The year of three Prime Ministers

The year of three Prime Ministers


The challenges facing the new man

Beleaguered prospective Prime Minister Boris Johnson is not having a good start to the week.  Take his Monday. Sir Alan Duncan resigned as Foreign Office minister, making it clear that he would vote against Boris Johnson in a vote of no confidence if Britain was heading for no deal (indeed, he sought the opportunity for the House of Commons to express its lack of confidence in Boris Johnson before he became Prime Minister).  Charles Elphicke, a reliably Brexity MP, was charged with sexual offences: as well as the government losing a Conservative MP (the whip had to be withdrawn again), there must be some question whether the seat will remain in Tory hands for any length of time. And his shaping of his presumed Cabinet is proving controversial, with him apparently requiring a oath of allegiance to no-deal Brexit, thus excluding a substantial chunk of his own party from office.

It’s not as though he’s overflowing with talent at his disposal (though he may have made more promises than he’s able to keep).  Philip Hammond, David Gauke and Rory Stewart have already recused themselves from a government led by him. With the likes of Iain Duncan Smith (conspicuous failure at Work & Pensions), Gavin Williamson (conspicuous failure at Defence) and Chris Grayling (conspicuous failure everywhere) in the running for senior positions, this looks not so much like a government of all the talents but a government of half the wits.

Boris Johnson is many things but he is not stupid and we can be reasonably sure that he is not intending to be a disastrous Prime Minister if there is an alternative.  So this famously disorganised man must have a plan.

He will know that the government he is constructing does not command a reliable majority in the House of Commons.  He will know that the EU is in limbo, making the idea of renegotiating the withdrawal agreement before 31 October 2019 logistically highly implausible, even if they are inclined to entertain the idea (of which there is so far no hint). He will know that by creating a government of hardline Leavers and careerists he is abandoning Remainers to the Lib Dems.  Once gone, they will not be returning.

He must know these things, but he is showing no sign of having a strategy in response.  His supporters vaguely talk about winning over Brexit party supporters. While Nigel Farage leads that party (indefinitely, of course, since he has made himself leader for life of the Brexit party), this looks likely to have only limited success: his own personality cult will retain a large chunk of that support.

Boris Johnson appears not to understand the nature of Leaver support.  The affluent reactionaries don’t need bribing; the disaffected poor expect to see changes for the better.  Giving tax cuts for higher rate taxpayers is not just a waste of resources, it betrays ignorance about where Leave support needs bolstering.

Moreover, support outside Parliament right now is pretty meaningless.  Whatever Boris Johnson wants to get done, he needs to get done within Parliament, against a self-imposed timetable of 31 October 2019.

He appears not to care.  There are three possibilities.  First, he believes that he does not need to get anything through Parliament before 31 October 2019 and he can frustrate his opponents’ attempts to stop him.  Alternatively, secondly, he believes that when it comes to the crunch his Conservative opponents will buckle. Or thirdly, he can force an election on his terms.

None of these outcomes look particularly plausible.  Proroguing Parliament is far too dependent on contingencies outside the Prime Minister’s control to make for a viable strategy (which is just as well, since it entails suspending democracy).  The Queen might not accept his advice, the courts may intervene and Parliament itself may reject his attempt. If there’s one thing worse than trying to undermine democracy, it’s trying and failing to undermine democracy.

If he has to sit the time out in Parliament, the anti-no deal majority will find a way to assert itself.  The Speaker is not going to let the government run down the clock.

His best hope for running down the clock is that the EU itself refuses to grant an extension to Britain of Article 50 beyond 31 October 2019.   That is distinctly possible. At present, it still looks firmly odds against. Would the EU resist the opportunity to leave the Prime Minister without authority in office?  It would surely be too delicious for them. 

His Conservative opponents now look simply too numerous to be faced down.  If he tries, we look likely to see the type of split in the Conservative party previously seen in 1905 or 1845.  Perhaps he thinks that he can charm them into line. They don’t look in the mood to be wooed to me. The disdain is palpable.

So perhaps he thinks he can manoeuvre to get an election.  Thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, he needs Parliament to play ball.  Since they can impose strings to any such election, he is unlikely to find that this works to his advantage.  He will rapidly find that he is in the same gilded cage that Theresa May found herself in. The Parliamentary maths have only deteriorated with time.

So the expectation must be that for all his optimism Boris Johnson will fail and fail fairly quickly.  If he does, he will be jettisoned by the same people who have installed him. We can therefore expect a third Prime Minister this year (and I wouldn’t rule the idea of a fourth out either, depending on just how quickly he fails).

Maybe next time the Conservatives will choose a leader who is prepared to reach a compromise across party lines, which is what Parliamentary maths dictate, but my reading is that they are nowhere near ready for that yet.  This fever is going to rage for a while yet. Bet on the next Conservative leader race accordingly and back the hardliners.


Alastair Meeks

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