Drunk on power, UK prime minister Boris Johnson and his advisers have overplayed their hand. There was logic in the view that their best hope of getting a better deal from the EU was to go to the brink. But the attempt to show Brussels that parliament could not derail Brexit has left the country in a limbo which could become purgatory — if the opposition decide to draw things out.
If Theresa May’s administration was a slow-motion car crash in sepia, Mr Johnson’s feels like an accelerated version in Technicolor. Having lost his parliamentary majority on Tuesday and his own brother from the government on Thursday, the prime minister held what was effectively the launch of his election campaign flanked by phalanxes of police cadets in uniform. He cracked jokes to try to defuse the Gestapo look. Rather than making the Conservatives look the responsible party of law and order, the stunt suggested that the rambling Mr Johnson should be charged with “wasting police time”. The tone is wrong; the unforced errors mount up.
Getting into office can turn people’s heads. A prime minister’s power is at its maximum in the first few weeks, when he makes appointments, and the media is forgiving. After that, experienced politicians know how easily they can be thwarted by events, backbenchers or civil servants. But some are intoxicated.
Advisors are especially prone to imagining themselves as heroic characters from the television show The West Wing, only to end up swaggering like bullies in The Thick of It. Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s strategy director, became a liability. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s press secretary, became the story. Each had bosses who told them to cool it. Mr Johnson and his top aide Dominic Cummings seem to be swaggering in lockstep at a time when they need deftness in building relationships.
Number 10’s strategy was to take the UK out of the EU on October 31 and cement power through an early election against hapless Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. To win that election and maximise his chances in Brussels, Boris Johnson sought to convince Brexit party leader Nigel Farage — and the EU — that he was serious about no deal. He ousted wobbly cabinet ministers, purged Tory rebels, and refused to contemplate requesting any Article 50 extension.
This was ugly, but it was leadership. Until this week Mr Johnson had momentum and optimism. But the bullies failed to realise that others could refuse to play their game. The decision to suspend parliament galvanised rebels into trying to outlaw no deal through a bill seeking an extension to Article 50.
Mr Johnson’s team wildly underestimated how many Tory MPs would join the rebellion and how many more, like the prime minister’s brother Jo Johnson, would simply walk away. Moderate Conservatives who have endured years of attacks on the so-called “nasty party” resent the caricature being brought to life. They don’t want to be badged a “lying Tory”, like House leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose contemptuous lounging on the front bench went viral during Tuesday’s historic debate.
Many MPs are expendable. The public see parliament as a talking shop full of spineless mediocrities. But it is risky to lose strong personalities who held marginal seats, such as Justine Greening in Putney. In alienating Ruth Davidson, who resigned as Scottish Conservative leader, Mr Johnson has likely lost at least 10 seats north of the border. The arrogance of his refusal to reappoint Ms Davidson’s ally David Mundell to the cabinet this summer was bewildering. He hopes to secure a majority by compensating for these losses elsewhere, scooping up working class Leaver votes in the Midlands and North East. But that was Mrs May’s strategy in 2017. She failed.
Mr Corbyn has called Mr Johnson’s bluff, refusing to agree to a snap election until he is sure that the bill requiring an Article 50 extension is on the statute book. Mr Johnson is gleefully bashing the Labour leader as a chicken, hoping he will cave in on Monday.
But senior Labour figures are urging their leader to wait until Mr Johnson has either secured a new deal or formally requested an extension. To circumvent this, the government is contemplating calling an election in a one-line bill on Monday. That too is risky: the bill could be amended to reduce the voting age to 16, which would benefit Remain parties.
Britain needs an election, even if it fails to resolve the impasse. A minority government cannot stumble on. I still think Mr Johnson can win, if he unites the Leave side. Divided parties do not generally win elections, but the Labour party is also split, and the Remain vote is splintered among Labour, the Scottish National Party and resurgent Liberal Democrats. The government’s brazen electoral bribes in the spending review, which undermined all Conservative claims to prudence, may prove popular.
Equally, voters with election fatigue may wonder why Mr Johnson is playing games when he should be negotiating with Brussels. It is beginning to filter through to people that no deal, far from “getting Brexit over”, would simply mean returning to the table with different leverage.
Government’s responsibility is generally to defuse crises. But this government is led by a man who stoked a crisis, used it to take power and is now stoking it again. As mayor of London, Mr Johnson’s popularity soared after he got stuck on a zip wire at a pre-Olympic event, and turned it into a glorious moment of buffoonery.
As prime minister, being impotent on the high-wire is no joke. There is only so long you can fill the vacuum with bluster.
The writer, a former head of the Downing Street policy unit, is a Harvard senior fellow
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