Boris Johnson in a classroom Boris Johnson visits a free school in Pimlico. Photo: Flickr/Number 10

Labour must take full advantage of Johnson’s weakness, argues Chris Nineham

It’s a commonplace that underestimating your enemy is dangerous. But overestimating them can be an equally costly mistake. It can lead to defensiveness, missed opportunities and in the worst case scenario it can become a self-fulfilling diagnosis.

It’s not just that Boris Johnson has proved to be a bumbling and indecisive leader, far from the image some had of a right-wing hard man with the common touch. Or that
he has no majority in the House of Commons, although that is normally a terminal problem for the head of a British government.

These are expressions of deeper problems. Problem number one is that almost uniquely for a Tory Prime Minister he has far from wholehearted support from the ruling class. The vast bulk of British big capital is firmly in favour of staying in Europe, deeply unhappy with the kind of hard Brexit that Johnson claims to back and horrified at the prospect of a no deal crash out. In normal times, significant sections of big business might well have decided to throw in its lot with Labour to avoid such dire outcomes. But we are new territory where the current leader of the Labour Party has a record of channelling anger against inequality and austerity on a mass scale. For the elites, this is a bigger issue.

Which brings us to Johnson’s problem number two. With the exception of Brexit, the economic programme being peddled by Johnson and the hard right clique around is deeply unpopular. Despite opportunist and partly deceptive promises of more funding for schools and hospitals, his is a cabinet of free marketeers, deeply committed to continuing financialisation and austerity even if by other names. Polls regularly show that this model has lost credibility, a point reinforced in the last few days when Johnson has been confronted by a series of angry voters attacking him over cuts and austerity even in strong leave areas like Doncaster and Rotherham. 

The Financial Times is aware of the dangers. For some time it has been running articles worrying about the legitimacy of neoliberal capitalism. On Wednesday a front page headline complains ‘A rigged capitalism is damaging liberal democracy’. Its lead article gloomily complains of ’an unstable rentier capitalism, weakened competition, feeble productivity growth, high inequality and, not coincidentally, an increasingly degraded democracy.’

This is the general context of Johnson’s more immediate worries. His parliamentary weakness is down to a combination of the popular opposition to the Tories which produced the 2017 Corbyn surge and largely centrist opposition to Brexit which is eroding the Tory Party. Johnson’s suspension of parliament was deeply undemocratic and exposed some home truths about the nature of the British state, but it was mainly an act of weakness. Unless he gets a deal parliament is pretty much a no go area for the beleaguered Prime Minister. A no-deal Brexit would put him further at odds with parliament and the bulk of the ruling class. This is why Johnson has recently shifted emphasis to getting a deal. But fixing the Northern Irish border problem is a huge challenge and the EU’s attitude to the Johnson government is clearly hardening. Even if he was able to get some rapid traction with the EU, getting any deal through parliament would remain a big headache.

For all the bluster of Dominic Cummings and his crew, the view from Number 10 is not pretty. The one bright spot for the moment is that, along with the Brexit Party, they hold the Brexit franchise, and though you wouldn’t know it from reading the liberal media, popular support for Brexit appears to be holding up. By pitching themselves as the party of the people against the establishment on this issue, they hope they will be able to channel widespread discontent with the regime the Tories themselves have been presiding over for the last nine years. 

On this analysis, not pushing for a general election last week has given Johnson some much needed breathing space to stabilise his government and at least try for a deal. The question of a no-deal Brexit now rests with the courts. Efforts to push the Labour leadership into taking an open Remain position would compound the error. They would quite simply reinforce the one narrative that can get Johnson out of a hole. 

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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