Bonfire of the Pieties
In his speech immediately following the defeat of the government’s programme motion last night, Jeremy Corbyn said that the Commons had ‘emphatically rejected the prime minister’s deal’. Johnson, in his response, proclaimed his joy that parliament had got behind a deal, but lamented its relapse into delay. That two diametrically opposed politicians can look at the same vote and both interpret it as a victory suggests little progress has been made. In truth, neither was right: 19 rebel Labour MPs voted for the second reading of Johnson’s bill in the hope of finding a way through the mire; but most of them voted against the attempt to bounce the deal through with minimal scrutiny. It is unclear that an amended bill would be acceptable to the government, and unlikely that an unamended bill would pass third reading. MPs don’t seem resolute so much as exhausted. In this, at least, the Commons reflects the country.
Johnson’s response was as interesting for what he failed to say as what he did. There was no mention of the 31 October deadline – a tacit acceptance that the extension he has railed against as ‘surrender’ and ‘betrayal’ is inevitable. Earlier in the day, Number 10’s press operation had briefed various nuclear options to the press: the government would go on strike, or would move immediately for a general election. The PM did not press his red button, though the briefing got the coverage he had hoped for, as lobby correspondents dutifully regurgitated the spin.
The prime minister’s mendacity is proverbial, but the two faces presented by Number 10 are not disconnected. If you tried to reconstruct Johnson’s politics purely from Downing Street’s spin, you would see a rule-shattering iconoclast, happy to smash parliamentary niceties and conventions on the altar of Brexit. If you looked only at the political record, a man of greater hesitation and timidity would emerge: certainly willing to push every procedural envelope in the book – as with the unlawful prorogation attempt – but consistently brought to heel by parliament, and less determined to try its strength than he claims. Take them together, and you see an establishment politician reliant on cavilling and jibing to work the tabloid press into an anti-systemic frenzy, hoping to ride such a wave through an election into a more conventional and sedate parliament.
There are risks to Johnson’s position: the government’s proposed timetable was an attempt not only to meet the 31 October deadline, but to push the revised withdrawal agreement through with minimal opportunity for scrutiny and dissent. The ERG may find it hard to accept the European Court’s dominance and the proposed UK-EU joint committee. And a longer debate on the bill’s substance is likely to see the weak promises on workers’ rights – essential cover for rebel Labour MPs – unravel. Amendments to strengthen those promises, however, would need the support of former Tory rebels – Boles, Rudd, Stewart – and nothing in their voting records suggests they’d be inclined to give it.
Though things haven’t gone Johnson’s way, he has his consolation prize. Last night, Tory social media pilloried Labour for delaying Brexit, while the Liberal Democrats attacked Labour MPs for propping up Johnson’s deal. The Labour Party’s internal discipline is weak: members have clamoured for the removal of the whip from MPs supporting Johnson, but its leadership fears a worse split, and with even less benefit, than the prime minister provoked in his own party by such measures. The hard core of Labour rebels are impossible to discipline: standing down at the next election, they are demob happy and immune to threats. That some of them abstained on last night’s programme motion rather than voting with the government is a result of sweet-talking from the leadership, not whip-cracking.
Labour’s woes are a symptom of its long-standing conviction that it is a party of the whole nation, not one of its constituent factions or strata. Blair’s assertion that Labour was the ‘political arm of the British people as a whole’ was not merely third-way delusion wrapped in soft nationalism, but a theme to which the party frequently returns; little wonder its divisions are so sharp, or that it feels instinctive revulsion for the political strategy of Liberal Democrats, who seek to mobilise a fervent fifth of the country.
The party’s parliamentary options are very few: amendments for a Customs Union or a new referendum are unlikely to pass. If an extension is guaranteed by Brussels, Labour’s only plausible option is to seek a general election without passing Johnson’s deal, and put its future in the hands of its campaigning membership.
Some Labour strategists console themselves that Johnson has experienced defeat in both the Commons and the courts, and will be unable to meet his Halloween deadline. Doubtless these are blows, but the Conservatives are good at reconciling themselves to imperfect victories; they will also hope that a Brexit deal of any species will further deflate Farage, however much he thunders. Politics and law are entwined but distinct: the field of the political is broader, less predictable and more perverse. The expectation that a procedural or legal defeat for the prime minister is automatically politically injurious is a category error, though a seductive one when it comes to Brexit, where so much high politics has been conducted through questions of legal and procedural propriety.
One effect of all the talk of No Deal over the past few months has been to minimise any focus on the nature of the deal itself. Media attention, along with Tory sloganeering, has led to the impression – widely reported in focus groups – that there is a choice now between two final states, rather than the beginning of a new round of complex and fractious negotiation over the future relationship. The inadvertent boon offered to the government by ardent remainers has been to concentrate on the bleakness of No Deal, flattering any deal by comparison.
Through all these factors – legalism, focus on parliamentary choice, fear of No Deal – the politics of Brexit has foreclosed much conversation about the desired end state for Britain. How a diminished post-imperial country might relate to the world in an era of democratic fragility, accelerating climate change and technological revolution; or how a withered and vandalised social settlement might be renewed; or how a multinational state might endure as its nations pull apart – all these questions have been shunted down the agenda by matters of procedural staging and legal propriety. This has suited the government – they are, after all, the vandals-in-chief – but such questions cannot be deferred indefinitely.
An election, soon, is inevitable. The past week has proved a bonfire of the pieties, with Tory praise of the DUP as guardians of constitutional and national integrity the kindling. It is hard to imagine how the government will pass its Queen’s Speech through the Commons without DUP support. Whether delivered or delayed, Johnson will be determined to make the election about Brexit in its narrowest sense. Many Labour members and parliamentarians will feel their stomachs twinge at the polling, but their only chance to close the gap is to pull the electorate’s eyes from the mire to the horizon – and a general election is one of the few ready-made opportunities to do so. Anyone tempted to write off an election as a fait accompli should be careful: the campaign will involve five weeks of the most intense and ideologically driven politics in decades; multi-party contests will collide with a rigid and antiquated electoral system; armies of volunteers and digital obsessives will clash with social media spin machines and tabloid smear merchants. In such a fervid atmosphere, the only certainty is that certainty is a fool’s game.