To clear the decks was a term in naval warfare, when objects were removed or tied down before battle. It looks like the Tories are clearing the decks for electoral warfare to fix Brexit through a General Election. There is probably now no other way forward and the crunch point for a final decision is fast arriving. There is an eerie unease, like we’re all waiting as the Tory leadership contest reaches its climax when the membership must make their choice, and it looks like they want an election winner. It might seem like something from another less democratic era that the choice of the next Prime Minister is being left to 120,000 mainly older, male, white and predominantly South-East England voters, but from another perspective the nation is being presented with one alternative choice for its future, on which it very likely will vote in the autumn. The choice will be momentous.
The EU’s position
The EU has made it abundantly clear that the deal painstakingly negotiated with May is not up for re-negotiation. It must be this deal, the Withdrawal Agreement (WA), or a No Deal Brexit with all the chaos and upheaval that that would entail. The contenders for the Tory crown have in the main claimed that they can extract better terms, seemingly ignoring this basic fact, which has been a factor in the unreality of the current situation. It has been a recurrent theme in Tory mythology that the EU is not being serious and will in the end buckle and agree a compromise, when the EU have insisted that this would not happen. There is no bluff.
There have also been very recent strong hints that the EU have had enough of repeated cliffhangers and postponements of Brexit and have decided that Britain must leave on the latest deadline date of 31 October, with the only exception being a clear commitment to hold a referendum or a general election. There is nothing to concentrate the mind more than a clear deadline.
The Tory leadership contest
The leadership contest so far looks likely to produce Boris Johnson as the next Prime Minister, although it can be that for the front runner it is their contest to lose and such people have fallen down at the last hurdle in the past. Johnson is detested in the EU but he is the darling of the predominantly pro-Brexit membership who usually tend to the right of the Parliamentary party.
Johnson says he wants to leave on 31 October, with or without a Deal, and since the EU will not negotiate further and he and the membership reject May’s deal, a No Deal Brexit looks very much on the cards.
There is one important additional point, that despite the air of unreality, the Tories know very well what this entails, that an election is imminent and that they must choose the best person to win.
Johnson is seen as an electoral asset. Whatever one thinks of his personal or ministerial failings, which are not insignificant and some critics even say disastrous, he performed well for the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum and is surprisingly popular in the country, particularly with older voters.
Many consider that the position for the new Prime Minister will be no better than May’s, although he will have the advantage of a fresh mandate from his party. May was unable to get her deal through Parliament, it having been voted down three times, and Parliament has also consistently voted against a No Deal Brexit, which will probably become the policy of the new PM. The Tory majority is currently three, and that is reliant on a Confidence and Supply Agreement with the Northern Irish DUP, which will need to be renewed by Johnson.
There are those who have suggested that the PM might prorogue Parliament and push No Deal through, but the constitutional and practical arguments against this option are strong, as has been discussed in a previous post.
The need for a mandate
Generally a new Prime Minister needs a new popular mandate by winning an election. The precedents for those who didn’t do this are not good, such as the difficulty Gordon Brown faced when he ducked the chance of an election on becoming leader in 2007, just before the Great Recession. Such PM’s can have an authority and credibility problem. Arguably, if a leader wants to push through an unpopular policy of such a magnitude as a No Deal Brexit, an election victory would strengthen his hand.
The traditional way of resolving a crisis
It is also a traditional way to resolve a crisis in Parliament. Often in the past PMs who have lost a motion of No Confidence (VNC), have followed this course, as James Callaghan did in 1979 after Labour lost its majority and the Liberal Party withdrew their support. Arguably this is what the Tories now need to do.
Moreover, it is thought that Johnson will try to get a No Deal Brexit through Parliament, lose the vote and face a VNC and be compelled into a general election. He could cut through this by going straight for an election first of all.
The impact of Farage
It is a big risk. The Tories are terrified of an election since the Brexit Party totally outgunned them in the recent European Elections and they fear losing a massive number of votes and seats to Farage. They also fear that a split right wing vote will let in Corbyn whom they also fear as a perceived out-and-out Marxist. It is a Scylla and Charybdis choice.
When the history of this period is written, books might be entitled “The Impact of Farage”, because of the disruptive and highly effective impact that Nigel Farage’s populism has had on British politics. Although not so far successful in British Parliamentary elections, he has nevertheless stamped a huge imprint on politics. His very effective speaking, well-organised, and it should be said well-financed, campaigns and impactful slogans with a strong populist appeal to the “ordinary person” against the perceived self-serving Westminster “political class” has produced a strong echo in the “left behind” communities and small town and rural middle classes of mainly England and Wales. Both the main parties have felt this impact, both losing votes to the populists and both therefore trimming their policies to head off the challenge, most specifically through endorsing some form of Brexit. Now Farage is campaigning for a “No Deal Brexit now”.
There is a strong possibility that some electoral alliance on the right will emerge. Farage has already offered such. An electoral alliance, with the Remain camp very divided and with several parties competing for the same constituency, would probably be very effective. Under the British electoral system of FPTP, when one side is split, a third challenger can get a simple majority of votes cast and win the seat. At present this is hard to predict and a risk, but it could be highly effective.
According to this point of view, those in the Conservative Party who oppose a No Deal would be placed in a very difficult position. They could vote down their own government but it would be in defiance of a very recently elected leader who had made it clear that No Deal would be the policy of the government.
Two choices, two alternative dispensations
We could be reaching a decisive turning point in the struggle for Brexit. It is perhaps a point where alternative political dispensations are decided. A “political dispensation” is an important era in a specified political period defined by its individual uniqueness and has its own demands and expectations. One such era was when Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979 and ushered in the neo-liberal period of the dismantling of much of the post-1945 period of the Welfare State and the “mixed economy” in favour of free enterprise, privatisation and the market economy.
What is arguably being presented is the completion of the “Thatcher Revolution” and the removal of remaining constraints of the Welfare State in favour of a more fully privatised and marketised economy outside the perceived restrictions of a bureaucratic, interventionist and regulatory-focused EU. Set against this neo-liberal agenda is a mixed bag of parties, some of whom wish simply to remain in the EU and, in the case of Labour under Corbyn to use Brexit to restore the mixed economy and regain control of the “commanding heights” of the economy for social and economic reform.
However, the agenda of the Right is currently focused on obtaining a No Deal Brexit. As such, this masks the neo-liberalism that lies in the background, but it is thought likely that this would be the real agenda of a hard-right dominant party faction.
Pragmatism can trump ideology
This scenario is not necessarily what will happen, though it seems likely. An alternative possiblity can be that no electoral alliance emerges on the right, that Johnson will be trapped by the same dynamics as May and will have to try and steer through a version of what was already agreed by May with the EU, under the pressure of trying to avoid No Deal. It could be that the cry to avoid No Deal will be too great. Parliament might steer another course. Then again, the Remain side might win an election. This whole crisis has been so unpredictable.
Johnson, if he becomes leader and for all his weaknesses, is sufficiently ruthless, self-serving unprincipled, willing to shift directions and play to different constituencies that he might do a Robert Peel in the crisis over the Repeal of the Corn Laws (1846) and bring in a measure of compromise that his own party opposes in order to quell threatened unrest and pacify the nation.
There is all to play for in this most deeply threatening crisis in British history, the British Isles and arguably for Europe too.