogue Parliament overruled by the courts - as tactical blunders, when it’s far more likely they were deliberate, if high-risk, strategic plays.

It’s true that expelling the likes of Philip Hammond, Ken Clarke and Nicholas Soames has sundered the Parliamentary Conservative party, helping to create the rebel alliance that has taken control of the Brexit agenda in the Commons, but Johnson knew he wasn’t going to win that battle anyway. 

To win the new British civil war, he knows that there are only two battles that count. Either he has to win a general election decisively, or he has to pull off what Theresa May couldn’t, and find a Brexit deal with Europe that could actually pass the Commons. Seen in this light, his decisions don’t seem so foolish.

A deal

It's easy to forget that, technically, negotiations are still ongoing with the EU. Expelling Tory remainers sent an important message to Europe that the PM really means it when he says he’ll deliver Brexit by October 31, do or die, to the extent that he was willing to sacrifice the sacred unity of the Conservative Party and even consider flouting the rule of law - as Ian Duncan Smith has said, to become a martyr for Brexit.

Don’t doubt that he means it - opposition parties would love to force the PM to break his word and ask for an extension, a capitulation that would significantly increase their chances in an election, but the PM backtracking seems unlikely to me.

It’s brinkmanship, but brinkmanship sometimes works. The EU will want to be reasonable and give the PM something to take back to Parliament. He might not fully like what he is offered, he may have to throw the DUP under a bus by agreeing a Northern Ireland-only backstop, but it might just be enough to allow him to fight another day.

After all, a revised deal would be a form of exquisite torture for Labour MPs, many of whom are deeply uncomortable with the idea of a second referendum or campaigning for Remain in an election, and would find the chance to stop no deal without resorting to these options mighty tempting. At the same time, Brexiter Conservatives would now know they would face losing the whip if they rebelled, and expelled members may even get a way back into the party if they vote for it.

Should MPs still reject the deal it may be that the EU will save the PM’s blushes by calling a halt to the whole charade themselves, in the absence of any likelihood of progress - an impression that Johnson’s strategy will have greatly strengthened these last two weeks. 

If that doesn’t happen, I think the PM would have every justification in throwing in the towel, forcing Jeremy Corbyn to go to the EU to ask for an extension - or as the Conservatives (still led by Johnson, no doubt) will put it to the people in the ensuing General Election, to surrender to the enemy. 

An election

A whole swathe of the commentariat is yet again in danger of missing a sea change in British politics: the British have got religion over Brexit. They won’t shift their beliefs over some legal ruling or an act of Parliament, and outside of Remainer dinner parties, many people rather admire the way Boris Johnson has "stuck it to Parliament". 

In this analysis MPs may have won a battle in the Commons chamber but lost a war in the way it played out in the country - bitter Remainers with no plan trying to block the people’s Brexit. Even the courts’ intervention on the legality of prorogation plans into the narrative of an overpowered elite, "enemies of the people" as the famous newspaper headline put it. 

Viewed in the light of this public sentiment, the PM trying to find a way around or ignore the law requesting an extension, or, remarkable though it may seem, cancelling the recall of Parliament  altogether, may actually be attractive to enough voters in enough seats to make it a worthwhile choice. Over recent months the utterly ridiculous has somehow become bizarrely reasonable.

Of course, you can overplay this hand and risk alienating so many moderate voters that you embolden your opponents, and this seems to explain the push-very-hard-but-not-quite-over-the-edge strategy being deployed by the government.

Expect the General Election campaign, when it comes, to be like nothing we have seen before. On the surface it will be brutal, potentially even violent at times, but behind the scenes and across social media it will be rooted in a deep understanding of voters’ intentions, hopes and fears. 

Alan Turing’s genius in decoding the Enigma machine is credited with helping to win the Second World War. Johnson will hope he has his own Turing in Dominic Cummings, using data science to help him win the Brexit civil war and gain a compelling Parliamentary majority for his position (and Brexit becomes a lot, lot easier if the government has a workable majority).

Perhaps the greatest challenge to that approach is Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party, which dismantled Conservative support in the European elections. To avoid a similar fate in a General Election, Johnson’s strategy has been to starve it of oxygen by mimicking some of its hardline messaging, but don’t count the newcomers out. 

The Brexit Party has, with little coverage, been travelling UK towns to take their message out to the public. What’s striking is their focus on bringing some "common sense" to politics, trusting the voter - ordinary people, not policy experts. There is a strong anti-London, anti-metropolitan elite, anti-intelligentsia, anti-Remain focus to this narrative. Indeed the Brexit Party’s prospective Parliamentary candidates will be ordinary men and women from diverse backgrounds, all of them calling for a fresh start to bring back hope. 

Although Downing Street has rejected the pact offered by Farage, it might ultimately prove necessary if the pro-Leave parties hope to defeat tactical voting from their Remain opponents. 

Whatever the result, we won’t return to business as usual - we are well beyond that. The reshaping of the political system under which British business must operate will continue for many years to come.

Image credit: Chatham House/Flickr (Creative Commons)

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