The Brexit crisis could see the Conservative Party lose most of the gains under Ruth Davidson in Remain-dominated Scotland, but the Brexit Party is waiting to sweep up disaffected no-dealers. Is it time to resurrect Theresa May’s deal, wonders John McLellan.
Consigliere. “The chief advisor or aide to a Mafia leader, often humorously or ironically applied to any high-ranking aide,” says the Collins Dictionary. “An adviser to a powerful person, originally applied to those who advised Mafia bosses,” says MacMillan.
Throughout the yards of analysis and reaction to this week’s political drama, the mix of power, secrecy and threat neatly summed up in one word has become almost a semi-official title for Prime Minister Boris Johnston’s right-hand man Dominic Cummings. Working out what might happen next in this extraordinary phase of UK history does not so much require a deep understanding of parliamentary procedure or constitutional law, although that helps, but years of psychological and psychiatric experience to understand what is going on inside Mr Cummings’ head. Even then you probably won’t get close.
But you do not need to be a Machiavellian genius to work out, as Mr Cummings apparently told a meeting of special advisers on Wednesday, that the next General Election is going to be “really tough” for the Conservative Party. To paraphrase a popular saying for readers of a sensitive disposition, “No sherbet, Sherlock...”
Then there is the great Prussian commander and strategist Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who observed in 1880 that “no plan of operations reaches with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main force”. Or as Mike Tyson put it, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.
Well Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings have been punched in the mouth, between the legs and pretty much everywhere else this week, and if there is a plan now it’s very hard to see what it is. Speaking to party colleagues over the past two days, even seasoned strategists who normally have a clear route in mind find it almost impossible to chart a way forward that doesn’t have an unpalatable outcome.
The legislation forcing the Prime Minister to seek an extension to the Brexit deadline has passed, the vote to hold an election on October 15 has been lost (I guessed in this column a couple of weeks ago that the election would be either October 10 or 17, so at least he tried...), the opposition won’t force a vote of no confidence because that would allow him to call the election they now say they don’t want, so what have Mr Cummings and Mr Johnson got up their sleeves now?
Can Mr Johnson simply resign as Prime Minister but not Conservative leader, and with no member of the parliamentary party coming forward to replace him, force the opposition to try to form an administration which then proves to be impossible and an election has to take place? Mr Johnson would then claim his place in history as the shortest-serving Prime Minister, but what message would it send to the electorate if he left the country without a government? Then again, like the Belgians who went without an elected administration for 20 months in 2010-11, would anyone really notice?
The dilemma now facing the Conservative Party is the realisation, now being accepted even by moderates, that to have any chance in an election means campaigning for a no-deal Brexit to nullify the Brexit Party, which then hands a golden opportunity to the Lib Dems in strong Remain constituencies, or lets Labour through the middle. It would almost certainly mean most of the gains made under Ruth Davidson here in Scotland would be swept away. No wonder she quit.
The only positive outcome for Conservatives this week has been the ever-tightening knot in which Labour is tying itself, with Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry desperately arguing yesterday that it was perfectly logical for a Labour government to negotiate a new deal with the EU and then campaign against it in a second EU referendum. It’s so bonkers that Dizzee Rascal could be in the Shadow Cabinet.
Hard to swallow for Mr Johnson’s team it may be, but maybe the only other way through the morass is the return of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. Yes, it was voted down three times, but that has at least allowed the implications of rejection to be fully realised and at least Mr Johnson can say he voted for it. It is still agreed by the EU and can be brought back after the Queen’s Speech in late October, and despite what has been said about the Irish backstop on both sides, it cannot be beyond the UK team and the EU leaders to deliver presentational tweaks when they meet on October 17. It could enable a deal to go through Parliament, meet Mr Johnson’s pledge to be out the EU by October 31, and with a deal which then complies with the controversial new law.
Although the Brexit party would not have been fully neutralised, Mr Johnson could then call Labour’s bluff both on its desire to produce a deal and on the election. After all, it has just admitted it would negotiate a deal but then campaign to rip it up, so they might as well approve it so they can get to the election campaign Jeremy Corbyn has been demanding on an almost daily basis. And with an independence referendum unlikely to happen before the 2021 Scottish elections, the SNP might finally recognise that the Withdrawal Agreement they have repeatedly refused to back actually presents the best platform for another tilt at separation.
Hard-liners and the DUP might not like it, but it would end the unconscionable idea of entering any sort of electoral pact which would mean Conservatives not standing against Brexit candidates in places like North-East England. If the Withdrawal Agreement is brought back, the Whip should be restored to those who supported the anti-no-deal bill, but for no-deal Tories who might oppose it the Brexit Party awaits. The loss of some Conservative outliers now seems inevitable but breaking the deadlock is now the absolute priority, so the choice must be which ones and that comes down to the numbers and its future shape. The nightmare for Mr Johnson is that restoring his authority, in what by any stretch of the imagination has been a week from hell, will require an election victory, but to win an election will require more sacrifices and therefore risk more loss of face.
Getting out of Europe by any means necessary but holding the majority of the party together without becoming the Brexit Party by proxy should be our leader’s goal. Now, as a consigliere might put it, we must settle all family business. Whoever the leader is.