Look behind the playful smirks at the horrifying reality, writes Lesley Riddoch.
It’s the smirk that gives the game away.
You know the one.
It’s been a Boris Johnson trademark for years - that sudden, impish, flashing grin that suggests the new Tory leader doesn’t actually believe a word he’s saying.
An enraged Tulip Siddiq MP once accused Boris the Foreign Secretary of “smirking at the British public” as he sat on the front bench, grinning broadly while Theresa May tried to explain away his extra NHS spending pledge. Why the grin? Speaker John Bercow suggested; “an air of repose about the fellow to which we’ve all become accustomed.”
Well, that’s one explanation. Perhaps Boris Johnson is just a happy chappie - despite suggestions to the contrary by intimates and former associates. Or perhaps Boris was smirking back in 2017 because he knew the £350 million NHS claim was a disposable, bare-faced lie, which had already persuaded voters to back Brexit and now hardly mattered. And perhaps also because a casual promise made by him was visibly tying his party leader and supposed Tory colleague in knots - or all of the above. But then that’s politics. What was unusual, was the unguarded nature of his response - the brazenness of that smirking grin.
Now it accompanies Boris at almost every public pronouncement - unnerving for those who take their politics seriously, but like a wink or mutually understood code for those desperate to see disruption, at any cost. And it’s catching.
Last week, the tiniest tell-tale smirk crossed Jacob Rees Mogg’s patrician visage as he dismissed the “candyfloss protest” and “synthetic rage” of protesters expressing fury at the decision to suspend parliament. Two million then signed an online petition against the “Boris coup” and hundreds of thousands took to the streets, fuelled by their supposedly “confected anger”. So, what was Rees Mogg’s smirk all about? The fact that even a million people on the streets would only serve to confirm the “threat” posed by the “loony left”/“loony Remainers” and would doubtless trigger an equal and opposite response from Brexit supporters at this late, volatile and consciously pumped-up stage of proceedings? Or maybe a bit of a smirk at the naivety of those who still believe that any deployment of the usual democratic channels will make the blindest bit of difference to a disruptive, rule-breaking government? Or just a smile of general satisfaction as the project to deregulate the British economy rolls on, while Rees Mogg’s own money is safely invested in the Eurozone? Who knows?
But then on the BBC’s Marr programme, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster,
Michael Gove, produced the biggest “Boris smirk” of them all, as he dropped the political bombshell of the weekend - that the UK Government would not necessarily be bound by any new law to delay Brexit, even if democratically passed by MPs and peers this week. Of course, the unprecedented, jaw-dropping declaration of war on parliamentary process was the important thing. But the smirk was not insignificant.
It hinted at something concealed yet vitally important about the well-spoken, soberly-dressed, supremely-confident men and women driving us towards the tumult and disruption of a hard Brexit. They’ve already gamed this scenario a hundred times and the result is irretrievably fixed. Yes, they’ll sit politely though debate. Yes, they’ll try to reel off the great, delay-justifying reasons for suspending parliament. Yes, they’ll turn up (occasionally) to TV interviews and stay calm as exercised interviewers try to trip them up. But behind the scenes, they’re laughing at all of us, laughing at democracy, laughing at the very notion that fairness, democracy, procedure, facts, official government reports or parliamentary conventions are of the slightest interest to their Del Boy crew. Boris and his erstwhile Ministerial converts have charmed the English electorate with apparently plausible tales of reborn national purpose after Brexit, ensuring that outraged opponents simply sound conspiratorial, “hysterical” and un-British. They’re a bunch of financially fireproofed public schoolboys (and a few girls) playing with the future of Britain, the union, the UK constitution & millions of peoples’ lives as if it’s all just a game. And at times, like bairns, they can hardly suppress their feelings of mischief, excitement and glee as the strategy unfolds. It’s a fabulous power-trip and they’re clearly loving it - because the best is yet to come.
Clearly, the mission to “take back control” from Brussels was just a first step. The next is to bypass parliament, ostensibly to ram through a hard Brexit followed by a triumphant General Election, but actually to break the power of parliament once and for all, the better to prepare what really follows - the remoulding of Brexited Britain as a European ‘Singapore of the West’. What awaits us is a de-regulated wonderland based on freeports in Brexit supporting parts of England, where lower import taxes and customs tariffs will create precarious jobs without union recognition, workers’ rights or minimum wage protection. In short, the project is the completion of Margaret Thatcher’s “dream”- no matter how many “one nation” Tories object, no matter how many Remain Conservatives join the Lib Dems, no matter how many Tory seats are lost in Scotland, and no matter if Scots are finally provoked to vote for independence.
The “make Britain great again” project depends on believers - and plainly, the Scots will never believe. Look at the lengths taken by the Conservative Party to prevent a distinct Scottish Tory group emerging at Westminster, as revealed in yesterday’s Scotland on Sunday. A request for adjacent offices by the dozen Scots MPs was turned down and they were scattered instead across the parliamentary estate. Now, the timid twelve looks set to be cut loose completely.
The guy ropes holding the UK together are being hacked away - in front of our very eyes and from the London end of our “precious union”. This was long predicted as an unintended consequence of Brexit. But is it actually unintended? Scottish independence looks more and more like an acceptable price to pay or even a desirable outcome if it delivers Tory control in England.
Perhaps Boris’ real intentions are being hidden in plain sight, betrayed occasionally only by that “playful” smirk?
It’s the duty of opposition MPs to make sure that this week, in the Battle for Parliament, all is finally revealed.