Boris Johnson, a leadership candidate for Britain’s Conservative Party, speaks during a hustings event in Britain, July 6, 2019. (Rebecca Naden/Reuters)
The question looms large over the future of the Tory party, British politics, and Brexit.
‘Can Boris Beat Boris?” the Remainer classes have been wondering since Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt emerged two weeks ago from the scrum of Tory leadership hopefuls to take their campaigns to the party grassroots, which will finally choose between them. It’s not so much a question as a heartfelt plea from leading figures in the May Cabinet, including Theresa May herself and chancellor Philip Hammond, many Tory placeholders (thirty is the latest figure) lower down, their sympathizers in the media, the establishment, and the metropolitan chattering classes.
With less than two weeks to go before by the 22nd of July, when the votes will be counted, it’s starting to look like Boris may try to beat himself, but he won’t come near to succeeding.
That’s because Boris is the firm — no, undislodgeable — favorite of most Tory activists. And that in turn is not only because they have long liked his deceptively Bertie Wooster-ish public persona, but because he has become a progressively firmer Brexiteer in the three years since he declared for Leave in the 2016 referendum. And, finally, achieving Brexit is what the Tory leadership election is all about.
For exactly the same reason, Boris is deeply disliked — loathed, despised, horribly murdered in their dreams — by Remainers everywhere.
That dislike has grown into a pathological and scarcely sane hatred among those ultra-Remainers in influential positions who use the most vicious language to level the most extravagant allegations against him in the hope of upsetting his apple cart. They felt a tremulous excitement a mere two weeks ago when, against all the odds, it seemed that he might have unexpectedly beaten himself. It was reported that his neighbors had called the police to complain that sounds of screaming and shouting were coming from the apartment of his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds. The neighbors feared, they later said, that she was at risk of domestic violence.
Still better — sorry, far worse — the neighbors had recorded the shouts from the flat, which included “get off me” and “you have no respect for money” from Ms. Symonds but also “get off my fu**ing laptop” from Boris. After calling the police, moreover, they then responsibly handed the tape to the Guardian newspaper. Later reports revealed that the police had visited the Boris-and-Carrie apartment to check on the domestic situation and found no reason for concern. Their neighbors on the other hand did give rise to concern or at least to greater curiosity. They turned out to be left-wing Remainer “luvvies” in receipt of a playwrighting grant from the EU and in the grip of terminal anti-Boris hysteria.
Before we tut-tut too loudly, let’s admit that the idea of EU playwrighting grants has a kind of loony charm — reminiscent of the suggestion from Barrie Humphries, in his guise as Sir Les Patterson, Australia’s cultural attaché to the Court of Saint James, of an Aussie government’s “poem-development grant.” Once again real life competes with satire and causes us to ponder more deeply the complaining neighbors. Was their call to the cops a case of doing research for their pro-EU play — What Every Woman Knows about Brexiteers perhaps, or All’s Well That Ends Brexit?
We must await enlightenment until the play’s first night . . . if there is one.
Boris and Ms. Symonds, meanwhile, remain together, and both have refused to discuss their private lives. Instead of doing so, they carelessly mislaid a photograph, later found and published by others, that showed them gazing mistily into each other’s eyes in a garden. A potential scandal was thus transformed into a modern rom-com: Love Conquers the Media. The innocent explanation of this row, as one friendly columnist wrote drily, is that they are “a married couple” — which they reportedly intend to be once his divorce is finalized. Unless Ms. Symonds now storms out in tears before July 22nd, Boris is safe.
But the mainstream media, including more or less conservative columnists and reporters, reluctant to let the story die, carried on discussing it in the context of their reflections on domestic violence and how important it was for politicians and the Tory party to repudiate such heinous crimes. Boris’s surviving rival for the Tory leadership, Jeremy Hunt, called on him several times to explain what had happened and, more generally, to submit himself to more debates and cross-examinations by the media. If he failed to do so, Hunt opined, he would, regrettably, incur the shameful charge of cowardice.
Boris wisely declined to indict himself in this way, since denying he was guilty of domestic abuse would have both linked him to it and invited the famous retort from Mandy Rice-Davies of Profumo scandal fame: “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” He was also able to put the story behind him because the lust of his media critics to find him guilty of spouse-abuse was so obvious that it more or less excused him. Boris’s sins may be scarlet — infidelity, mistresses, etc. — but they are sins modern culture indulges almost as much as it condemns moralizing criticism of them.
Boris moved determinedly to change the subject back to Brexit, and he was helped by a series of clumsy fluffs from Hunt on the topic, one suggesting Leavers were Little Englanders, that seemed to indicate his conversion from Remainer to Leaver was less than skin-deep. Neither his charges of “cowardice” nor these verbal miscues derailed Hunt’s campaign, but they slightly damaged his twin reputation as Boy Scout and Safe Pair of Hands. And, of course, he never looked close to beating Boris.
Once Hunt no longer seemed a serious obstacle to him, Boris’s enemies in the Remainer media set about destroying his personal reputation (which includes but goes beyond his political reputation) so thoroughly that even if he wins the Tory leadership, he will be too damaged to govern or maybe even to secure and retain the premiership. Article after article — including one in the Times based on interviews with his former girlfriends — ransacked the thesaurus in search of synonyms for “fool” and “villain.” Words like “poltroon,” “liar,” “fraud,” “irresponsible,” “unreliable,” etc., were scattered freely like black confetti over the news and comment pages. Any pretense of impartiality or fairness was cast aside in order to denigrate not only Boris but also anyone who supported him. No evidence needed; righteous indignation more than enough justification.
Sorry to say this, Yanks, but low though Fleet Street journalism can sink, one could see in this still-deeper descent into the Slough of Despond the influence of American journalism in the pursuit of Trump.
Despite being subjected to such an onslaught, Boris has refrained from responding in kind to personal attacks since he resigned from Theresa May’s Cabinet following her initial betrayal of Brexit at Chequers last year. His long, quiet campaign for the leadership has been rooted in principled disagreement with government policy and expressed in moderate terms. Much of the time he’s been rebutting malicious attacks with jokes. He apparently wants to preserve his overall image as a Happy Warrior for the general-election campaign. He’s kept himself under wraps.
It’s paying off.
By the weekend just gone, support for Boris among Tory activists had scarcely wobbled despite the dying scandal-mania. The papers were full of front-page reports about Boris’s former rivals queuing up for cabinet jobs and civil servants who had helped May negotiate her Withdrawal Agreement either leaving for well-paid city positions or being promised ambassadorships to get them out of Whitehall to make room for Leave-minded bureaucrats. The Boris–Hunt election drama may drag on for another ten days, but it became “the most colossal bore” ten days ago.
Even if Boris has seemingly won, the battle over Brexit is not done.
Back in the pre-historic 1940s, a Labour MP remarked about left-wing firebrand Aneurin Bevan: “Of course, Nye is his own worst enemy.”
“Not while I’m alive, ‘e ain’t,” retorted the great anti-Communist Labour foreign secretary Ernie Bevin.
Similarly, since Boris can’t beat Boris, and since the media has failed to do so, others are lining up to do it for him.
There is still in theory a potential majority for Remain among all MPs. But such is the power of the executive in Parliament that a prime minister determined to achieve Brexit by October 31st, as Boris has promised to do, may well pull it off even if he has to “prorogue” (in effect, suspend) Parliament beyond that date to do so. Remainers on all sides have therefore set their minds to working out how to prevent Boris becoming PM even if he wins the Tory leadership contest.
Academics such as those in the Constitutional Unit at University College London have set out a series of hopeful scenarios in which hardline Tory rebels vote against a Boris government on a confidence motion, thus precipitating its fall, or even manage to block his appointment by informing the Queen that he won’t get their votes and so can’t command a majority in the Commons. After all, say the gifted academics accurately, the Tory party has a majority too small to withstand a sizeable rebellion.
Hardline Tory Remainers like Dominic Grieve, a former attorney general and anti-Brexit fanatic, have welcomed this academic encouragement by stating publicly that they will cross the floor to the opposition benches to prevent the government pushing through a no-deal Brexit. (And just in case you think the description “anti-Brexit fanatic” applied to Grieve is too harsh, he has been advocating votes against legislation and spending unrelated to Brexit to ensure either that Brexit can’t happen or that if it does, it will damage the country and particular groups more harshly.)
Other reports claim that the chancellor, Philip Hammond, promised to allow Prime Minister May’s “legacy” spending plans to go ahead, even though he regards them as wildly beyond the U.K.’s means, in return for her blocking Brexit at all costs. Thus, it was suggested that the government whips would allow a de facto “free vote” on one of Grieve’s poison-pill amendments earlier today. We’ll never know if this report was accurate because, to Grieve’s frustration, his amendment was rejected by the deputy speaker and was never debated. Interestingly, that was the third such amendment from the guerrilla Remainers not to make it to debate. So nervousness about these tactics may be growing among parliamentary officials.
As will be obvious to a normal person, there are a number of problems with the approaches of Grieve and Hammond, starting with the fact that they are transparently fanatical. That alone would deter some anti-Brexit Tories from going along with them — and there are at most only 30 hardline rebels to start with.
Also, if they were to mount a rebellion aimed at preventing Boris’s becoming PM, that would be seen by voters as the surest sign that Remainers and by extension this Parliament were setting their collective face like flint (and unmasked) against the clear popular will as demonstrated in the referendum. That prospect would frighten many rebellious MPs on both sides of the House from going along with it. And small numbers count in this delicate game.
If only a handful of Labour MPs in constituencies that voted Leave heavily in 2016 were either to vote for a Boris-led Government or even merely to abstain in a no-confidence vote, Boris and Brexit would survive. As for preventing Boris from using such aggressive tactics as “proroguing” Parliament to get Brexit through — a move last used in 1949 by Attlee’s Labour government to get its nationalization program through — the hardline Remainers have been so willing to junk such long-established constitutional conventions as the speaker’s impartiality and cabinet’s collective responsibility in order to derail Brexit that their claim that prorogation would be illegal and unconstitutional rings both hollow and tinny.
That said, we probably won’t know until late summer if the parliamentary guerrillas of Remain are able to stop Boris or Brexit or both. Even if they succeed in those aims, however, Boris will still not be beaten.
Suppose, for instance, that Boris were to lose a key vote. An ignored point in all these scenarios is that Boris would remain Tory leader in charge of the Tory machine even if he were to lose the prime ministership in a parliamentary vote of confidence. What would then happen is that his government would remain in office for two weeks while other potential PMs tried to gather enough supporters to assemble a different majority. Given that Boris would have the backing of the Democratic Unionists and the vast majority of Tories, that would mean adding MPs from Labour, the Lib-Dems, and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists to dissident Tories to reach 319 votes. That almost certainly can’t happen. So at the end of two weeks, Boris would either win the second vote of confidence or lose it and precipitate a general election.
Remember that in either case Boris controls the party machine. He gets to write the Tory manifesto, including its provision on Brexit. He runs the candidate-selection and, crucially, de-selection processes. He can strike electoral deals with other parties like, well, the Brexit party. What would be his best option?
The smart money believes that since the Tories absolutely must obtain Brexit to win an election, Boris will have to accept a modified May deal from Europe that, for instance, no longer includes the Northern Ireland backstop and thus the threat of indefinite “vassalship” to the EU. That might pass Parliament. Boris could then claim he had got Brexit and might just win an election later — since he is currently enjoying favorable opinion polls that suggest he could win an election with a clear working majority as former Tories return to the fold.
The fallacy with that argument is that the neither the Tory activists now voting for Boris nor the former Tories and other Leavers now joining the Brexit party would regard any deal that resembles May’s Withdrawal Agreement as Brexit. Maybe they’re wrong, but they seem determined on that point. And if Boris were to tell them that he sincerely believed his version of May’s deal to be Brexit, they would walk sadly away, saying something on the lines of “Say it ain’t so, Boris.” The Tory party’s ratings in the polls would fall back to a little above where they were on Euro-election day six weeks ago. That figure was, oh yes, 9 percent. Boris would therefore beat Boris quite handily if he were to follow the smart money.
His other option would be to go for a “Clean Brexit” — one in which the U.K. is no longer bound by EU regulations and the jurisdiction of the European courts — lose the parliamentary vote on it, and then fight an election with such a Brexit as his main manifesto pledge. He would make support for the Tory manifesto a condition of candidate selection, de-select those Tory MPs who had helped vote down his policy in Parliament, and wage a rip-roaring patriotic campaign to redeem the promise of the 2016 referendum.
I’m pretty sure this would be a magnificent example of political theatre, but it would run slap-bang right into a brick wall on which is written “You Can’t Trust the Tories.” And since the Tories have indeed not delivered Brexit, they would lack the level of public trust sufficient to give them an election victory. Theresa May and her spavined colleagues would be responsible for that distrust, but life is unfair and Boris would carry the can. He would lose millions of votes to Nigel Farage and the Brexit party, which would be waging a very similar election campaign with the advantage that the Brexit party is too new to have betrayed anyone.
I cannot predict exactly how many votes each of these two parties would get in what would be a tumultuous campaign. I recently made some tongue-in-cheek predictions, disguised as a future history of the present, in the Australian magazine Quadrant. But the Brexit party is still polling above 20 percent in opinion polls; it has just attracted 6,000 people to an impressive political rally in Birmingham; it has an effective and popular leader in Farage; and it has put together a strong organization and set of ideas stressing in particular a devotion to democracy that the Remainer Tories plainly lack. It can’t be dismissed, and it won’t fade away, as some optimistic Tories such as Iain Martin in the Times, fervently hope.
We can now finally answer the question with which I began: Boris can beat Boris, Nigel can beat Boris, Boris can beat Nigel, and Nigel can beat Nigel if they fail to reach an electoral deal. The same characters can also save the same characters if they reach such a deal. Its broad shape can be easily envisaged: Boris would give Brexit party candidates a free run in a number of seats now held by Labour and the Liberal Democrats — especially those Labour seats that voted heavily Leave in the referendum. Nigel in return would agree not to put up Brexit candidates in seats now held by Tories. Of course, that would all require a lot of haggling over details — would there be a joint manifesto, for instance? And numbers—how many seats would Boris have to “give” Nigel? And risks—would there be walkouts in both parties?
But Nigel and Boris can save Nigel and Boris — and it’s not clear that anyone else can.