According to one piece of commentary in ‘The Guardian’, the utterly brilliant Svengali behind Boris Johnson knows that people are fed up with Brexit and confused by all the shenanigans at Westminster. They just want it done and will lap up the grand promises of an end to austerity announced by Johnson’s new Government – new police, new teachers and more money for the NHS. The opposition will bang on about Brexit, but Johnson knows that people are fed up with Brexit and confused by all the opposition intrigues at Westminster.
Since there is going to be a general election soon, whatever uncertainty exists about its timing, the Johnson plan is clear in this respect, and according to the psephologist John Curtice, with an average nine point lead in the polls, he has a 50/50 chance of winning. Perhaps only if he was forced by the opposition to request an extension to Article 50 from the European Union would he lose so much credibility that he would be sunk.
The concern of the opposition has been that if Labour supported an election now Johnson would ensure it was held after 31 October, allowing the UK to fall out of the EU without a deal. This means postponing an election until either the requirement for Johnson to ask for an extension has passed into law or has come into effect.
It appears fairly clear to more and more observers however that Johnson intends to keep to his pledge not to request such an extension by simply refusing to ask for one and/or resigning as prime minister and asking the fractured opposition to form an alternative Government. At this point we would get into everyone telling Jeremy Corbyn that he couldn’t possibly head-up any even temporary administration and a list of right wing figures would be put up as the ‘unifying’ leader. If such a proposal was accepted Corbyn would be finished and the Labour right would be as quick as Johnson to get rid of its opposition inside the Party.
In this case only the EU could do anything about the UK leaving and without domestic cover this would be difficult to justify, and for whom and to what end would it do it?
Seemingly trapped by Parliamentary arithmetic and arcane procedure, Johnson has a way out by ignoring both. Trapped by Parliamentary arithmetic and arcane procedure the radical Jeremy Corbyn has become a prisoner of it. Any route to a general election appears to allow Johnson to remain as the leader of the no-deal cause, unsullied by compromise, and achieve a no-deal exit. Were Corbyn to win leadership of a caretaker Government the issue is simply postponed but with Johnson still running with the same narrative and an election not very far off.
So the argument has been when Labour should agree to an election. Should it do so as soon as possible so that it would have the chance to put an alternative to no-deal to the people and win a majority to reject it, or afterwards when it will be too late, and Johnson had resigned and Corbyn perhaps left with insufficient votes to form a Government and/or been displaced as a result? All other things being equal the principled and correct thing to do would be to agree an election as soon as possible.
Of course it is still argued that Johnson will ensure that an election called now takes place after the default no-deal exit kicks in, so the call for it has to be postponed. But if it is postponed and Johnson later resigns, successfully exposing the divided nature of the opposition then Johnson will have successfully guided a no deal Brexit anyway. If unsuccessful an election can’t be far away as the opposition is deeply divide and is really mostly in competition with each other.
The answer to his sharp practice is not to rely on cute Parliamentary stratagems (that can foreseeably be nullified) but rely on our own strength as an organised movement with the clear sympathy of the majority of the population. How we get this majority to be part of the struggle is therefore the question that needs answers.
In the longer term of course Brexit will be shown to be disastrous and undiluted Tory responsibility for it is a very good thing. The danger involved in this is the success that a no-deal might achieve in destroying workers’ rights and living standards while it lasts. But again this argues for the mobilisation and organisation of the British labour movement and working class more generally, not parliamentary manoeuvring. It also requires commitment by Labour to reverse Article 50 as quickly as possible, and there is no reason why this should not be argued for now, showing that there is a way out of this mess no matter what Johnson does.
So if Johnson can steer a no deal, or have a very good chance of doing so, no matter what parliamentary options are taken, and the only way to ensure he is stopped is through an alternative Government saying he will be stopped no matter when he calls it, the only option that appears to make sense is to allow an election as soon as possible and make Johnson (instead of Corbyn) the target of the charge of being slippery, duplicitous and cowardly if he tries to shift its date until after October 31. ‘We will reverse the decision to leave the EU as soon as we can’ should be the Labour response, otherwise any Labour Government after a no-deal Brexit will have to preside over the disaster and take responsibility for the inadequate steps to mitigate the mess.
Had Labour strongly opposed Brexit for the last three years by pointing out that the demands of the Tories were impossible to achieve, it would have been proved correct over and over again. Instead the argument that there was a ‘good’ Brexit allowed chancer after chancer from Farage to May to Johnson to claim that they could do it. On the other side the Liberals and others could quite rightly say that there is no good Brexit and Labour is putting itself in the way of stopping it. The most useless Tory Prime Ministers and most incompetent Governments have failed even on their own terms, yet have their Party ahead of Labour in the polls, and that despite the Brexit party!
From being ridiculed as an ineffective, if sincere, leader and a straight talking ‘un-politician like’ politician, Corbyn’s disingenuous contortions on Brexit mean he is now more plausibly ridiculed as an ineffective,if sincere,leader and a mealy-mouthed triangulating ‘typical’ politician. The new and fresh approach that blazed a trail in the 2017 election and up-ended the opinion polls isn’t possible now, or at least not in the way it was achieved last time.
This is true mainly because of Corbyn’s current hopeless position on Brexit, which promises an extension to the exit deadline and a second referendum with a Remain option on the ballot but also leaves open the possibility of him trying to get a new Brexit deal. In other words, repeating Theresa May’s attempt to negotiate a deal with red lines that can’t be negotiated and objectives which no Brexit can deliver e.g. a ‘jobs’ Brexit.
Johnson’s promises of an end to austerity also mean it’s not possible to place Labour anti-austerity against years of Tory cuts in the same way. Of course the Tories may be lying but the Brexit supporters that are his base are happy to sign up to these lies because they sustain the illusion that Brexit is a good thing. They do indeed want to forget about Brexit and just get it done because thinking about it is not conducive to sustaining their prejudices and illusions. Voting for more money for public services promised by a Johnson Government is just the sort of message that is consistent with their prejudices and illusions.
Labour may offer greater public spending increases and question the sincerity of Johnson’s promises but if he looks like he’s delivering on a no-deal – out by the 31 October no matter what – then he might have enough credibility with enough people. The most obvious problem with the Tory U-turn on austerity is that Brexit will so damage the source of funding for increased state expenditure that you can’t do both. But this brings us back to Brexit as the key issue and the necessity for a clear message.
Labour has a lot going for it, including the incompetence and lack of credibility of the opposition among a majority of the electorate. A very large majority is also against no deal so why not have an election before it has happened to capture this constituency? This, however, requires a clear and consistent message of unqualified opposition to Brexit, and consistency is also a function of time, time more than wasted by Corbyn’s support for a ‘jobs’ Brexit.
As in all elections the Tories have and will mobilise its own support – especially in the press – and will be unified around the Johnson project. Corbyn, on the other hand is surrounded by enemies and leads a divided party. He has had four years to democratise the Party and get rid of the treacherous right wing MPs and failed to do so.
The biggest advantage the Party has is that it is the political arm of a movement with millions of members including 500,000 members of the Party, but they have been given no role to change the Party into an activist movement. The millions who have marched against Brexit could have had Corbyn leading them but he chose to offer something else that satisfied neither Leavers nor Remainers. Even the anti-coup protests take place without clear leadership from the top.
That Corbyn has had potentially so much going for him but has spurned it means that much hope of preventing Johnson relies in the latter’s incompetence and the hope that the now Remain majority, and bigger majority against no-deal, will unify around Labour despite its Brexit stance, which may harden, although in what direction? Elections can polarise opinions and the political messages from the parties in response, and it is to be hoped that the mobilisation against the Johnson coup and against Brexit will swing those against Brexit behind Labour, but Corbyn has to look like he is ready to lead them where they want to go.