Using Brexit as a trojan horse for Trumpism is proving a tougher ride than Johnson and Cummings might have imagined, observes Lindsey German
While the Tories put on a good front of being confident, engaged and in control in the few weeks since Boris Johnson became prime minister, it didn’t survive even the briefest contact with reality outside Downing Street, even if that reality came in the distorted form of the British parliament.
Even before he got out of the room with his supposedly special adviser, the right-wing ideologue Dominic Cummings, he had prorogued parliament to evade any discussion or scrutiny of his behaviour. The anger round this galvanised protests and opposition throughout the country, and by the time Johnson had to face parliament he was already in the process of losing his majority, as one MP crossed the floor of the house to join the Lib Dems while he was speaking.
The loss of majority was compounded by the effective expulsion of 21 Tory MPs who voted against him, whose numbers included two former chancellors, Winston Churchill’s grandson, and a rival leadership candidate, Rory Stewart – who says he will now stand as an independent in the next election. Johnson achieved the unique feat of losing votes from the first day back after recess, and only the second day he had faced parliament as prime minister. In all, he lost four in three days, including one where he wanted to call an election for October 15th. Then his brother resigned from the government and will stand down as an MP. The latest humiliation for him is the resignation from cabinet and party of Amber Rudd.
So crashing and burning before he’s even begun isn’t a good look. There are bitter divisions in the Tories, which will not be easily resolved. Indeed, given the reaction of Tory ‘rebels’, who are mostly bowing out wounded, it may already signal a changing composition of the party.
What does it signify? Firstly that Johnson just isn’t very good. His success as London mayor is always cited in his defence but he won the mayoralty when people were tired of Ken Livingstone and Gordon Brown’s government was at its most unpopular. There is little evidence that he is more than an upper class, entitled, blusterer. His adviser Cummings has a plan which is to unite the different wings of the Leave vote under Johnson, and to smash Corbyn in a straight contest between ‘people’s champion’ Johnson and Marxist fanatic, thus leaving the way open for a right-wing Tory government which can achieve a hard Brexit.
It has to be said that so far Cummings’ plans have backfired – maybe that will change but so far all he has achieved is to make Johnson look stupid. It is always a mistake to attribute big changes to one person rather than wider social forces, and in this sense, Cummings took advantage of the mood over Brexit rather than created it. He may succeed in his strategy – or like the erstwhile right-wing guru Lynton Crosby discovered in 2017 he may find his plans confounded.
That leads to the second point about Johnson’s travails – he is basing his support on the fact that the majority voted Leave in 2016, but his base, in any way you care to define it, is much narrower than that. What Johnson and Cummings are trying to force through is the hardest Trump-style agenda on the back of the Leave vote – but that isn’t what most people voted for. So they are coming up against opposition in the form of their own MPs, very large numbers of those who wanted Remain in the first place, and large sections of the British ruling class which is very unhappy about Brexit, especially a no deal Brexit. Most people in Britain, whichever way they voted, do not want the extreme right-wing policies on offer from this government.
Labour’s retreats too far
While there are major opportunities for Labour and the left because of the Tory travails in the last week, there are also huge dangers. In particular, Labour is in danger of being subsumed into a strategy of defending the ‘national interest’ rather than fighting for its policies and for a general election where it can attempt to form a government and put those policies to the test.
The outrage and anger felt across many parts of society at the antics of the Tories has led to renewed talk of a ‘national government’. We should be clear that this would be one where the Lib Dems, Remain Tories and the like dominated, where Corbyn would be replaced by a leader more acceptable to them, and where the whole strategy would be to abort any form of Brexit, despite the vote in 2016.
Labour has already gone too far down the road of appeasing this wing of parliamentary opinion. Its original plan of no confidencing Johnson was abandoned in favour of parliamentary manoeuvres, and appears to be off the table for now because Jo Swinson is vetoing a Corbyn-led caretaker government. Corbyn’s original response to Johnson’s plan last week for a snap election was 'bring it on' – the entirely correct response. That rapidly morphed into voting against such an election until the legislation to stop no deal was passed. Now it has been passed, the argument is that we can’t trust Johnson so have to wait till mid-October at the earliest before agreeing to one.
While I’m the first to agree we can’t trust Johnson, this is turning into an absurd conspiracy theory which suggests that a government which reduces its majority by the day is in a situation to do any of this. Instead, Johnson will now have six weeks without parliamentary scrutiny where he can make daily pronouncements from Downing Street, backed up by the right-wing media. The decision also makes Labour look like it is frightened of an election, whereas even on present polling it would be unlikely to deliver a Tory majority government, and Labour would gain in support during the course of the election.
But perhaps the most important reason to want an election quickly is that it is the only way to begin to resolve the Brexit question, and it is only what working people deserve. Every day this government is in power is another day where housing, schooling, healthcare, the condition of migrants, the attacks on benefits, all continue.
The polls are not good for Labour. But if it fights on clear class policies over these and other issues, if it promises public ownership, if it attacks inequality and the rich, if it promises abolition of student fees, then it will create clear red water between it and not just the Tories but the Tory-lite Lib Dems and the assorted ragbag of centrists. If, however, it declares as a Remain party in full and puts ‘country before party’, in John McDonnell’s unfortunate phrase, if it seems indistinguishable from the ‘extreme centre’, then it will lose.
What Brutus said
Many on the left have gone along with delaying an election on the grounds that they are playing a longer strategic game. They tacitly agree with Tony Blair’s line that an election now would be an ‘elephant trap’. While there are serious arguments about not giving Johnson what he wants when he wants it, there aren’t many good arguments on the left for delaying an election. And there are lots of examples where delay on clever tactical grounds have led to defeat in less favourable circumstances (not least with Gordon Brown in 2007).
Politics is not just a science but an art, and timing is very important in political decisions. One of my favourite speeches in Shakespeare is from Brutus in Julius Caesar. I’ll just leave it here.
‘There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures’
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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