First published in the Chronicle & Journal
I’ve got little choice but to mention the B-word. Again. Over the years, I’ve tried to keep some variety in my columns and avoid causing too much distress to the many BOBs (Bored of Brexit) who just want the whole thing to be over and done with, Brenda-from-Bristol fashion. Not another one, you might well think!
We have a new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson (on whom the jury must surely still be out). We have a ticking clock with an October 31st deadline which may, or may not, prove to be less illusory than the March 29th and April 12th deadlines that have long since metaphorically wrapped portions of proper, dripping-fried fish and chips, served fresh with a carton of mushy peas or curry.
The standard cookie-cutter media comment is that now Brexiteers must deliver. We have a Brexiteer in Downing Street, so there can be no future excuses. It seems almost absurd, already, to think that the UK could ever have negotiated Brexit with a Remain-supporting Prime Minister, a fairly Remain-backing Cabinet, and asking a Remain-backing Parliament to sign the whole thing off.
Brexiteers have frequently been blamed for the failure to get Brexit over the line, yet – despite winning the referendum, the 2017 General Election, and the 2019 European elections – they’ve never had the positions to be able to do so. Brexit Secretary followed Brexit Secretary in resigning because, under Theresa May, they weren’t allowed to do their jobs. The Remainer argument that Brexiteers have made a dog’s breakfast of Brexit couldn’t possibly have been true: Brexiteers were nowhere near the decision-making process.
Now, though, there’s nowhere much left for us to hide. We have a Brexiteer in Downing Street and, by the time this article is published, we’ll presumably have a Brexit-backing Cabinet. The only problem is that his Parliamentary majority is wafer-thin, likely to be a seat thinner after tonight’s by-election results, dependent upon Democratic Unionist votes and subject to frequent backbench rebellions. The Conservatives’ working majority from the time of the 2016 referendum has evaporated thanks to their own carelessness. Whilst the blame for that should be planted squarely with Theresa May, the reality must be confronted by Boris Johnson – and excuses won’t cut the mustard.
We’re heading for a High Noon-style showdown. The idea of a Brexiteer PM seeking to prorogue Parliament to prevent interference would have seemed absurd, fantasy nonsense a year ago – the stuff fictional political thrillers are made of. But then, so would the notion of political interference from the Speaker’s chair, or a Remain Parliament legislating to tie the hands of its own government. Let’s hope that prorogation remains a fantasy: it’d hardly help heal the serious divides in our nation caused by the unprecedented refusal of one side’s politicians to accept the referendum result.
Give me a forced-choice between No Brexit (the death of public confidence in democracy), May’s awful deal, and a No-Deal Brexit, and I’ll reluctantly choose No Deal. The long-term benefits of regaining our economic freedom exceed the short-term costs – but the short-term costs would be significant to our economy.
It’s Boris Johnson’s task now to persuade the EU to renegotiate, in good faith this time. But they don’t want to – and why would they? They’ve got the most incredibly lop-sided deal in their favour on the table. EU diplomats privately laugh at the UK’s incompetence in those negotiations. If he cannot persuade them to do so, he must deliver a No Deal Brexit. That may prove impossible without a General Election in the meantime. Having won in 2014, mandated a referendum in 2015, won it in 2016, won the General Election in 2017 and the European elections in 2019, Brexiteers may yet have to win for a sixth consecutive time at the ballot box if we are to finally get our prize.
Either way, the new PM will need a plan. Boris Johnson has a reputation for style over substance; a combination of both is needed if he is to square this circle. It seems we must rely upon Boris developing into something beyond what he has been in the past. People do change; people do broaden their skillsets, but I’ve never felt comfortable relying upon people to do so. It’s a sure-fire way to get bitten.
The fate of Brexit lies with Boris Johnson; I’m not sure whether that inspires confidence or not. More than May, certainly. When the jury returns, I hope it will deliver a positive verdict – and may Boris finally deliver Brexit. And then, finally, the BOBs will have their hearts’ desire.