We must hope that next Conservative Party leader never deploys the No Deal deterrent, writes John McLellan
Not quite a Johnny Nash moment in the great Brexit opera when we can see clearly now, but with the Peterborough by-election result some of the rain has gone and we can see the obstacles in our way.
The commonest consent in Scotland is there will never be another bright sunshine day when the UK leaves the European Union so, we are told, it must be stopped or the Union ended.
The narrative is Boris Johnson is now unassailable and will be the next Prime Minister, that a No Deal Brexit is therefore much more likely, that the worst predictions will quickly come true, and it will trigger a second independence referendum which amidst social and economic carnage the SNP will win. After that, by the admission of the SNP Growth Commission, more years of pain before those bright sunshine days return again. It doesn’t sound like the rainbow we’ve been praying for.
The by-election is a clear signal to the Conservative Party that Brexit must be delivered, because the Tory- Brexit Party split handed victory to Labour despite a vote share down by 17 per cent. Not all the 9,801 Brexit voters were angry Conservatives although a fair proportion were, but the two combined would have defeated Labour by 6,560 votes, and a combination of Labour, Lib Dem and Green votes of 1,366.
The Lib Dems were again big winners, with total votes up from 1,597 in 2017 to 4,159, but who knows what happens to those disaffected Conservative and Labour voters after Brexit and if Labour comes to its senses and ditches Jeremy Corbyn.
If the result makes Corbexit less likely, so it also diminishes the chances of No-to-No-Deal candidates for the Tory leadership; the priority is to deliver Brexit quickly to normalise the effect of any disruption before the next election. But that’s where the new clarity only magnifies the obstacles. Opposition to No Deal, the likelihood of No Confidence votes and another General Election means that for all Mr Johnson’s braggadocio it’s still as difficult as it was for Theresa May.
Peterborough tells Conservatives a General Election must be avoided at all costs and the only way to do that is to get some sort of Brexit agreement through the House of Commons, which we’ve heard countless times. But it also confirms that if Labour blocks Brexit it might please Ian Murray in Edinburgh South and keep Emily Thornberry in Islington South happy it will haemorrhage votes in Sunderland and Hartlepool.
It still points to the need for a deal in which Britain can maintain frictionless trade but negotiate its own deals, but affirmed by a second referendum. The alternative is a minority Labour government led by an obfuscator pulled in different directions by Lib Dems and the SNP, and another independence referendum.
Nothing suggests the parties are more able to agree departure terms now than previously, or indeed what question would go on a referendum ballot paper. A bullish Mr Johnson may be tempted to go for No Deal, gamble on a forced General Election and back himself to sweep up enough Labour Brexiteers to secure victory, but it would be betting all our houses.
The SNP would think its Christmases had all come at once, but it would also force the Conservative Party to campaign for the hardest of Brexits for which many members, myself included, did not sign up.
Claims that Mr Johnson is a proven winner are based entirely on his bumbling charm winning over thousands of London Labour voters in the mayoral election, but there is no evidence he has what it takes to steer a course through the most treacherous waters in political memory. Here be dragons, says Cap’n Johnson’s chart.
There are no answers, just hopes. Hope that thoughtful candidates have enough support to mount a credible challenge and at least focus Mr Johnson’s mind (if that’s possible) on the consequences of rashness, that advancing European populism and more bite in the British position produces a workable agreement, and that the No Deal deterrent is never used. The bad feelings haven’t disappeared.
Union flags flying
Conservative leadership nominations close at 5pm on Monday with the first ballot of MPs on Thursday and the final ballot to select the final pair no later than June 20. Hustings start two days later and the winner announced by July 27.
The Scottish event will be at the start of July, with the new relationship between the Scottish Party and London high on the agenda, and whether it’s Mr Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove or whoever, what is likely to emerge is a much more “transactional” arrangement in which the Scottish bloc of MPs uses its influence to ensure Scottish needs are met in key policies like flexible immigration.
But it could also signal a new relationship with the Scottish Government and Scottish spending, where rather than what has become known as a “devolve and forget” in which the Scottish Government does the spending and claims the credit, the UK government will raise its profile with more direct funding, as has the EU for many years. Watch out for more Union flags.
Some perspective, please
A colleague leaving the Edinburgh Conservative Party offices this week was accosted by a somewhat emotional stranger who ranted he would be responsible for 40 deaths that day because of his support for “Tory austerity”.
He brushed it off, but this also follows death threats against two Edinburgh councillors from other parties which sparked a discussion about the need for a safety protocol for councillors at a time when political passions are running so high that the absence of proportion is regularly turning into threatening behaviour or worse.
But nowhere did passions run higher than in Glasgow last weekend at the World Association of Newspapers’ Congress, when award-winning Saudi documentarist Safa al-Ahmad collected the Golden Pen of Freedom on behalf of journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was executed by Saudi agents in Istanbul last October.
“When the Saudi government deemed his words so dangerous he had to be brutally murdered. His body disappeared. Just to silence him,” she said in a riveting acceptance speech. “The Saudi government thinks it can act with impunity. And so far… it has been proven right. Jamal’s death goes unpunished. The devastating war on Yemen continues. And we are left alone. Speaking our truth to power. Wondering which one of us will be the next to be disappeared. Tortured. Killed.”
This section of The Scotsman is called Perspective, a title I gave it. Let’s have some.