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Boris Johnson in Parliament, September 2019. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Boris Johnson in Parliament, September 2019. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There is still hope for Labour to take power but they must take advantage of flagrant weaknesses in the Tory party, argues Alex Snowden

What is Boris Johnson playing at? Many people assume, perhaps understandably, that there is no coherent strategy at work. It can appear like that when the government lurches from crisis to crisis. Conversely, there is a widespread anxiety on the left that every Tory twist and turn is part of a grand strategy, masterminded by the prime minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings, designed to trick and trap Labour.

There is a political and strategic direction that can be discerned from the chaos and confusion. This doesn’t mean that every development is deliberate and part of a larger plan. The Tory leadership is far from being fully in control of events and there have undoubtedly been mis-steps.

Fundamentally, Johnson and his team are approaching the current political crisis from a position of profound weakness with long-term roots. Nonetheless it would be mistaken to assume that Downing Street’s actions are either improvised or irrational. There is a peculiar logic at work.

Tory crisis

Boris Johnson inherited a profoundly crisis-ridden party and government. The 2016 referendum result created a rift between the Tory government (overseeing EU exit) and the ruling class it seeks to represent, which is overwhelmingly pro-EU. The 2017 general election robbed the government of its small majority and much of its authority.

Theresa May’s repeated humiliations, and ultimately her downfall, starkly illustrated the impossibility of pushing through a Brexit deal with the current parliamentary arithmetic, the deep divisions on the Tory benches, and the tensions between the Tories and the class they seek to represent.

Johnson took over as party leader and as prime minister with a mandate from Tory MPs and members for a harder line on Brexit. Polling of party members indicated the very high priority they give to seeing Brexit through, rivalled only by their desire to prevent a left government led by Jeremy Corbyn. Such prospects as the break-up of the United Kingdom and acute economic problems are, in their view, worth risking if the result is departure from the EU, preferably sooner rather than later.

It is often supposed that Boris Johnson wants a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Not so. He would much prefer a deal. This has both economic and political benefits. It is much preferred by the British state and the ruling class.

The prime minister and his allies are, however, more willing to leave without a deal than Theresa May and Phillip Hammond were. This reflects a number of important pressures, including from the Tory grassroots, many Tory MPs and the external threat from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

Westminster drama and an election

In this context we have seen the parliamentary and political drama of the last three weeks. There was the extraordinary - and highly contentious - announcement of the suspension of parliament. This was followed by a series of setbacks and defeats once parliament returned: a number of Commons defeats for the new prime minister, the removing of the Tory whip from 21 MPs, resignations by Amber Rudd and Jo Johnson, and the growing tensions with Scotland highlighted by Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson resigning her post.

It was in this context that Johnson unsuccessfully pushed - twice in the Commons - for a general election on 15 October. This was essentially an act of desperation, not the tactical masterstroke and devious trap that many in Labour imagined it to be. Johnson could see that an early election, coming relatively soon after he became prime minister and before the UK’s departure from the EU, could be better than the alternatives.

An election is necessary for the Tories precisely because of the numbers in parliament and the severe difficulties in getting a deal from the EU that is politically acceptable. An election, whenever exactly it happens, brings enormous dangers for the Tories. They are haunted by the hugely disappointing results of May’s mistaken gamble in 2017 and by the possibility of a Corbyn-led administration.

A major advantage of the push for a mid-October election was that it allowed the Tories to position themselves as championing a democratic resolution to the crisis. This is the Johnson/Cummings strategy: frame the prime minister as a strong champion of the people’s will to leave the EU versus parliament, a Remainer body determined to frustrate the will of the people by obstructing not merely a ‘no deal’ outcome but any form of Brexit. On that basis, Johnson’s team hope to largely unite those who voted Leave in 2016 behind the Tories.

This approach also exploits the weariness of many voters. There is a constituency of dedicated Leavers and there is a constituency of dedicated Remainers, but there is a still larger number of people who just want the whole business over with. Many commentators have been fixated with the Westminster drama while not noticing that most of the wider population is not similarly transfixed and would rather like politics to move on from the current Brexit obsession.

Johnson and Cummings are prepared to alienate and indeed lose a raft of MPs - to, more generally, accentuate the divisions - in pursuit of a populist strategy built around perceived determination to take the country out of the EU. Their aims are twofold: win an election and oversee Brexit (possibly in that order, possibly not). These are far more important imperatives that preserving the unity of the existing parliamentary party or winning Commons votes.

Johnson’s next steps

The current approach is roughly as follows. Try to get a deal with Brussels (Johnson is meeting Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, on Monday). This is likely to be more of a withdrawal agreement with a lot still to be decided, rather than a fully-fledged deal.

Put pressure, if necessary through disciplinary threats as well as via a charm offensive, on the most hardline Eurosceptic Tory MPs (and the DUP) to accept it. This includes negotiating a compromise on the Irish backstop that preserves openness between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland while not upsetting the DUP too much.

Debate any deal in an intense couple of weeks in parliament, rally the dissident ex-Tories and DUP behind it partly through fear of Corbyn, and (on the same basis) avert a threatened no-confidence vote. This process will allow the Tories to present themselves as the party capable of delivering Brexit and respectful of the popular will.

There are economic risks and political risks. Johnson’s hope is that any short-term negative economic consequences of striking a deal will be minimal (probably a correct forecast) and that the deal will be sufficiently acceptable to right-wing Brexiteers to prevent any serious political backlash, which could potentially include votes for the Brexit Party at a general election. An election could then be held in early spring, with the Tories gaining somewhat from a ‘delivering Brexit bounce’ but without suffering from a dire economic situation.

Labour’s dangers and opportunities

It might work for the Tories. It might not. The numbers in the Commons mean that an election is inevitable at some point, but postponing it until 2020 could prove viable. If that happens it will be clear that Labour made a serious error in voting against a 15 October election. In politics it pays to seize your moment. And not doing so can lead to paying a heavy price.

This complex picture highlights the need for agitation around a general election, including the 29 September demonstration at Tory conference called by the People’s Assembly. An election before Christmas cannot simply be taken for granted. It would be extremely naive and misguided to believe, as some on the left do, that things can only get worse for the Tories.

Mired in crisis they may be, but - as indicated above - a path to winning an election is possible for the Tories. For Labour, a strategy based around putting off an election while focusing heavily on Brexit and on parliamentary alliances would be potentially fatal.

The alternative for Labour is to get the debate out into wider society - and to move beyond Brexit by respecting the 2016 referendum result while focusing on developing alternative approaches to a Tory version of Brexit. Push for a general election, start mass campaigning now, develop more radical policies, and broaden the debate out from Brexit.

There is a path to 10 Downing Street for Jeremy Corbyn, just as surely as there is a path to five more years of Boris Johnson, but it depends heavily on what Labour does next.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​

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