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Can a PM in two minds lead One Nation?
On the eve of his momentous Brexit decision in early 2016, Boris Johnson famously wrote two Daily Telegraph columns, one backing Leave and one backing Remaining in the EU. It’s said Johnson’s worst enemy is himself, and it’s true that the prime minister’s mind often contains multitudes.
But, once his mind is made up, he certainly sticks to a strategy and follows it through. His crushing ‘get Brexit done’ general election victory, just like his personal leading of the Vote Leave campaign, proved just how formidable a campaigner he can be.
Now, having campaigned in poetry, can he really turn his hand to the prose of government? Well, the early signs are that things could get slightly confusing. The key question could turn out to be this: is he politically omnivorous or politically schizophrenic? The former could be an asset that defines his premiership and confines Labour to 10 more years of opposition. The latter would be potentially unsustainable over the long term.
On the one hand, Johnson wants to be seen as socially liberal about immigration. He’s advocated in the past an amnesty for illegal migrants and is a big believer in the vitality immigrants can bring to a nation. On the other, he wants to send a message to voters that he’s ‘tough’ on immigration and has a heavily criticised record on racist remarks.
His socially liberal ‘cuddly Mayor of London’ persona also conflicts with the man who now wants to axe the Department for International Development as a stand-alone entity, merging it with the Foreign Office and probably redefining its spending in the process to take in defence and foreign affairs.
On Brexit itself, there are plenty of Tories hoping he will pull off a compromise similar to the one he agreed with the EU to get his divorce deal done. But it looks like he really isn’t bluffing about no-deal, having inserted into the Tory manifesto a promise not to extend the transition period beyond 2020.
As the PM himself said to his 109 new MPs in a photocall tonight, “we’ve got to deliver now...sacred, sacred trust”. Breaking such a clear pledge would indeed undermine that trust, so Brussels had better beware he’s serious about no-deal if he can’t get his way. If it’s true (as we learn tonight) he also wants to write that into law, the EU will have a major problem.
It’s possible that Johnson believed the surest way to target Labour Leave voters was to nick key bits of the Brexit Party’s ‘contract with the people’ (slash overseas aid, pile billions into public services, ‘reform the Supreme Court’, ‘phase out the BBC licence fee’), while relying on moderate Tories’ horror of Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street to keep them on board. Consider too, that maybe the voters are schizophrenic themselves (the old problem of wanting European size public spending with US size taxes).
Indeed, the most stunning thing about Johnson’s victory is that he has built a powerful coalition of different parts of the country and different classes. The contrast with Labour, which is now a rump party representing big cities, is stark and salutary. Labour has always prided itself that it is a coalition of the working classes and middle classes, but it seems to have forgotten you need to appeal to both at the same time. (For clues as to how the Tories did it, see Rachel Wolf’s column below in ‘What I’m Reading’)
It’s worth remembering that some of the rot set in under Ed Miliband, as the party drifted away from its working class supporters (except UKIP was the beneficiary initially back then). The party lost the argument on the economy because it couldn’t persuade voters that a global financial crisis, and the spending to bail it out, was very different from a domestic household overspending its budget.
But what really terrifies surviving Labour MPs (many of whom commiserated with defeated colleagues clearing out their offices today) is that the politics of identity really is what could wipe their party off the map. Under Miliband, it had no answer to the rise of Scottish nationalism and in the process lost seats that were its insurance policy for getting a majority.
Under Corbyn, it has had no answer to the demands for Brexit (and ‘patriotism’) in midlands and northern seats. Just as Scottish seats were for years taken for granted by Labour, with all the energy going into marginal seats, so too many English northern MPs had no idea how to fight an election as if their jobs depended on it. And that’s even aside from London MPs like Dawn Butler saying “If anyone doesn’t hate Brexit, even if you voted for it, there’s something wrong with you”.
Today, as the SNP’s 48 MPs arrived en masse at Westminster, there was a reminder of that Remain Telegraph column Johnson penned (as leaked to the Sunday Times’ Tim Shipman). It included this line for not backing Brexit: “And then there is the worry about Scotland, and the possibility that an English-only ‘leave’ vote could lead to the break-up of the union.” Despite his promises never to grant a fresh referendum, will we inevitably end up with ‘two nations’ north and south of a hard EU/UK border?
It’s also worth remembering that for all Johnson’s ‘One Nation’ rhetoric, even Benjamin Disraeli himself was far from progressive. He relied on a sense of noblesse oblige towards the working classes, rather than genuine equality. Social reform came second to raw party survival and advantage. Working classes flocked to his patriotic sabre-rattling overseas. And above all else, Disraeli was an entertainer, a flamboyant stylist and literary phrasemaker who cheered up both the nation and the Queen with his aphorisms.
Tonight, his ‘stopgap’ reshuffle showed that Johnson intends to prioritise his Brexit bill this Friday, then effectively put his feet up until the New Year’s big decisions on non-Brexit policy. Things like merging DCMS with another department (yes, that’s being whispered about) will have to wait. And we will have to wait to see whether he really is an omnivore or a schizophrenic.
Quote Of The Day
“We shot the arse off that one”
Boris Johnson ends a Westminster Hall photocall with his 109 new Tory MPs in typical style
Monday Cheat Sheet
Boris Johnson re-appointed new life peer Nicky Morgan as the culture secretary and promoted Simon Hart to be the new Welsh secretary. Others who got jobs in the ‘holding reshuffle’ were Brexiteers Anne-Marie Trevelyan as defence minister and David TC Davies as Welsh Office minister.
Labour’s Angela Rayner is poised to run for deputy leader and throw her weight behind Rebecca Long-Bailey for leader. Clive Lewis became the latest to say he was considering at shot at replacing Jeremy Corbyn.
Emily Thornberry started legal action against ex- MP Caroline Flint for suggesting she had once said northern voters were ‘stupid’. “I was in the process of cutting back this hedge as a bit of therapy on Sunday morning,” she told a reporter outside her home. “So I missed the Sunday programmes, but one of my former colleagues came out and told the most extraordinary lies about me.”
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said that Corbyn “should go sooner rather than later”. “I say this with all humility, please step aside as soon as possible. I’m fed up of losing elections. Please step aside for someone who can win elections.”
Downing Street revealed that the PM has signed off the long-delayed report by the Intelligence and Security Committee into Russian activity in the UK. It will be published by the ISC once the committee is re-established in the new year.
The SNP’s 48 MPs gathered in Westminster, to be told by Commons leader Ian Blackford that a new independence referendum was “unstoppable”.
What I’m Reading
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