The fascinating theory why Boris Johnson might betray the no-deal Brexiteers – Brian Wilson
A great BBC2 series about the Thatcher years has just ended. For the purposes of compare and contrast, the timing seemed uncanny.
Commentary was provided mainly by those who worked for her. Inevitably, with more human inputs from behind the Downing Street curtains, the central figure became a little more complex than the caricature.
However, there were limits to these softenings of the lines. Mrs Thatcher was a hard case, puffed up with a sense of mission and impervious to the consequences of pursuing it. Michael Heseltine scoffed at her “romanticised image” and put her down as “a calculating politician”.
Former acolytes and enemies testified how, as the years advanced, she became paranoid, disdainful of advice and vulnerable to error. Her EU rhetoric became wild and provocative thereby creating a poisonous legacy which did not match her actual deeds in office.
For those of us who lived through this period and fought its battles, this was nostalgia TV. It was also a reassuring reminder in this crazy time that politics used to be about big issues and personalities – above all different visions of how society should be organised and prioritised. Not about referendums and constitutions.
Eventually, the pendulum swung and the governments of Tony Blair delivered handsomely on these different priorities. Again, it was a battle of ideas about fairness and progress, waged through a thousand pieces of legislation and reform. Battles worth fighting and politics worth pursuing.
Where has all that gone? Just as Scottish politics has been reduced to an endless constitutional bicker, the UK landscape is now even worse – a foul cocktail of vaunting ambition and pandering to the xenophobic underbelly of anti-Europeanism. Referendums transform the dynamic of politics, and not for the better.
Witness the Tory leadership debate. That these people, within a generation, are the heirs of Heseltine, Howe, Patten, Lawson is depressing enough. The only interest was in parroting that they would leave the EU on 31 October. The outsider, Rory Stewart, was sneered out of the club when he tried to raise sensible objections.
None of them had either a clue nor a care about how their stated objective will be achieved or what damage it might entail – perhaps most dismissively in relation to Ireland. The chef who asked a question from Belfast looked genuinely shocked at their callous ignorance.
But then the audience they were seeking the approval of – the 160,000 members of the Tory Party – does not care about any of that either.
If the YouGov findings on the views of this electorate are accurate, we are talking about a cult rather than a party. They would cheerfully create economic hardship, break up the UK or – most extraordinarily – destroy the Conservative Party itself as prices worth paying for Brexit. Any Brexit.
Messrs Johnson and Hunt will tour the country paying fealty to that audience. The “moderate” Hunt will plead that “a few more days” into November may be tolerable if a wondrous new deal is about to emerge. It is utter nonsense. There will be no new deal.
The London Evening Standard (editor, George Osborne) argued this week that Johnson is actually the best bet of Brexit not happening on 31 October. The logic, coming from one who knows him, is persuasive: “Having finally arrived in Downing Street, Mr Johnson won’t be in a hurry to leave. Opportunism knocks.”
As 31 October approaches and empty boasts about the EU caving in to his charms collapse, what would he do? An interesting hare for Osborne to set running. He would be unlikely to call a General Election. Even the Tory members agree about that. Faced with the list of horrors they would “rather Brexit took place even if it caused this scenario”, the only one that stopped them in their tracks was a Corbyn government.
How ironic if “the threat of Corbyn” became Johnson’s alibi for retreat. As the Evening Standard pointed out, he did not “guarantee” 31 October. It noted: “Mr Johnson may be loose with words when it comes to the fates of others but never when it comes to his own.”