The two most important players in UK politics at the moment are Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage.
When the Conservatives begin the formal process of selecting their next leader –nominations close at 5.30pm today, followed by the first ballot on Thursday (although it seems to have been an ongoing process for well over a year) – they will be selecting the candidate best placed to see off the electoral threats and challenges posed by those two men. There’s also the little matter of leaving the EU by October 31.
While the parliamentary party will whittle the list of runners down to just two, it will be the 120,000 or so members of the Conservative party who will have the final say (unless, as with May, one of the final two stands aside). That’s extraordinary power to place in the hands of less than 0.5% of the entire electorate, a group of people described as, “overwhelmingly from the highest social grades. One in 20 of them has an income of more than £100,000 a year and 97% are white. Seven out of ten are male and two-thirds are in favour of a no-deal Brexit. If the Conservative Party were a purely private body then that might be the end of the matter. However, a political party occupies territory between the public and the private. As a contender for power in a democracy it takes an obviously public role”.
The odds favour Boris Johnson with this group. He is the biggest beast in the Conservative jungle and reckoned to be the most likely to steady party nerves and win back millions of voters who have wandered to Farage’s Brexit Party. He would make mincemeat of Corbyn at Prime Minister’s Question Time, in much the same way that Margaret Thatcher used to knock the haplessly verbose Neil Kinnock around the dispatch box in their weekly encounters. His party conference speech in early October would be splendidly rip-roaring stuff (he reminds me of Tod Slaughter, that hammiest of ham actors from a series of British films in the late 1930s) and would be greeted with adulation. If he risked an election I suspect he would win a majority: maybe not a huge one, but enough to free him from reliance on the DUP.
But what about that little matter of leaving the EU? Farage has already said that he doesn’t trust Johnson to deliver. Max Hastings, former editor of the Daily Telegraph (and Johnson’s boss), is withering: “Boris Johnson is one of the most brilliant and entertaining journalists that I know. The tragedy is he thinks he is Winston Churchill but the reality is he is Steve Coogan.” A friend of mine who worked with Johnson when he was mayor of London summed him up: “Boris is loved mostly by those who have never met him and never worked for him or with him. That tells you all you need to know.”
His present position is he wants to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement or, failing that, leave without a deal at the end of October. I say ‘present’ because last November he told the DUP conference he would never support anything which contained the backstop. Yet a few weeks later that’s exactly what he did support; and had he and Jacob-Rees Mogg been more successful in persuading ERG colleagues to back their change of heart, the UK would have exited the EU with a weak deal and the backstop still in place.
I’m working on the assumption that the EU will not be prepared to reopen detailed negotiations with Johnson, particularly if they have no evidence he would get a revised deal through the Commons. They will remember, too, that he recruited for and voted for Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement just a few months ago. Put bluntly, they know he’s biddable.
He may talk of the no-deal option but I don’t think he’d actually choose it. A no deal is an enormously difficult sell, to the Commons and 90% + of UK businesses. He can bumble and spoof as much as he likes about ‘standing on our own two feet’ and trading on WTO terms, but he will not be able to prepare for a no-deal exit between July 22/23 (when the next prime minister is announced) and October 31. There just isn’t enough time. Anyway, if he had been prepared to run with a no-deal exit he would not have voted for the Withdrawal Agreement.
Key players within the Brexit Party suggest some sort of deal between Farage and Johnson is possible; but that only makes sense if the deal embraces an election which brings a Brexit Party bloc into the Commons. I just don’t see that working. The only thing an early election does – and it depends on him winning – is buy him more time: in other words, yet another extension.
He believes he could sell another extension. He has a wonderful way with words, particularly when deployed in aid of obfuscation and Tiggerish bombast, and probably reckons he could play the ‘give me a little more time to get it right’ card. And the party, having had him in place for just three months would, almost certainly, give him that time. I’m also pretty sure the EU, still viewing him as biddable, would grant him yet another extension. The Irish, very worried about the economic consequences, potentially brutal for them, of a no deal, would press the EU to row back and give Johnson space.
He has always been slippery. It’s always Johnson first and then ... well, it will always be him first. Being prime minister won’t make the slightest difference to his usual psychological/narcissistic modus operandi. No deal. Good deal. Second referendum. Remain. Backstop. Churchill. Charlatan. Rise to the challenge. Fall at the first hurdle. No-one knows with Boris Alexander de Pfeffel Johnson: and that’s exactly how he likes it. It also spooks Corbyn and Farage.