Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.
The least becoming habit of the columnist is to be ironclad in one’s convictions. When we do this, we tend to make fools of ourselves.
In recent years there have been many examples of unravelled truisms from the political class. We were told that the Coalition wouldn’t last six months. That Jeremy Corbyn didn’t have any shot of power. That the status-quo always won in referenda. That Theresa May was an unassailable leader.
These assumptions had rational evidence behind them.
But politics is not science. There are structural trends that drive the tide. Being a successful politician has a human layer on top though: a melting pot of charisma, cunning, coincidence, calculation, opportunities taken and moments missed by others.
The latest example of conventional wisdom in this leadership election is that a Boris Johnson premiership is doomed to end in disaster. He faces the same immovable headwinds at home and abroad as May when it comes to getting a Brexit deal over the line – and his failure to rule out No Deal means he will eventually end up succumbing to a chaotic general election before Brexit is implemented. Either that, or he will end up delaying like his predecessor and pay the price.
The logic behind this thesis is compelling. Indeed, I think it is overwhelmingly likely. Not least because the path of a second referendum as a device to Leave – rather than a device to Remain – has been so categorically ruled out.
But we are foolish – and letting our world view colour our thinking – if we do not recognise that there is still a small chance of a successful escape by Johnson and his Teflon qualities.
The account that follows is necessarily abridged. I doubt his team have planned so far ahead and there are a thousand points where the chain breaks down.
But none of it is impossible and, if there is a common thread, it is the self-interest of MPs in avoiding an election at all costs before Brexit, the fact that the DUP and the hardest Brexiteer Tories are not actually aligned on strategic goals – coupled with the capacity of a gambler to surprise.
The choice that Conservative MPs must make is if they can foresee a better political outcome with a statesman rather than a gambler. If they can, then they should vote for the statesman. If they can’t then a five per cent bet is better than a zero per cent bet. Consider at all points what you are gambling with – and remember that there is no perfect ending in any scenario.
1. Johnson is elected Leader of the Conservative Party and becomes Prime Minister in late July.
He speaks behind a desk in Downing Street setting out his intentions. He does not want to leave without a deal and says that renewed energy and respect can find a solution to the backstop. Plans will be escalated for no-deal in case the talks are unsuccessful, but no one wants that outcome. His team keep the press occupied with 48 hours of unifying Cabinet appointments.
2. Moderate Conservative MPs bottle it
The EU say that the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for negotiation, they are open to constructive dialogue – but they too are ready for ‘no deal’ as a sensible precaution. . Labour table a vote of confidence. Nervous Conservative MPs on the brink of voting against the Government meet Johnson privately and are asked to wait until September. The Prime Minister gives a tour-de-force opening the debate in the Commons and gets the benefit of the doubt.
3. The ball gets rolling on legislation and then August happens
The current Withdrawal Agreement Bill is put down on gov.uk in draft form with a steer that the backstop provisions will be amended once a settlement is reached with the European Union. ERG and DUP figures this time give him the benefit of the doubt. Everyone agrees to go on holiday for August because the sun-lounger is more attractive than the stump. Other stories dominate the news.
4. September comes and the Commons returns to paralysis
It’s back to school for a drama filled but unproductive month. MPs panic and predict impending doom – but the fear of the apocalypse election again prevents them from exercising the ultimate sanction. Cooper Letwin Mark 2 passes with the help of the Speaker but a new, pliable Attorney General issues advice that the legislative cannot bind the executive in this way.
5. Johnson gives a rousing speech to the Conservative faithful in Manchester at the beginning of October.
The Prime Minister breaks the habit of a lifetime and engages with his speech early. The delivery surprises by its statesmanlike qualities. He invokes the spirit of Thatcher and Churchill and implores the nation to hold its nerve. He once again plays down the chance of no-deal but he needs it in his back-pocket. As was the case for May’s speech last year, the hall goes away uplifted and wanting to believe. A daily catalogue of parliamentary drama takes place over the next ten days with the same results as before.
6. The EU Council of 17-18 October dawns
The markets go haywire across Europe as analysts predict whether the gambler is bluffing. This drives behaviour. With a fortnight until exit day – and the European Commission a lame duck entity until November – a meeting in the margins of the Berlaymont takes place between Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Johnson and Leo Varadkar. Convention of unanimity is broken and the original proposal of a Northern Ireland only backstop is re-floated. It is heavily sugar-coated by words on a Stormont Lock and the Belfast Agreement where Northern Ireland will never diverge from the rest of the UK without further democratic consent in a restored assembly. Non-legally binding words are issued about the Super-Canada Plus Plus Plus deal that the EU stands ready to get on and discuss with Johnson with every effort made to find new technology.
Johnson thinks about the union differently to Theresa May. With one eye on a post-Brexit election, where he will be less reliant on the DUP, he gambles on gut to go for it without consulting civil servants.
7. The DUP go apoplectic– but tired politicians make deals
Sammy Wilson cuts off his eyelids. But with the door open to a Johnson-led Canada deal it becomes clear that the DUP pact with the ERG is no longer 100 per cent aligned. The backstop is also popular among Northern Irish businesses. Billions to the province are pledged. A frank and long meeting takes place with the Chief Whip where the Stormont Lock is emphasised, and it is agreed that the DUP will abstain rather than vote against the Government in the vote of confidence that will surely follow; the alternative being a Prime Minister Corbyn who avowedly wants a united Ireland. The DUP numbers matter less anyway on the day of the debate, because of the abstentions of self-interested Change UK offshoots for whom an election would be existential.
8. The Withdrawal Agreement legislation is passed with a short technical extension of days
No one quite knows how it came together in the end. But a combination of weariness, momentum in the media, fear of the alternative by Conservative MPs, peerages for elderly northern Labour MPs in Leave constituencies and a slew of abstentions gets the legislation over the line.
9. A triumphant Prime Minister Johnson basks in strong approval ratings and then goes for a general election
He uses the next few months to trail a crowd-pleasing, austerity busting agenda to appeal to both sides of the Brexit values divide – and then goes for a general election in spring 2020 seeking a mandate to unite the country
He wins a modest 15 seat majority after a professional campaign by his long-standing consultants but with Remain-minded younger voters still culturally alienated. A win is a win though.
10. But the honeymoon period doesn’t last long
Twenty-four hours later the ERG submits a letter of demands on priorities for Canada -style trade deal and the reality of the trade-offs begin to dawn. Johnson begins the path to be the fifth Conservative Prime Minister to be consumed by the vexatious issue of our relationship with the European Union.