July 24, 2019
Johnson has more options than you think
The big news is that something that was going to happen, did happen.
So, where now? There is broad consensus among political commentators in the UK, and especially in the rest of the world, that Johnson is flaky and will fail to get anything done - including Brexit. We cannot rule out that this might indeed happen. But our view on him right now is more nuanced. He may play the jester, but he is no fool. The fools are usually those who are distracted by appearances.
The first thing we note is that political events are conspiring in his favour. One of those is the decision by Jeremy Corbyn to postpone a no-confidence vote until after the UK parliament returns from its holiday on Sep 3. The timing is critical. As we explained in a previous article, this gives Johnson time to seek a new deal while retaining at least the option to trigger a no-deal Brexit since parliament would be suspended during an election campaign.
The interim-leader scenario is also becoming less likely. Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, a vote of no confidence would give the Commons an opportunity to replace Johnson with an interim prime minister. But that would require unity among opposition parties, which is simply not there. Jo Swinson, the newly LibDem leader, said yesterday that she will not enter into coalition with Corbyn, provoking a furious response from Labour. She was a business minister in the Tory/LibDem coalition under David Cameron. Her election as party leader has reopened old wounds.
Readers might also want to cast their eye towards the second big news item yesterday. It concerns Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, who has been engulfed in a sordid scandal involving false child-abuse allegations. Watson has been, until now, the most effective and most senior Labour campaigner in favour of a second referendum, and his political future is now in doubt.
So, in the week that Johnson takes over, the opposition is less effective than it was a week earlier. And there is no sign yet of a Tory rebellion against Johnson. The scenario in which such a rebellion could unfold - Johnson actively seeking a no-deal Brexit - might never come.
One of Johnson’s most important and immediate strategic decisions will be whether to trigger elections before October, or deliver Brexit first and hold elections afterwards.
We think he will try to negotiate a new deal first. The EU will, of course, not agree to big changes. It will certainly not drop the Irish backstop. But what it could offer, a combination of a longer transition period with a new political declaration, might still generate a useful smokescreen.
It is hard to predict whether the Commons would vote in favour of a revamped deal. We know that some Labour MPs are more open to supporting the withdrawal deal now than they were before. But as we game this scenario further down the line, more uncertainty sets in. Corbyn may recover. Or he may be replaced. Johnson’s honeymoon may be over. The mood in the country could shift in one or the other direction. It is a mug’s game to make a prediction.
What suggests that Johnson will at least have a go at serious negotiations was his appointment yesterday of David Frost as his new EU sherpa. Frost is a former special adviser to Johnson, with a lot of experience of European affairs.
Our own recommendation to Johnson would be to seek immediate elections. But this is not a forecast of what will happen. We think that Labour is currently in its most vulnerable position. Corbyn’s popularity is at an all-time low. Watson is a diminished figure. The stench of anti-semitism still hangs over the Labour party. And the party's Brexit strategy is still not settled. We also expect to the pro-Remain vote to split more than the pro-Leave vote.
The Tories currently have a working majority of two seats - including those of the Northern Irish DUP. On August 1, they will almost certainly lose another seat in a by-election in Wales, so the majority will be down to one. Minority governments can, on occasion, be surprisingly stable. But Brexit cannot be delivered, let alone managed, with such a small majority. We agree with the Times columnist and Tory peer Daniel Finkelstein that an election will be forced on Johnson sooner or later, and his chances will never be as good as they are now.
But this view goes against the conventional wisdom in Westminster, that Johnson’s main objective is to avoid going down as the shortest-lived prime minister in British history. The trouble with that argument is that this might happen in any case.