Last night’s head-to-head debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn did not scale Socratic heights. There were few surprises. When TV debates emerged during the US presidential race in 1960, a canny understanding of the medium gave the telegenic Kennedy an opportunity to shift past Nixon in the polls; modern debate rules are subject to interminable inter-party negotiations, which usually seek to tamp down any risk of actual debate breaking out.
With both parties competing over spending, the strategic calculus for the election alters: whether or not spending is a good thing matters less than where the money is spent, who it will benefit, and whether the parties can be trusted to keep their promises. Serious questions await the Conservatives on how sustainable their spending can be without raising taxes on the wealthy, or with the economic dislocation of a hard Brexit. It’s difficult, too, for them to resurrect 2010’s attack lines on the economy when austerity has vanished from the policy lexicon; Harold Macmillan warned his party in 1959 not to talk of Labour ‘spending sprees’ – for people who have lived through a straitened decade, spending may sound rather appealing. The last true disciple of Coalition-era doctrine turns out to be Vince Cable, grumbling about a ‘raid on Santa’s grotto’.
Nigel Farage announced last night that the Brexit Party would stand down its candidates in 317 Tory-held seats across the country, promising instead to concentrate his fire on Leave-voting seats with Labour incumbents. Having last week lambasted Boris Johnson’s deal as the ‘second-worst in history’, he now claims to be satisfied with the prime minister’s commitment to leaving on 31 January, and seeking a Canada-style free trade agreement. However he tries to disguise it, this is a capitulation: there had been enormous pressure on Farage from senior colleagues – including the Brexit Party chair and candidate for Hartlepool, Richard Tice – to moderate his opposition to the Tory deal. Farage has found a Surrender Act all of his own.
The Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru have made an electoral pact under the rubric ‘Unite to Remain’. The three parties have agreed to stand down candidates in sixty constituencies: in 43, only a Liberal Democrat will stand, ten will have only a Green candidate, and seven only a candidate from Plaid. The purported aim is to return the maximum possible number of pro-Remain MPs to parliament; the parties’ self-interest is an unspoken factor. The lash-up may help Plaid and the Greens win one or two target seats, but the chief beneficiaries – if it succeeds – will be the Lib Dems, who are looking to retake a slew of Tory-held seats in the south of England.
The Brexit Party launched its general election campaign in Westminster yesterday. There had been much talk that a pact – formal or tacit – between the Conservatives and Farage’s vehicle might emerge, handing them a swathe of leave-voting seats in England. Instead, Farage, speaking from the rostrum to an audience of Brexit Party candidates and registered supporters, lambasted the Tories’ ‘conceited arrogance’, mocked the ERG for falling in like ‘good little boys’ behind their leader, and lambasted Johnson’s deal for taking the UK into ‘three more years of agonising negotiations with Michel Barnier’. These are not words from which rapprochement is made. Farage himself is not standing – seven Westminster defeats perhaps enough – but intends to campaign across the country.
A number of MPs have announced their retirement from politics in the last few days, many of them women who have been targeted by torrents of personal abuse and threats to their family. Some have been advised by the police that it is too dangerous for them to hold open surgeries, or campaign door-to-door after dark. Others are leaving parliament because they feel their party has left them; the most prominent is Nicky Morgan, the last standard-bearer of David Cameron-style conservatism, who is quitting politics at the age of 46, in what would conventionally be considered the prime of her career. The exodus has prompted newspaper eulogies to the ‘last moderates’ and laments over our ideologically divided times; all assume that sharp ideological division is intrinsically negative.
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.
The important thing for Johnson is to have someone else to blame. If a withdrawal agreement isn’t signed before the end of October and he provokes the EU into refusing another extension, then he can blame them for the turbulence that ensues. If he finds himself obliged to seek and accept an extension, then he can paint himself as the standard-bearer of Brexit, having offered a harder deal than May’s, but with his hands tied by a sinister cabal of Europeans, parliamentarians and spider brooch-wearing judges. Johnson calculates that a clear history of confrontation will keep the bulk of Brexit Party votes behind him, and deliver the ‘People v. Parliament’ election he believes he can win.
This week’s nadir came with the prime minister’s wholesale importing of the language of the alt-right into his performance at the despatch box: over and again he spoke of the ‘Surrender Act’ passed before prorogation; his attorney general, in the warm-up slot, bellowed that this ‘dead Parliament’ had forfeited its ‘moral right’ to sit. When reminded that the language of ‘surrender’ and ‘treachery’ was associated with the murder of Jo Cox, Johnson gave little more than a sneer. It was hard to watch the malevolent pantomime without thinking of the earnest anxiety of some of the Labour Conference debates, or the distraught and unvarnished message delivered by Greta Thunberg to the UN two days earlier: ‘You are failing us.’
The major announcement in Jo Swinson’s closing speech to conference on Tuesday, much trailed, was that the Liberal Democrats – were they to form a majority – would revoke Article 50 on their first day in government, ending Brexit overnight. She decried both Labour and Conservative as ‘tired old parties’, and suggested that Boris Johnson – somewhat perplexingly – was acting like a ‘socialist dictator’, while linking Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage in a feat of rhetorical contortion. As if to prove the Lib Dems’ moderation in all things, she unveiled a lukewarm climate policy, aiming for net-zero emissions by 2045, knocking five years off the government’s goal but giving themselves far more wiggle-room than the target of 2030 due to be debated by Labour next week.