It’s no longer about Brexit. I wonder if it ever really was.
The departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union – the seemingly interminable problem that’s felled two prime ministers and exposed a third as a fool – may be at the heart of the crisis that engulfs our politics, but the prize means nothing when compared with the triumph. Winning, at any cost, is everything.
Boris Johnson may have led the Leave campaign in 2016 promising that Brexit would be a cinch, that the EU would wave off the UK after meeting any and all of our demands, but now, having achieved his prime objective of becoming Prime Minister, he is bogged down in the swamp of his lies. He and his lieutenants are now desperate.
The past week has, from one perspective, been glorious. Those who have long believed Johnson to be a selfish charlatan, a man for whom the achievement of high office has always and only ever been about the satisfaction of his ego, would have found it difficult not to enjoy the sight of reality smacking him in the chops.
To watch the Prime Minister lose vote after vote – on Brexit and the matter of a general election – was quite the spectacle.
But any pleasure to be taken from Johnson’s misfortune is tempered by the absolute misery of the situation into which he has dragged the UK.
Back in 1993, then Tory prime minister, John Major, described Eurosceptics in his cabinet as bastards. His bastards had nothing on Johnson’s.
Take Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg – a dangerous reactionary masquerading as a gentleman – for example. Rees-Mogg (who makes his hapless predecessor Andrea Leadsom look like a giant of the political stage) has long been one of those who sings from the Brexit hymnbook, where departure from the EU is all sunlit uplands. Last week, he found himself confronted, during a radio broadcast, by Dr David Nicholl about the risk to drug supplies posed by a no-deal Brexit.
Inconveniently for Rees-Mogg (Bastard College, Oxford), Dr Nicholl had been invited to contribute to the government’s contingency plans for No Deal and had raised concerns.
On air, the neurologist asked the Commons leader what level of mortality rate he might be willing to accept in the light of a no-deal Brexit. Rees-Mogg rounded on Dr Nicholl, accusing him of “the worst excess of Project Fear”.
When Dr Nicholl reminded Rees-Mogg that he had written the plans in mitigation contained in the government’s “Operation Yellowhammer” document, which predicts the consequences of leaving the EU without a deal, the cabinet minister sneered “well, you didn’t write very good plans if you hadn’t worked out how to mitigate”.
This attack on an expert for failing to make facts tally with Rees-Mogg’s twisted reality would have been bad enough, but worse was to come when the Leader of the Commons used parliamentary privilege to compare Dr Nicholl to Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced former doctor struck off for his bogus claims that the MMR vaccine was linked to autism.
Rees-Mogg, a coward, blithely abused the protection of the House of Commons in order to make an accusation that would have seen him sued if he’d repeated it outside. He later issued an apology.
But Rees-Mogg is just a lickspittle, a supporting act in the Carnival of Crap which passes for our government. Boris Johnson is the huckster-in-chief.
And what a performance he has delivered.
Johnson stood for the Conservative leadership promising to unify the country and his party.
On Tuesday, he withdrew the Tory whip from 21 MPs who voted with opposition parties to take control of Commons business in order to prevent a no-deal Brexit. This was unifying in the same way that Rees-Mogg is honourable.
After he ended the careers (as Tory MPs, at least) of the likes of former chancellors Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond, Winston Churchill’s grandson Nick Soames, and recent challenger for the Conservative leadership, Rory Stewart, the Prime Minister announced it was his plan to call a general election.
Preferring to watch him flop about in the cesspit of his own creation, opposition parties refused to permit this.
A day after the opposition united to kibosh Johnson’s election plans, the PM was hit by the resignation as a minister and an MP of his own brother, Jo, who said he could not reconcile family loyalty and the national interest. And if that wasn’t grim enough, Johnson then attended a police academy in West Yorkshire where he made a wildly inappropriate – and barely coherent – campaign speech in front of number of cadets, one of whom fainted. The local chief constable later complained about the way his officers had been used by the PM.
Johnson, we must never forget, is not a Brexiteer through conviction but because he judged that playing a leading role in the Leave campaign would maximise the possibility that he could become Prime Minister. Having signed this Faustian pact, he is now living with the consequences.
So for the Prime Minister, the battle of Brexit isn’t about the pros and cons of EU membership, it isn’t about what’s best for the UK and its people, it’s about winning.
This, too, is what motivates Rees-Mogg, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, and the scores of Little Englander politicians who pollute our discourse with their attacks on experts and their war metaphors. They must achieve Brexit – even of the most painful no-deal variety – at any cost because to fail would be to lose a culture war. Brexit must not be won so much as those opposed to it must be defeated.
Euroscepticism is a flag around which those opposed to liberal values of openness and tolerance may rally. They might as well be campaigning to ban cats for all the value of the prize they seek.
Brexiteers may claim they value sovereignty, they may claim they wish to “take back control” but, surely, events of the past week confirm that all they really care about is victory.