- Look to Boris Johnson’s left. Ann Milton resigned from the Government this morning – with wrecking-ball timing. Alan Duncan went yesterday. Margot James went last week. Philip Hammond and David Gauke are going. Greg Clark, David Lidington and Rory Stewart will almost certainly join them. The new Conservative leader is pledged to deliver No Deal if necessary. Some of the May Government’s most experienced operators are banding together to stop him.
- Now glance to his right. Twenty-eight Spartans (and six second referendum diehards) voted third time round to oppose the Withdrawal Agreement. The former include the likes of Bill Cash, Mark Francois, Andrea Jenkyns and John Redwood: all are as opposed to No Brexit as Hammond and company are to No Deal. They want Britain out of the EU by October 31, and will punish even a hint of backsliding.
- Next, the Commons numbers. Even with the DUP on board, the new Prime Minister will be down to a majority of three after the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election (indeed, perhaps of one if the charges against Charlie Elphicke, which he denies, succeed). David Cameron’s Government lost on disability benefits, tax credits, academies, Sunday trading – even with a majority of twelve. May lost it in the 2017 election, and has been marooned ever since. Johnson is vulnerable to even a twitch of revolt.
- Labour’s plight as almost as bad as the Conservatives – indeed, worse, in some ways. That is unlikely to stop Jeremy Corbyn tabling a no-confidence vote for early September, as soon as the Commons returns from its summer recess. If a general election campaign is not to pass through October 31 – thereby automatically delivering Brexit – those Tory soft Brexiteers and second referendum backers may have an agonising choice: fail to support Johnson in an early confidence vote…or else sit and wait for a No Deal Brexit.
- There are variants. Letwin/Cooper/Boles could try to take control of the timetable and force yet another extension on the new Government. Or Johnson could try to prorogue Parliament, despite last week’s vote. But these dodges and dives either way look likely to lead to an election in any event, with Johnson defying any pro-extension vote, thus risking a no confidence vote, or the Commons passing one anyway post-prorogation (assuming that the latter survived procedural obstacles and legal challenges).
- In any event, it is impossible to be sure what Johnson’s Brexit policy actually is. On the one hand, he is now signed up to junking the backstop; on the other, history suggests that he sees policy commitments as a hobgoblin of small minds. As this site likes to put it, he won the leadership contest with the support of both, for example, Francois and of Damian Green. One or the other, if not both, are bound to be disappointed. It is not impossible to imagine Johnson plumping for a time-limited backstop after all.
- Furthermore, he has only the rest of this month, plus August, between him and that likely no-confidence vote. Between now and then he must take office, appoint a Cabinet, form a Government, make appointments, visit Scotland and Northern Ireland, charm independent and anti-Corbyn MPs, make some announcements on policing and health (say), and get CCHQ election-ready (possibly with no Lynton Crosby to hand). Oh, and maybe meet Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Leo Varadkar and Donald Trump.
- We will find out tomorrow and on Thursday whether, confronted by a hazardous Cabinet reshuffle, he strikes the right balance – both appointing only those signed up to Brexit by October 31, while also ensuring that his government represents as much of the Party as it realistically can. So far, the appointments he has made are London-centric and trust-focused. Eddie Lister, Munira Mirza, Daniel Moylan, Ben Gascoigne – all these are Johnson troopers from his mayoral days. Mark Spencer will reportedly be Chief Whip.
- Our experience of Johnson is that he operates intuitively, rather than logically; on impulse, rather than strategically – or even tactically; and that, as Andrew Gimson writes in his biography of Johnson, the latter likes, as it were, to propel trains off tracks to see what will happen next. The conventional and the expected bore him. This is not a recipe for orderly government. Furthermore, his Downing Street will be a court: his London team here, MP followers there, members of the Vote Leave team everywhere.
- As we wrote in June, Johnson isn’t the Prime Minister that the British people deserve, but is the one they need right now. This is because he is the most likely of the leadership candidates to deliver Brexit on time, and to lead the Party with flair if an election is forced on it. If this leadership contest had been taking place in more tranquil times, with a secure Tory Commons majority, we would doubtess have plumped for someone else.
- A twist to the backstop, backing from the DUP, Spartans then joining them, Labour leavers and independents coming across – and the Withdrawal Agreement, laden with new codicils, riders and postludes, sailing through Parliament. Some Conservative MPs are still dreaming of this kind of future. We think it is for the birds – and that Johnson’s premiership is set to be brief. And so we pop our gloomadons. But every cloud has a golden lining. With expectations drooping so low, the only other way for Johnson is up.
This Commons won’t accept the Northern Ireland backstop. That’s the reality – whether the EU likes it or not.
A No Deal Brexit. “It’s not going to be the end of the world. But it’s not going to be a walk in the park either.”
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