TO THOSE WHO FELT that warnings about Boris Johnson’s toxic blend of incompetence and authoritarianism were overblown, the last few weeks have been sobering. The proroguing of Parliament – now ruled illegal in a Scottish court on the grounds that its primary purpose was to prevent effective scrutiny of the government – was compounded by further contempt for MPs - swearing, sexist insults and declarations that his government would seek ways to duck the no-deal Brexit law Parliament passed. Small wonder that in its first fortnight Johnson’s government suffered an unprecedented number of Commons defeats.
Add the resignations, defections and exclusion from the Conservative Party of long-standing MPs, and Johnson’s inability to get a snap election – which days earlier he claimed he did not want – before he was legally forced to ask for an extension of Article 50, and it looks like a humiliating moment for the government and a good few days for the Opposition. Even bastions of finance capital like Deutsche Bank and Citibank announced they would prefer a Corbyn government to the current mayhem. And, as the government’s own Yellowhammer papers underline, this chaos could become calamitous in the event of a no-deal, with predictions of long border delays, medicine and food shortages, disproportionately impacting on poor and vulnerable groups and potentially increasing social unrest and tensions in Ireland if a hard border were imposed.
Yet we should be wary of being over-confident. Like Trump, there is something performative about Johnson – much of his politics consists of gestures designed to reassure his base. Equally, although his lack of preparation suggests that it will be hard to get a deal negotiated, let alone passed, by Parliament, this is not impossible. Indeed, the current havoc creates conditions where he can apply more pressure on his own party as well as the DUP to force a deal through – helped by a handful of treacherous Labour MPs who have signalled their willingness to help.
Nor have Johnson’s antics done much damage to his poll ratings. His strategy is to polarise. Labour’s has been the opposite, and at Westminster it has been right to build the broadest alliance against a no-deal Brexit – notwithstanding the crass opportunism of the Liberal Democrats – and emphasise the damage to the economy and working people by Johnson’s reckless approach. In this context, Tom Watson’s call for a new referendum ahead of an election is divisive, undeliverable and primarily aimed at stopping a Corbyn premiership - a cynical ruse at a time when people are crying out for honest leadership.
Anything is possible, yet the likeliest outcome remains an early general election before Brexit has been resolved. Deal or no deal, there remains a vast amount of negotiation and detail that has to be addressed and the issue is certain to dominate any campaign. So what Labour says on Brexit in that campaign will be critical.
Johnson’s approach, although hugely damaging, has the appeal of simplicity and fits a public mood of ‘getting the job done’. There are dangers implicit in Labour proposing a second referendum only after an attempt to renegotiate a better deal – how long might that take? Would it not be rather contradictory and self-undermining for the leadership to get what it felt was a better deal to leave, only to find large numbers of its MPs and members campaigning for Remain come what may? And is there such a thing as a good Brexit anyway? If leaving is ultimately isolationist and an abandonment of the struggle to transform the EU to make it an instrument that works for the peoples of Europe rather than its corporations, should we really be putting our energies into a Brexit which is wrong in principle?
These are awkward but unavoidable questions. At the same time, there is much else that Labour will need to talk about, including its radical social and economic proposals. This autumn will also bring the climate emergency back to centre stage with school strikes and other direct action going on throughout October. The contrast between a supportive Labour leadership and the climate change-denying Johnson could not be sharper.
The stakes have never been higher in any recent election. Beyond policy, Britain faces a choice about fundamental values – between a divisive elitist with a history of not telling the truth and a willingness to use nationalist and authoritarian rhetoric to shore up his power, and on the other hand a reluctant leader – the best kind – whose long-held inclusive, socialist values and unblemished record of integrity in politics have become a beacon of hope to people all over the country and beyond. This is a battle we have to win!