The Labour leader has risen to the occasion at a time of national crisis. But a huge amount hinges on what he does nextby Jonathan Lis / September 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
In the last week, Boris Johnson has suspended parliament against its will, lost his majority, lost control of parliamentary business, lost the ability to enforce no-deal in October, lost the vote to secure a general election, purged 21 senior colleagues from the party for defying him, and refused to apologise for Islamophobic remarks on the grounds of liberalism. Today his brother stood down as an MP rather than continue to serve under him. And yet he wants people to believe that Jeremy Corbyn is the out-of-control radical.
A nexus of hubris, cowardice and dishonesty is powering Johnson’s descent more rapidly than even his many detractors imagined. It is not just his Oxford Union debating style in the Commons, promoting flamboyant gesture over engagement with questions. Nor is it the continued insistence that he is progressing towards a new deal, even though the EU insists it has received no new proposals and no new negotiations are taking place. It is more the atmosphere of gold-plated, entitled thuggishness around a leadership which tries to game the system rather than play fairly, destroy colleagues’ careers rather than respect differences of opinion, and devise constitutional tricks to flout the basic norms of our democracy. This toxic regime has taken over the government and will stop at nothing to enforce its arbitrary and ruinous goals.
For four years the Conservatives have attempted to portray Corbyn as the great threat to our society and economy. Corbyn has indeed made numerous errors—not least in his initial confused approach to Brexit and his delay in tackling the anti-Semitism on his party’s fringes. And yet the Labour leader has in recent weeks seemed a man transformed.
The first reason for this is Johnson himself. Too many people assumed that the man famed for his self-confident oratory would easily outperform a less nimble parliamentary performer. They were wrong. Johnson is fast discovering that the job of prime minister is not as easy as it looks. A figure who has depended his whole life on charm, bluster and humour is latterly discovering the necessity of work, diplomacy and talent. Johnson has for the first time found himself under a scrutiny that demands rigour and attention, and he is falling apart.
Then there is the PM’s whole Downing Street operation. It is hard to discern when the disruptive genius will begin and the basic folly end. In just six weeks Johnson and Dominic Cummings have launched a civil war in the Conservative Party which dwarfs even the chaos in the dying days of the John Major government. In recent days Tory MPs have repeatedly risen to denounce each other in the chamber, while former chancellors and the prime minister’s personal friends have been forced from their political home after decades of party loyalty for the crime of opposing food and medicine shortages. Until a few months ago, Johnson rebelled against his party leadership whenever it suited him and suffered no consequences whatsoever.
The most notable element about Johnson and Cummings is not how extreme they are, but how unprepared. Did they really expect MPs to roll over at an unprecedented and unjustified prorogation of parliament? Did they expect them to enable no-deal even though they had repeatedly voted against it? Did they think that by expelling the party’s grandees they would appear moderate and reasonable and appeal to the public? And did they think that, in calling for an early general election before no-deal was blocked, Labour would haul them out of the hole they had dug entirely themselves? These men have become so immersed in the myth of their own genius that they failed to realise they had been outmanoeuvred and defeated.
That is not the only reason for Corbyn’s recent success. In truth the Labour leader has come into his own. His parliamentary performances have grown more confident as Johnson has faltered; he has asked direct and basic questions which he knows the prime minister cannot answer; and he is, for now at least, thinking more strategically and collegially than at any other moment in his leadership.
Just three weeks ago, the alliance against no-deal seemed like a joke. Corbyn and his counterparts were furiously attacking each other, while the conversation focused on who might and might not be able to lead a caretaker government. In the last fortnight that dynamic has transformed. For the first time since the referendum, all the opposition parties, and Tory moderates, are working together seriously and pragmatically to avoid a uniquely calamitous event: a crash-out Brexit on 31st October. We live in a cynical age, but the leaders appear, for the moment, to be setting aside party priorities in the immediate interests of the country and people.
Corbyn must have been sorely tempted to seize the election gauntlet when Johnson threw it down on Wednesday night. Labour has wanted an election for two years. In declining it, he opened himself up to Tory accusations of cowardice. But it was also statesmanlike and strategic. The moral imperative is to thwart no deal, and the political imperative is to thwart the prime minister.
If the opposition supports an election on 15th October, Johnson can fight it on a platform both of repealing the extension legislation, and of achieving a deal his opponents (and the EU) know is impossible. He would claim the MPs were the enemy of the people and were blocking him, while still maintaining his promise to leave on 31st October. Not for the first time, the PM would be having his cake and eating it.
Next Monday, the government will bring forward a new motion to call a general election. Even if the legislation to force an extension request is on the statute books, the opposition must hold its nerve. If they allow Johnson to go to the polls before the European Council summit on 17th October, he can make good his threat of no-deal. If they wait until after that summit, he will have been compelled to seek an extension, and it will have critically weakened him. After 31st October, his only promise to the country—and all remaining credibility—will lie in ruins. Nigel Farage, already primed to call betrayal, will move in for the kill.
Politics is currently faster and more febrile than we have ever known, and the government more reckless and authoritarian, but certain principles still hold. The primary objectives of politicians must be to protect the nation and win power. Johnson’s early election could presage a destructive no-deal departure. It is time for the anti-government MPs to rule out any possibility of it—and to take control of Brexit once and for all.