Boris Johnson’s cynicism will backfire on the Conservatives
The antics of the Prime Minister will make it hard for him to garner parliamentary support for a Brexit deal
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves his hotel as he prepares to attend the second day of the annual Conservative Party conference at the Manchester Central convention complex in Manchester, north-west England on September 30, 2019. PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images
So now we know. Boris Johnson has no reverse gear. The UK prime minister, a man who was once supremely adaptable and used to think on his feet as London mayor, is unable to express a shred of remorse after his humiliation by the Supreme Court. Like an angry motorist who has taken a wrong turn but can’t admit it, he is simply accelerating further into the mire.
His core argument, after his defiant return from New York on Wednesday, was fair enough. Parliament is stuck, he said. Britain needs an election. The public might not trust a second Brexit referendum if it sought to overturn the first. The problem was his tone, and his shamelessness.
Nine weeks into his premiership, Mr Johnson is exuding a casual disregard for the law, for decency and for his opponents, that looks more student bar than national leader. Personally, I regret that the Supreme Court judges have been drawn into politics. But insisting they were “wrong” to rule that he broke the law by advising the Queen to suspend parliament made him look like a sulky schoolboy. And it was monstrous to tell Tracy Brabin, who succeeded the murdered Jo Cox as MP for Batley and Spen, that the best way to honour Cox’s memory will be “to get Brexit done”. Ms Brabin is a thoroughly decent woman, who entered politics out of a sense of duty. In this prime minister, she has encountered a man who lacks the basic sensitivity to depart from the script.
Of course, some of the outrage at Mr Johnson’s behaviour is manufactured. It is hypocritical to claim that the prime minister has any monopoly on extreme language when the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has called a female Tory minister “a stain on humanity”, and the Jewish MP Luciana Berger has had to leave the Labour party to escape horrific anti-Semitic abuse.
All parties are guilty of inflaming tensions. But Mr Johnson is the prime minister. His job is to govern the whole country, not just one part of it; to project dignity, not stoke division. It is one thing to defend the results of a democratic referendum. It is quite another to tell MPs that delivering Brexit will head off death threats. No one’s life should be at risk for saying what they believe.
What his advisers cannot see is that their cynicism could backfire. Mr Johnson’s antics will make it far harder to build the cross-party support needed to get any Brexit deal through parliament. Moreover, his bullying style is strengthening the working relationships between opposition parties which might form a caretaker government in three weeks’ time, and quite possibly a coalition government after an election. Anyone who assumes that Labour’s Marxists would be tempered by the Liberal Democrats in such a government should reflect on their relative ruthlessness.
In politics, you have to be nimble. But Mr Johnson appears oblivious to the changing landscape. He backed Leave in 2016 in the expectation that it would lose but that his chances of succeeding David Cameron as leader of the Conservative party would be boosted. He went all out for a Brexit by October 31, “do or die”, on the assumption that parliament would block it. The plan was then to trigger an election in mid-October, at which he would triumph.
Mr Johnson did not foresee that Labour would refuse to grant that election. Taunting the opposition as “cowardly” for ducking a poll sounds increasingly shrill, when the truth is that no one trusts this government to abide by the Benn Act, which was designed to prevent the UK falling out of the EU with no deal on October 31. Indeed John Major, the former prime minister, has suggested the government may be plotting to bypass the act by delaying its implementation.
Mr Johnson is now scrambling for a deal with the EU by October 19, the date at which the Benn Act requires him to request an extension of Article 50. If there is no deal by then, he might resign and let a caretaker government request the extension and call an election. If that happened, it would be the prime minister who would look like the coward. Rather than trying any more procedural chicanery, Mr Johnson would be better off requesting the extension from the EU and then calling an election.
Despite their public cheers, Conservative MPs are deeply uneasy this week at seeing Mr Johnson unleashed. They had thought they wanted a Greek god to take the fight to Labour. They hadn’t reckoned on the nastiness. Using attack as the best form of defence will soon make him look weak. And an allegation which might once have bounced off him - that as mayor, he signed off government grants to a female friend - is now looming. Mr Johnson used to be impossible to dislike. Now, I would be amazed if his vote holds up among women.
What happened to the mayor who used to attract voters of all backgrounds? He has outsourced his political judgment to a cabal of smug bullies. His director of communications used to taunt David Cameron at rallies dressed in a chicken suit. His business secretary made such exaggerated claims about her career that she was forced to rewrite her CV. His attorney-general is so suffused with his own importance that he has shrugged off his failed advice over prorogation. Why should we put our faith in any of these people?
This charade is turning us all into cynics. While I’d like parliament to find a compromise, I also feel that Brexiters must now ask themselves whether their crusade is worth the price. Right now, a Tory premier is showing scant regard for his cabinet, the monarch and the rule of law. Brexiters might wish to reflect on what will happen when Mr Johnson is succeeded by a prime minister of a different political persuasion.
Camilla Cavendish is a former head of the Downing Street policy unit and a Harvard senior fellow