It’s all frightfully exciting, isn’t it?!
- Parliament being prorogued.
- People demonstrating against coups.
- Cabinet Ministers, the PM even, having to confirm that they will obey the law.
- Discussions about obscure precedents from the reign of Queen Anne about whether or not the Queen has to assent to legislation.
- Government defeats.
- The loss of its majority to zero as the PM was speaking, the later fall into a minority administration.
- Long-standing senior MPs being expelled from their party, some by text and some while being hailed as Politician of the Year.
- The rebels’ contemptuous refusal to move seats, the former PM silently signalling her support for them.
- The current PM being accused of racism and his questioner applauded.
- Churchill’s grandson making a pointed remark about the serial disloyalty and epic hypocrisy of many Cabinet members.
- The Father of the House genially displaying his contempt for his former party’s leadership.
- The Chancellor being ticked off by the Speaker (probably a welcome relief to being shouted at by the current Tory Rasputin).
- The prospect of all-night filibustering in the Lords.
- Corbyn finally getting the hang of PMQs.
- Labour doing its usual two steps forward, one step backward routine about whether it wants a GE or not and when.
- Court cases.
- Ministers and civil servants being unwilling to make statements on oath about what was said when.
- John McDonnell teasing the PM about his colourful private life.
- Jacob Rees-Mogg lolling on the seats like a painfully thin Oscar Wilde with the face of Uriah Heep.
And so on and on.
And yet, it is all too easy to get so involved in the minutiae that the bigger picture is forgotten. And that picture is this: over three years since the referendum result and still Brexit has not happened. There are lots of good reasons for this (some of them here and here). But the PM is saying one simple thing over and over again: this has taken too long. Parliament must stop faffing about. I will make sure Brexit happens – and by the agreed date.
Never mind all the problems with this deceptively simple and largely disingenuous message. They have been rehearsed at length: a No Deal Brexit is not a thing but an absence. It will likely cause problems. It is not the end of anything but the beginning of years of discussion about what happens next. It is not what was promised. Parliament has been excluded from discussions until too late. It reflects the country’s divisions. It has voted against a No Deal Brexit. And so on, ad nauseam.
And that is the point: it has all become ad nauseam. Whatever side of the Brexit divide voters are on, many many of them are simply weary of the whole ghastly mess. The message Boris is selling – “This has got to stop.” – resonates with lots of people. This has got to stop. It is, for all its many faults, an attractive 30-second elevator pitch.
What the argument is about is what the “this” is. Is it Brexit which should stop, which some Remainers want? Is it just a No Deal Brexit? Or is it the endless extensions?
So to counter Boris’s message, what is his opponents’ 30-second elevator pitch? Stopping a No Deal Brexit is all very well. It may be what the majority of the country wants. But what then? If an extension is obtained, what is it for?
- Renegotiation? On what basis? Which of the existing red lines would be changed? And how long would this take?
- So, if not that, a General Election? That may lead to a different government or a different House of Commons. But so what? What will that government’s objective be and will it be anymore capable of imposing its will than the last two governments since the referendum?
- A referendum then? And the question will be…..? And will the answer be any more palatable this time? Will it be implemented?
- Or what about reintroducing May’s deal in the hope that, warmed up again, it might be just about palatable?
- OK. What about revocation of Article 50? That is a route, clearly, especially if a party won an election on that basis. But it sets Britain up to the possibility of that being reversed after the following election. No-one, least of all the EU, can want an endless Article 50 hokey-cokey.
All these questions. Tiresome, aren’t they? But they highlight the fact that those opposing the Johnson government’s Brexit policy are divided about what they want. In consequence they are finding it hard to express in the same simple clear way a message which resonates with voters, almost regardless of their views on the substance of Brexit. Indeed, they are living up to the government’s caricature of them as people who are refusing to listen, refusing to act and playing games instead. There is something magnificently shameless in the way in which Boris’s government is ascribing its faults to its opponents.
Voters want something done. Boris is doing something. Doing something is better than doing nothing. Ergo, give Boris a chance. It could very well be an election winning strategy. Boris certainly hopes so. And he may well be right.
If is to be countered effectively, his opponents have to come up with their own 30-second pitch for that moment in the elevator with bored, exasperated voters. They have yet to do so. Until they do, for all the manifest faults, inadequacies and hypocrisies of the current PM and all the excitement within Westminster and those following it, they remain vulnerable to being outsmarted (again) by a simple, even simplistic, message.